Talking to…Photographer Clayton Patterson


Photo by Elsaa Rensaa (via Gerry Visco)

For 30 years, Clayton Patterson has doggedly documented the streets and culture of the Lower East Side, compiling a massive archive of the neighborhood and its denizens, from punks to pushers to police. And he’s had had a big impact too: His footage of the 1988 Tompkins Square Park protests and subsequent riot lead to major reforms in the NYPD.

We posted on Patterson’s most recent brush with the law at a crime scene last month and thought it would be interesting to talk to this photographer/artist/activist about his experiences with the police and being arrested a whopping 14 times. We were right.

Being arrested 14 times is outrageous! Do you attribute those largely to having a camera, or were there other circumstances involved?
Both. The camera intimidates many cops; firemen tend not to care. It is odd because the world we live in is documented from so many different directions, however most of the cameras are corporate or government.

What is your frame of mind when photographing crime scenes and/or police? Do you have to go in preparing yourself for a confrontation?
One never wishes for a confrontation. The goal is to avoid the conflict. You are there to document the scene, not create one. However, you must never let your rights be violated. You must protect your civil rights. That is a social obligation that all of us are responsible for protecting.

Do you feel like it’s not worth photographing the cops anymore because there will likely be a confrontation and you’ll be arrested for the 15th time?
I have been threatened with arrest 15, 16 times – yes, I am tired of it. I would like an easier path, however nobody else documents my area like I do. It is a forgotten piece of Manhattan real estate, so if not me, then who? There has to be a record and a moderator of the local events.

Why don’t you carry something like a wearable recording device (like a Vievu) to document your encounters?
I have no idea what a Vievu is. My best defense was my backup, Elsa Rensaa, the woman I have lived with since 1972. But there is only so much you can do. It is not always the arrests that are the worst. It can be the charges and the beatings. I have been knocked unconscious, had teeth knocked out, and so on. And I have continuously been in court since 1988 with one case or another. I have one remaining case, a federal case. We are talking many years in court, and it is just another day for the cops and the court, meanwhile for me it is a serious undertaking, which also has many potential dangers connected to it, as well as the expense and the time. Remember, the moment of glory is short. All the noise and glamour is gone in an instant. The court cases go on and on.  Alone, on and on, for years. It gets isolating.

Does it sometimes feel like it’s a big game – i.e., “They’ll arrest me for taking pictures of them and throw on some BS charges, which will just get dropped, and then I’ll sue”?
Never. It is never just a game or just for fun. There are always consequences and always the potential of physical danger. I am getting too old to get beaten up.  I am tired of the constant stupid struggle. And remember, suing is bad for their career. The cops, through court and other such systems, can work angles in their favor, but costing the city money is a big no-no. And suing can take years. It is never easy to find a lawyer who will sue the cops. That is a rare specialty area.

Just to get a lawyer, the case must be very clear-cut. The evidence in your favor must be clear-cut, and often they want indisputable video or recorded evidence in your favor. It’s what made me such a nuisance. I was good at getting the evidence with the video camera. By using the camera I got more cops in trouble than anyone else has in the history of America. It’s what made me stand out. I had the guts and drive to do it, as well as the skills to get the shot. To get the shot, you have to be right where the action is.

This statement about getting more cops in trouble with the video camera is largely based on the police riot tape. Getting August 6-7 [1988] classified as a police riot was a big hit, and all of the repercussions that happened because of that tape [were huge]. A chief was retired, a captain moved out of the precinct, cops were fired, many were disciplined, and it cost the city over $2 million dollars in lawsuits. Of course it made me an enemy of the state and sent me on my road to notoriety. I paid a price for all of this and basically other people made money. This period of heavy action went on from 1988-1992.

If one goes through the police riot tape, today, years later — because of how much things have changed, it is more than obvious now that it was a police riot. The most damaging incident in the tape is not cops beating people up – damaging, yes — but that happens. The deal breaker was when the white shirts (commanders) were trying to stop the blue shirts (sergeants and below) from going off on a rampage on their own and there was nothing they could do. The cops just ran by them. In other words, no chain of command — no respecting or following an order.

