Photographer Documenting Graffiti Artists Charged With A Crime

- - Working

On February 4th 2010, photographer Jonas Lara an Art Center Graduate and former United States Marine, was photographing 2 graffiti artists painting a mural in Los Angeles. An LAPD helicopter spotted the group, then a patrol car came in and arrested Jonas and the Graffiti Artists (or vandals depending on how you feel about graffiti). He was initially charged with Felony Vandalism which was later lowered to a misdemeanor and then changed to Aiding and Abetting which carries a 1 year sentence. His jury trial is set for May 12th (Tuesday).

This story has been bouncing around the internet for a little while now and I’ve wanted to write about it, but not without talking to a lawyer first. PDN has a story (here) that does little more than gloss over Jonas’s side of the case. I wanted to understand what rights journalists have in these types of situations so I asked the Photo Attorney, Carolyn E. Wright a couple question.

First, here’s what Jonas told me about the photography project he was working on:

I had been working on this graffiti series for about 5 years now as part of a larger project on the Los Angeles Art Scene. Documenting the life that no one gets to see, an underground culture that operates at night. A lot of what interested me is the camaraderie shared between different graffiti artists and the way they looked out for each other. In a way it reminded me of my experience in the Marines and training in the field and doing night movements. Of course there is a great level of excitement that goes along with these types of actions as well but for me I wanted to tell a story I felt wasn’t being told.

Next, here’s the email exchange I had with Carolyn:

APE: Is there some kind of shield law for journalists that would apply in a situation like this?

The Shield Law has to do with the inability to prosecute a journalist who fails to disclose a source.

APE: Certainly, important work has been done by photographers documenting illegal activities, but I assume you know going in that you might get in trouble with the law at some point. Are there laws to protect journalists in this type of situation?

I’m not a criminal lawyer but, of course, had to study it in law school and I have taken/passed several bar exams that test on the subject.

The state is prosecuting Jonas for vandalism under California Penal Code Section 594.

Picture 3

The state may be arguing that Jonas was an accomplice, solicited the crime, attempted the crime, or was a conspirator to the crime. Here are my notes on those crimes:

a) Accomplice Liability
(1) Accomplices are liable for the crime itself and all other foreseeable crimes. (a) But someone is not guilty of accomplice liability just because he is present when the crime is committed.

b) Inchoate (referring to something which has begun but has not been completed – ape) Offenses
(1) Solicitation: asking someone to commit a crime. (a) Crime of solicitation ends when you ask them. (b) Conspiracy: if someone agrees to the solicitation. (c) Sol/consp merge into consp.
(2) Conspiracy: people must be pursuing an unlawful objective. (a) Elements (Conspiracy requires an agreement to commit a crime between two or more people, an intent to agree, an intent to commit a crime, and an overt act. A conspirator is liable for all reasonably foreseeable crimes committed in furtherance of the conspiracy): (i) Agreement (doesn’t have to be expressed) (people don’t have to know each other) (ii) Intent to agree (iii) Intent to pursue the unlawful objective (iv) Consp doesn’t merge with the substantive offense. (v) Liability: each conspirator is liable for all the crimes of other conspirators if those crimes were committed in furtherance of the conspiracy and were foreseeable.
(3) Attempt: specific intent plus a substantial step beyond mere preparation, in the direction of the commission of the crime

But if Jonas can prove that he was just there and didn’t agree to the crime, then he should be able to get off.

APE: Ok but what if you witness a crime and do not report it, is that something journalists should be concerned with?

No, there is no duty to report a crime.

If you want to help Jonas out, here’s a page where you can donate to help cover his legal costs:

I think it’s important for photographers to realize that you are not guilty of a crime just because you are present when the crime is committed and that you have no obligation to report the crime.

There Are 14 Comments On This Article.

  1. It seems to me the issue here is whether a journalist (Lara) recorded a crime in progress (not illegal); or whether a crime was committed because someone with a camera was there to record it (then the question of conspiracy comes into the picture).

    I’m not a lawyer, but it would seem the defense could argue that graffiti artists would have probably committed an illegal act regardless of Lara’s presence (it’s what they do) and hence Lara was simply recording it. Unless the prosecution can prove Lara in some way instigated the graffiti incident, he’s probably going to get off.

    I’m guessing the severity of the charges might be related to the rising incidence of people going out committing crimes while someone in the group films the act. A journalist working on a story is different from a gang member recording a crime committed by his cohorts. But I didn’t see any mention of Laura’s journalistic credentials. I suspect if they can show Laura has other published journalistic work, it will go a long way to making his case.

