Photographer Ethan Welty assumed he was within his rights when shooting an environmental protest from a public sidewalk. Yet, after police escorted four protestors from a Colorado power plant’s coal pile, he was singled out from the crowd, arrested as a fifth protestor and charged with criminal trespass. The memory cards he handed off to a bystander confirmed his innocence, yet officers at the jail suggested he “tell it to the judge,” while his mugshot circulated with the story in media reports. The charges were dropped thanks to pro-bono help from a university law professor, yet he’s still working to scrub his file clean of the arrest.
Web site: www.weltyphotography.com
Project: Documentation of activists protesting at a power plant and subsequent arrest for no illegal conduct.
All images in this article © Ethan Welty.
ASMP: How long have you been in business?
EW: If I had to choose, since my stint as photo editor for my college newspaper in spring 2007.
ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?
EW: Since the Eddie Adams Workshop in 2008. The ASMP generously granted us all merit memberships.
ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?
EW: Photographing the people and places that I encounter through the activities I love the most — outdoor adventure, cultural travel and environmentalism.
ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.
EW: Sturdy legs, a strong camera strap and an attentive eye.
ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?
EW: I have so far outlived three camera waistpacks — Lowepro’s Sideline Shooter and Orion models — and I will continue to use them because they keep my camera and two lenses accessible through thick and thin, worn in front with a backpack, over a harness or strapped to a kayak.
ASMP: What is unique about your style and approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?
EW: I am equally comfortable roaming solitary landscapes in search of an elegant abstract as I am chewing on alpaca in a family’s smoky hut in the high Andes. So if anything, it must be my enthusiasm for the natural world, and fascination for the human element, which distinguishes my life and my work.
ASMP: What led you to be present at the Xcel Energy demonstration? Did you know any of the four activists? Do you often photograph these types of events?
EW: I don’t often photograph events, and I have never participated in a demonstration — I’m not really the activist type — but I am very concerned with environmental issues. One of the activists, Kate Clark, is a friend and we are both PhD students in the Environmental Studies program at the University of Colorado, Boulder (CU). Since I’m known as a photographer, I was one of the press informed about the demonstration.
ASMP: Did you anticipate the possibility of confrontation with police or corporate security forces? Had you ever experienced any kind of confrontation that prevented your photography in the past? If so, please describe.
EW: Ironically, I was quick to remind myself that morning that I had nothing to worry about, since I would be shooting from the public right of way. Confrontations? I was harassed on the sidewalk by a building security guard while taking pictures of skyscrapers in Seattle, approached — over and over — by police officers in the Mexico City subway, and nearly lost my camera to the Nepali military in Kathmandu; they lost interest when I showed them I had been panning bicycle traffic, not shooting the embassy. I’ve been in a couple situations where individuals have asked me to stop taking pictures on behalf of themselves or their community — rather than on behalf of “national security.” I’m always very respectful of such requests.
ASMP: What was the size of the crowd in which you were standing on the sidewalk? Were any other photographers present?
EW: The street rally never got larger than about twenty people. A photographer and a reporter from Boulder’s Daily Camera were present at the beginning of the action but were long gone by the time the arrests took place.
ASMP: Please talk about the immediate surroundings and the atmosphere during the demonstration and leading up to your arrest. How did you react when the police approached and it was made clear that you were also being arrested?
EW: My arrest occurred after the four protesters were escorted out of the plant by a surprisingly large crowd of officers and company personnel — which I photographed from just outside the gate. I was standing back on the sidewalk with the rally, two large cameras slung around my neck — I must have stuck out like a sore thumb — when two officers suddenly approached me, ordered me to “stop taking pictures” and seized me by the wrist. I was so shocked and confused that I couldn’t muster an eloquent reply.
ASMP: Were you carrying any credentials to identify you as a professional photographer? Given the way this situation unfolded, would such credentials have been beneficial or not?
EW: I wasn’t carrying any credentials, but I don’t believe they would have made any difference. The police were responding to a trespass complaint from the property owner; they were simply doing their job. Either way, I’ve since renewed my NPPA membership and keep the card in my camera bag, just in case.
ASMP: How many images had you shot when you were taken away? What happened to your equipment during your arrest? Did the police confiscate your cameras or make any threats about the images you had made?
EW: They were polite and very respectful of my equipment, letting me decide whether or not to hand my gear over for safekeeping. Still, concerned that my images might never see the light of day, I decided to entrust a bystander — whom I’d never met — with my memory cards and gave the officers my camera equipment. I retrieved my memory cards that same night, and my camera bag from the Boulder County Courthouse later that week.
ASMP: Did the police take any steps to review your images or copy the files in order to determine where you were standing during the demonstration? Do you think this would have helped your case if this had been clarified from the outset?
EW: I felt pretty absurd, while riding off to jail, for not offering. But I understand now that it isn’t, and shouldn’t be, the role of the police to hear out both sides and assign wrong and right. As they said, “tell it to the judge.”
ASMP: Were you handcuffed and advised of your rights? How long were you held and under what conditions? What were the circumstances regarding your release?