In general, what’s the attitude of the NYPD toward photographers?
Depends on the situation and circumstances. Many are intimidated by recording devices. It got to the point where Ray Kelly, the NYPD commissioner, sent out a memo relating to the fact that it is legal to take photographs on the streets of NYC. Your city — what is happening [there] relates to you. Remember, what is happening now may not be what you think is happening. The recorded information can be critically important. It is not just the cops, it is also others on the street. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had someone angry at me for taking a photo at a particular time and later begging for the images — video or photograph. The goal is not to catch cops doing the wrong thing; the goal is to record the moment. The cops in some ways are incidental to the action, for example at a fire.

It only takes one cop out of line cop to change the chemistry of the situation — for one thing they must all defend the Blue Line. As [Mike] Julian, who had been a captain at the 9th Precinct and eventually became chief of patrol pointed out, the commander sets the general direction, but it is the cops who set the standards. And if there is a tough guy, a loud mouth, a person with delinquent kind of behavior, they can control the social and behavioral environment of the precinct.

I noticed that there is also a correlation between corruption and bad behavior; the two go hand in hand. So again, one or two cops can change the outlook of the whole situation. One overly aggressive cop can do a lot of damage. If you go through my hours of tapes relating to police conflicts, it becomes apparent that in many [instances] it is one or two cops acting badly or stupidly or sometimes illegally. Most cops are following proper procedures, but, like lighting a match and starting a fire, once the fire is burning everything changes. Cops defend the line.

Why does it have to be photographer vs. police? Why is there that natural tension?
Not sure. It could relate to [the fact] that police do not want to think their authority can be questioned — a record can make them think a question is being [asked]. But I have seen, at one time or another, press pass-carrying reporters from basically all the papers have a problem: New York Post, Daily News, New York Times, Newsday, the Villager, and so on.

Remember, there are around, give or take at different times, 40,000 cops in NYC. That number of people would make [up] an independent city. In a city you have every kind of character known to mankind — the insane rapists like a [Justin] Volpe, mafia-connected cops, the drug rings like you had exposed in the Mollen Commission, and so on. But, like in most situations in life, most people, in this case cops, are just normal, regular people doing a job. But in a protest you have so many individuals involved; it only takes one out-of-control cop to cause some real damage to your person or the Constitution. Generally, how the cops behave is based on the sensitivity and intelligence of the leadership.

Also, I do not believe that there should be any kind of special pass needed to document the streets of an open and free society. What happens in public should be there for all the public to see and record. The streets belong to everyone.

What do you think of the sometimes special treatment police get when they are caught breaking the law?
The cops are the enforcers of the law. The law is thought of as important; it is assumed that the cops are doing the right thing. So to protect the law you protect the police, but really there are numerous other circumstances. Money and power make a difference. If you are a movie star’s kid and get caught selling drugs — off to rehab. A Lower East Side Hispanic youth, it’s off to jail. Or if you are, let’s say, writing a book and traveling with the cops, you are seen as a good guy. There is a heavy “them and us” attitude with the cops.

Do you get the sense the police have it out for you now? Does it affect how you do your work?
Not so much any more, but it depends on the situation. For example, the 7th Precinct, my local precinct, has my number, so to speak. But citywide, most cops have no idea who I am. NO question after the original police riot when I was sent to jail and then got on all the media, including the talk shows like Oprah — no question that I was famous and I could go anywhere in the city and the cops would make mention of me to other cops. It was pretty obvious that the cops knew who I was [then].

What’s your advice to other photographers who get into confrontations with law enforcement?
Try to travel with a good backup person. In my case, I was the noisy one up front, and Elsa was the quiet and steady one in the background. She was my real secret. But, stand your ground. You have a right to document what the police are doing. You lose that right and you have lost all rights — all of our rights are interconnected. Lose one, you lose a piece of them all. Freedom is not cheap or incidental.

Also, in my area, I believe that there is more crime than is being stated. I see crime as up, and the stats say crime is down. I document a crime and it becomes a crime — sometimes no documentation [means] no crime. Freedom is not cheap or easy. Freedom is a struggle and all of us must pull our share of the weight. I see a part of what I do as a social and community responsibility. Watch the movie Captured by Dan Levin, Ben Solomon and Jenner Furst. Also get the book “Resistance,” a radical social and political history of the Lower East Side.

Read more about Clayton Patterson in the New York Times and The Brooklyn Rail, or go to his site here.

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