  2. I suppose if I photographed police brutality in progress I’m now at risk that they could turn around and arrest me for being their accomplice.

    I can imagine though that there are plenty of “photographers” who are friends with graffiti artists and hang out with them documenting their work.

    It appears from Jonas’s donation page that he is spending some very close time with the graffiti artists (in their homes, riding in cars with them). I think it would be easy to believe that he is one of the group rather than a third party observer. In this situation I would try to appear as separate as possible from the group (not dressing anything like them, arriving in your own car parked in a different area, not knowing their names), but this would make it more difficult to get access to the work and the behind the scenes life of the graffiti artists of course.

  3. Ignorance of the law is the same in the courtroom as on the streets…take your pick

    1 “Ignorance of the law excuses no man from practicing it”
    2 “Lawyers are the only persons in whom ignorance of the law is not punished.”
    3 “Ignorance of the law must not prevent the losing attorney from collecting his fee”

    I appreciate that Jonas was following his artistic instincts but this a good example of what happens when you don’t know the law and don’t think to run fast enough.

    Maybe this will help photographers understand that holding a camera does not stop bullets and is not a “get out of jail free card”. Tough love….do your homework.

    • @Gary Miller,
      So are you saying that someone documenting an action is liable for the action? Is that the law?
      If so, should photographers taking pictures of enemy insurgents shooting at US troops be charged with war crimes?

      • @Blue,

        Not all, what I’m saying is know the environment and do the research before going in to the story..

        The laws in California are very specific. If you plan to document an illegal act then understand that you may very well be held as a party to that crime. Understand that if you drove; supplied paint or in any way helped the artist in the act of painting graffiti then you ARE a party to that illegal act. If your story is on drug use, don’t supply the pipe.

        So far between 2003 and 2009 there have been a 140 journalist killed in Iraq the majority of those have been Iraqi journalist working for foreign news organizations but covering the war in their own country…bullets don’t care who they hit.

        There is a misconception that because you’re an accredited journalist you have more rights than the average citizen, you don’t.
        If you go in on a raid with ICE, SWAT, Child Services, etc. you are not under the safety umbrella of that agency. If the property owner tells you to get out, you are on the sidewalk. You have to identify yourself and your intent or you’re trespassing.

        The point is don’t supply the guns or the ammo to the enemy insurgents and you won’t be charged by a US judge.
        Know if you are captured by the enemy you more than likely will be killed and the family pays for the funeral…..the rules are pretty simple.

  4. Gaining access is an essential part of a photographer’s success and his/her access provides the rest of us with information about a world we do not know. It is a slippery slope if we ignore the reality of the world around us and censor/criminalize those who are documenting it. Some examples:

    – addicts (Eugene Richards),

    – Taliban (Rahmatullah Naikzad) –,2933,386161,00.html

    – Stonewall Riots –

    – Lenny Bruce – arrested for obscenity while performing in NYC. Should those in the audience (including George Carlin) have been arrested, too?

    – U.S. ban on photographs of military coffins, in place since 1991 and only recently lifted.

    – immigrants (Don Bartletti) –

    On assignment for the Los Angeles Times Bartletti “spent three months traveling with hundreds of would-be immigrants heading north on one of the three Central-American railroad lines.”

    Bartletti said: “There were moments all along the journey that I could have changed people’s lives with $5 bill,” Bartletti said. “But the code of ethics is to observe what’s happening and not interfere.”

    A personal anecdote – In 1985 the NY Times had planned to run a front page story on its Weekend Section of a photographic project I was doing (“REAL / UNREAL: urban landscapes of the 1980’s”), even sending a reporter along with me a couple of days. The pages were laid out when Abe Rosenthal, then the Executive Editor, saw them and had the article pulled, saying: “Graffiti is akin to vandalism.” If it’s not published by a NYC newspaper, does is change what NYC looked like?

    I would suggest that photographers and reporters should be the first to defend our colleagues in their commitment to show/tell us what our world looks like, even if it’s an inconvenient truth, The last thing we should do is self-censor our story-telling.

  5. So, when Natchway travelled with rebels in Central America, under current guidelines he would be deemed an “enemy combatant”?

    Don’t the cops have anything better to do with a helicopter than to grab graffiti artists? Is LA so crime free that they have to find make work projects?

    • @Andrew Ptak,

      After twenty years as a newspaper photo editor covering all major stories in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties it is an extremely difficult environment working with the countless levels of law enforcement in the region.

