Photographer Jonas Lara is looking at a year in prison if things don’t go his way, and with only a public defender who doesn’t want to consider First Amendment issues, things are not looking good.
The facts: In February Jonas was arrested in Los Angeles while photographing two graffiti artists as part of a long-term project. He was charged with felony vandalism, which was later reduced to aiding and abetting vandals, and his court date is next Tuesday, May 11. His cameras, lenses and memory cards were confiscated and they still haven’t been returned. He’s currently soliciting donations to his legal defense fund so that he can hire a private lawyer to argue his case.
You can show your support and donate on Jonas’ Facebook page. Here, we talk to Jonas about the situation.
Is this the first time you’ve had a problem with the authorities while photographing?
This is the first time I’ve ever been arrested but not the first time being hassled. Back in 2007 I was working on a freeway series and I was confronted by a police officer who asked why I was taking pictures of bridges and which terrorist organization I was a part of. I explained that I was working on an art project, and after showing my student ID and checking my name on his computer he said I was free to leave.
Did you try to explain you were just documenting the scene?
For the most part I kept my mouth shut, but I did mention that I was a student working on a documentary project.
How did they not believe you even after seeing your work and looking into your background?
The funny thing is that they did believe me and seemed very understanding; they were conducting their investigation on the site while I sat in the patrol car for about two hours. I figured they were going to let me go once they finished, but instead they said I was going to jail and never said what they were charging me with, nor did they ever read me my rights. It wasn’t until after spending six hours in the holding cell and being transferred to the jail cell that I was informed that I was being charged with vandalism. At that point it was felony vandalism. I asked how I could be charged with vandalism for simply taking pictures and they said to take it up with the judge.
What has been happening in your life since this happened?
Well, I haven’t had most of my gear so I’ve been borrowing from other photographer friends or using my point and shoot and vintage cameras to shoot projects.
Are you under a lot of stress?
I have been under a great deal of stress; I have been trying to continue to make work during this process. I’ve been doing some painting and mixed media work to keep me busy since I don’t have my usual photo equipment.
Is it just a whirlwind of lawyers and court appearances?
Yeah well, the only experience I have in the courtroom is watching “Law and Order” so it was unreal being there trying to defend myself with a public defender who didn’t even want to entertain the idea of bringing up 1st Amendment rights or photographers’ rights or anything along those lines.
How likely is that you will be convicted — have you been able to get a feel for what’s going to happen to you?
The thing is, up until this point, I don’t think the court has any sense of who I am (my background, education, credentials). My public defender was only concerned with getting me a plea with a lower sentence, so I’m not sure to be honest. After asking me whether I wanted to take a plea of one month in jail plus drivers license suspended and [me] refusing, he said if I go to trial and lose I could face up to a year in jail, which translates into 180 days. I’m supposed to move to New York in August to start graduate school in September at School of Visual Arts, so if I’m convicted I can forget about grad school.
Are you able to still do photography?
Well, like I stated before, I’ve been using my point and shoot cameras, Polaroid camera and borrowing cameras and lenses, but it’s definitely put a dent in my ability to produce photographic work.
Will this affect how you approach further assignments or projects?
Most definitely; I will be more cautious.
Looking back, what if anything would you have done differently?
Well, if I understood my rights better I would have stated that I had a right to be there and that I’m not obligated to prevent or report a crime because I’m a journalist. Being that it was my first time dealing with this type of thing I didn’t know how to properly navigate the situation.