EW: The police officer released his grip on my wrist once it became clear that I wasn’t going to physically resist. After the equipment was sorted out and we were driving to the jail, he coached me on my rights, and the procedures that follow an arrest. The four activists and I were booked and released that night, about seven hours later, on charges of second-degree criminal trespass, with an arraignment scheduled for June 17, 2010.
ASMP: What actions did you take to try and clear your name and set the record straight? Did you seek legal counsel? If so, what channels did you go through to engage an attorney?
EW: The story of five trespassing protesters spread quickly, following the lead of the police media release that listed us all by name. I contacted the Daily Camera, ABC Denver, the Denver Post and the Associated Press, but only the first two ever issued a correction about the context of my arrest. I sought legal counsel from Matt Slaby, a photojournalist and lawyer in Denver, from the NPPA, from the American Civil Liberties Union — who turned down my case. It was finally at the Criminal Law Clinic at the CU Law School that I found a professor willing to represent me, pro-bono.
ASMP: The charges against you were recently dropped, but you now are faced with the task of scrubbing official records of your arrest. Please describe what this will entail. If you did not do this, how would it potentially impact your future?
EW: It will be the job for a civil attorney to fill out and file the meticulous paperwork needed to purge any mention of my arrest from official federal, state and local government records. That will at least avoid red flags being set off in routine background checks. However, official or not, since my arrest was so widely documented in the online press, it would be careless for me to answer “No” when asked by an employer, “Have you ever been arrested?” I’ll need to explain and hope for the best.
ASMP: Have you considered or sought advice concerning possible legal action of your own against the operator of the power plant or the Boulder Police Department?
EW: I am relieved my legal hassles are over and not seeking a second round.
ASMP: What offers of assistance or support did you receive from photographers, activists or civil rights organizations, and what help have you used?
EW: The activists were eager to help me where they could, but we all agreed it was best for me to distinguish my case from theirs and find my own legal representation.
ASMP: Have you been able to license for use any of the images from this demonstration?
EW: No, the story was everywhere as a small stub, but since I was in jail all evening it wasn’t until the next morning that I was able to send images to news outlets like the New York Times, the Seattle Times, the Denver Post, Bloomberg and the AP. It was already old news by then.
ASMP: Do you see any evidence that your reputation as a photographer or as an activist has been helped or harmed by this incident?
EW: A little street cred, perhaps? Otherwise, I don’t see any evidence that it has helped or harmed my reputation. Though the premise that “you are what you photograph” is threatening to photojournalism, at least I can be thankful for having been arrested while photographing a non-violent climate protest.
ASMP: You have alliances with and/or your work is represented by a number of different outlets — Aurora, Alamy, Photoshelter, Wonderful Machine. Please describe your relationships with these entities and how your work is distributed between them. Which distributors are best suited for what aspects of your work?
EW: Aurora is far and away my most important and effective outlet for stock — my collection there has grown to nearly 1,700 photos since I joined them last year. Some of what they turn down I put on Alamy, but I am slowly migrating to Photoshelter to build an archive that I can integrate into my portfolio Web site and use to power my own licensing and print sales. Wonderful Machine is my rep for assignment work.
ASMP: While you refer to yourself as a photojournalist, you are degreed in physics and mathematical biology and are now pursuing a PhD in environmental studies. Please talk about the influence these other subjects have had on your photography and how you balance these varied aspects of your life and career.
EW: My projects result from heavy cross-pollination. It was as a geographer for the U.S. Geological Survey that I learned the skills I needed for a project mapping urban agricultural potential in Boulder, and for my ongoing map-driven conservation effort to photograph unprotected parts of the North Cascades being proposed for addition to national park and wilderness areas. Similarly, my passion for conservation and intellectual fascination with “place” pushed me to partner with photographer Morgan Heim to document local biodiversity for www.MeetYourNeighbours.org.
Meanwhile, photography — time lapses, stereoscopy and computer vision — is an integral part of my PhD research on tidewater glacier dynamics (the math and physics influence), and I have a strong interest in developing photography-driven citizen science initiatives. In December 2010, I’ll be convening a session on quantitative applications of photography in the earth sciences at the huge American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.
ASMP: Looking ahead, what are your future goals for working in photography?
EW: I would say that the growth of my photography has been fueled by synergies with my other interests. My goals as a photographer are to help myself and others conduct and communicate science, support conservation efforts and my outdoor adventures, seek intimacy in my travels and land amazing assignments. Selling more stock is an important, but very secondary, goal.
ASMP: Given your recent experiences with the law, do you have any advice for other photographers who might find themselves in a similar situation? How will this experience influence your intentions and/or actions to cover these kinds of events in the future?
EW: I don’t want to advise others to be more discreet when one shouldn’t need to be, but my visibility as a photographer is surely what got me noticed. Looking towards the legal resources available at my school is what got me out of trouble, so don’t overlook what help might be available locally. I intend to cover such events in the future. If I’m ever arrested again, I’ll show credentials and stand my ground more firmly, if only to help the police draft a more accurate press release of my arrest.