TALKING TO PHOTOGRAPHER CLAYTON PATTERSON
Interview by Shawn Nee
Published in: BOY WITH GRENADE BLOG | New York | April 28, 2010
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?
■ What is your frame of mind when photographing crime scenes and/or police? Do you have to go in preparing yourself for a confrontation?
■ 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?
■ Why don’t you carry something like a wearable recording device (like a Vievu) to document your encounters?
■ 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”?
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  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?
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?
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?
■ Do you get the sense the police have it out for you now? Does it affect how you do your work?
■ What’s your advice to other photographers who get into confrontations with law enforcement?
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.
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ABOUT SHAWN NEE: He is an award winning filmmaker and photographer based in Los Angeles. The images and videos shown on boywithgrenade were collected during the past few years while living in Hollywood. In April of 2011, Shawn abruptly stopped taking pictures.