Photographic Follies: Lincoln Center's Press Department Needs to Join Us in the 21st Century

I’ve been a fan of the Loser’s Lounge for more than 10 years. About four years ago, I started bringing my camera to their shows at Joe’s Pub, and posting the photos here on this blog. Many of the Loser’s singers have shared my photos on their personal Facebook pages or web sites, and for me this is an honor (I put a copyright notice on the photos but everything on this blog is covered under a non-commercial Creative Commons sharing agreement). As someone who works in show business, the experience of the audience is very important to me, so I try very hard when shooting to be as unobtrusive as possible. I use the viewfinder and dim my LCD screen down. I don’t use the flash (except on the rare occasion when a Loser’s performer goes into the audience), and I turn off the auto-focus light so as not to annoy the performers (something I learned from an excellent suggestion from Mike Daisey). I often shoot 500 or more raw (uncompressed) photos during a Loser's show, trying to get at least a couple decent photos of each of the many performers in a show. In shooting about 20 Loser's shows at Joe’s Pub, no one--staff or audience--has ever said anything to me about my camera. But last Thursday night, Lincoln Center's press department proved that they are far less enlightened than  Joe's Pub.  In fact, they are apparently stuck in a decidedly 20th century mindset.

I've been out of town during past Loser’s Midsummer Night Swing® shows, but this year I bought six tickets for my usual Loser’s crew. Midsummer Night Swing® is presented by Lincoln Center, and I didn't know what their camera policy was, so I checked the Midsummer "No Parking on the Dance Floor" FAQ, which says, “Please refrain from stopping to take photos or videos while on the dance floor to prevent collisions and to allow as much room as possible for your fellow dancers. Photos and videos may be taken from the sidelines and off the floor.”  This policy makes perfect sense to me and it clearly states that photography is allowed. So I brought my (advanced hobbyist grade) Nikon D-7000 DSLR and a monopod, figuring (correctly) that it might be a bit dim (by camera standards).

As I went to pick up my tickets at the box office, I had my camera out in the open on its strap, and my monopod in my hand. The D7000 was also clearly visible as my friends and I walked right in the front door, where they took our tickets, and stamped our hands. I stayed on the "sidelines" area up by the stage, beyond the edge of the dancefloor, and shot a bunch of pics of the band, and a few of my friends dancing in the audience when they got close enough to the stage. I saw at least three other photographers with DSLR's up there, and one videographer.  I noticed that one of the DSLR shooters (who had a giant telephoto lens) and the video camera shooter both had some sort of pass, and they were able to get into the secured pit area between the dance floor and the stage. I never saw anyone with a camera get in the way of a dancer--everyone I saw was having a good time and being completely respectful.

At intermission, I left my (very small) monopod up by the stage out of the way, and went with my friends off of the elevated dance floor area out to the bar to grab a drink. The band started again, and I headed back in.  I still had my camera on its strap out in the open, and I showed my UV-stamped hand to the security guard. He let me in, and then someone yelled from behind for me to stop. Some sort of press guy ran up to me and asked me who I was. I said I was there for the show, and what was the problem?  He said my camera was “too professional” to be allowed in without approval and an "escort" from the press department. He asked what I was shooting for, and I said my blog.  He told me that point and shoot cameras are allowed, but DSLR’s are not, and I was dumbfounded. I told him that I had already been inside for the whole first half, and if he didn’t let my camera and me back in in then I wanted my money back for me and all my friends. I told him I had stayed on the "sidelines" area right by the stage where there is no dance floor, which is explicitly allowed by the FAQ. But he said that the entire, elevated dance floor area was off limits to cameras. I told him he had to let me go back in to tell my friends I was being removed and to get my monopod. “Monopod?!”, he exclaimed incredulously, and now he was starting to get angry. Eventually he escorted me back in to get my stuff, and along the way I pointed out to him the three other unescorted people now shooting with DSLR’s, and the dozens of people shooting with their point and shoots or camera phones.  Cameras were off limits on the entire dance floor?  I told him he should enforce their policy consistently.  Eventually, he relented and said “for tonight only” I could stay. But by now, I had missed a couple songs and I was so aggravated by this hassle and stupidity that my friends and I only stayed for a couple more songs and then left, missing a bunch of the songs.

I felt bad for this kid, because he was was just doing his job, enforcing Lincoln Center's vague, stupid, ineffective, and obsolete policy.

Vague: Clicking the "Press Room" section of the Midsummer Night Swing® website just brings you to the general Lincoln Center press page, and even looking there now I still can't find anything about what type of camera you're allowed to bring to an event. Googling "Lincoln Center DSLR" gets you a lot of people who took pictures of Lincoln Center with DSLRs. So, I have no idea what the point of this idiotic, inconsistently-enforced policy is, but the "no unapproved pro camera" policy is most certainly not designed "to prevent collisions and to allow as much room as possible for [the] dancers", because both the “approved” still press photographer and videographer were both often right in the middle of dancers, as you can see in this picture (note the telephoto to the left) and in this official Lincoln Center video. In bureaucracies, policies exist to implement and express the will of the organizational management, and given the inconsistencies in this policy, I can only speculate that the "no unapproved pro camera" policy is not about protecting the audience experience, but instead is about control over access. 

Stupid: Are DSLRs the only things that can make “professional” images? Of course not. My Nikon P6000 point and shoot records RAW, uncompressed, high resolution files and HD video. Sure, it won’t shoot photos that will blow up well to billboard size, but it could shoot images good enough for a quality print magazine. In the 21st century, the size of the camera or the ability to change lenses is not the sole indicator of what makes a camera "professional" grade.

Ineffective: I never hid my camera, I wasn’t trying to violate any policies, and I carefully read the FAQ on the website. I bought a ticket and I just wanted to share my excitement about the Loser’s with the readers of my blog. Somehow, I was able to get in and shoot high res images, something they wanted to approve and control for reasons not clear to me.

Obsolete:  It’s 2012.  Social media--and blogs like mine--are here to stay, and will influence people. As long as the shooters don’t interfere with the performance or the quality of the audience experience (obviously I wouldn’t bring my camera to the opera and I don't think they should be allowed), organizations like Lincoln Center should be doing everything in their power to encourage people to share their experiences with their friends and the world. They should be helping to get the word out, not hindering and hassling paying customers.

I see probably 100 shows a year, but I will never go back to Midsummer Night Swing, even when the Loser’s are playing.  My friends and I paid hundreds of dollars in tickets and exorbitant bar prices to this inept, stupid organization and we won’t do it again.

I will forward this blog entry to Lincoln Center and will post if I hear anything back.