      It takes years of building contacts and developing a respectful working relationship with these groups which is difficult for a freelancer without the support of a publication.

      It’s not unusual to have to appear in court to defend staff or obtain the release of equipment when working stories with important humanitarian and social issues.

      Above Susan made some wonderful points backed by examples of important documentary work over the years. James Natchway and those wonderful journalists mentioned have calculated the risks before going in.

      It’s just too important in today’s environment to not understand the playing field.

  6. To be protected as a member of the Press Lara would have to have been with an actual news organization. I know the lines have blurred a great deal with the internet and blogging butaving the backing of a news organization and a press pass would have aided him greatly. Seeing as how he was shooting for himself and expanding his portfolio for a long term art project the law will not be on his side.

  7. … if he was an accredited journalist, it’s guaranteed calls would have been made to editors and then the news org’s attorneys, and it would have never reached this stage. Sadly we live in a day and age where traditional media is dying on the vine and more and more people are going it alone to tell stories and assuming ever greater risk without the resources to defend themselves in situations like this… -Banksy

    That’s the heart and soul of the matter. Personally, I can only see him being convicted if they somehow prove that he was actively participating as a lookout- otherwise, they don’t have a leg to stand on. Unfortunately, the state of law (and justice) in this country has been one big lying joke for going on a good decade now.

  8. I learned on a couple different occasions once when I was shooting different night shots in LA and once while shooting some forest service firefighters that having creditials associated with a publication is very advantageous.

    He will be lucky to get off without a hefty fine. I think there is a line that need not be crossed when trying to get the shots you want. Riding together to where they are going to do some painting crosses that line.

    Definitely wish him well and will see what I can do to help his defense fund.

  9. Jody Eldred

    There is a great personal responsibility that each citizen has to actively (proactively) promote the healthy values and morals of this society– and to work to discourage and prevent behaviors (some of which are criminal) which are destructive and disruptive. Each of us has those dual obligations: promote good and prevent evil. It is not something relegated to government, the church, or law enforcement– though those organizations exist largely for those purposes. The responsibility lies with each of us, and we need to act as if we are agents, or “moral deputies” of those organizations. (This is within some limits of course, as we can’t usually lawfully arrest and detain someone, or use a firearm in the same manner police can– at least not in California.)

    Once this mindset of responsibility lives inside us, our choices as journalists become easier and more clear-cut– usually.

    Journalists have the responsibility to tell the truth, and photojournalists have the responsibility to show the truth. “The Truth” refers to behaviors that would be happening if the participants had no knowledge that their behaviors would be be seen, reported or recorded by anyone.

    Like many science experiments, the mere presence of the scientist (the observer) can affect the outcome. While this can usually be minimized in the hard sciences (for example, the device utilized to measure gravitational mass can indeed affect the result of that measurement) in “softer sciences” like psychology and sociology, the effect can be pronounced but difficult to measure, and therefore, difficult to minimize.

    This applies directly to journalism and I have personally witnessed this many thousands of times (literally.)

    Many times, the story we’re covering is benign enough that little “adjustments in the storytelling” (asking someone to please walk down a hallway because I need a generic b-roll shot of them) don’t affect the subject or our story, or our obligation to present the unadulterated truth to the viewer/reader.

    But it is very easy to manipulate a subject, even subliminally suggesting they engage in certain behaviors because we “need it” for our story. “You’ve painted graffiti a million times– but I wasn’t there to shoot it. Can you do it again sometime so I can shoot it?”

    That’s crossing a line.

    Even asking, “When is the next time you guys are going to go do some graffiti art?” crosses that line, as it suggests that you WANT them to do this.

    1. That is manipulation.
    2. That is violating your responsibility as a citizen to not promote illegal and destructive behavior.

    If they informed you– with no soliciting on your part whatsoever– that they were going to engage in this activity whether you were there or not at a certain time and place, and you showed up on your own and had no interaction with them except to record their activity NOT FOR THE PURPOSE OF PROMOTING IT, then you have kept to the journalistic code of truthful, non-manipulating reportage, and to the code of being a good citizen by not encouraging illegal and destructive behavior. As a journalist you were reporting it and letting readers/viewers decide as to what response would be appropriate (legalize it, designate certain areas for graffiti art, keep it criminalized, etc.) And that’s why we have 1st Amendment protection for journalists– so we can tell “The Truth” so the citizenry can decide how then to live their lives, both individually and corporately.

    I made the decision a long time ago that, if I was shooting some kind of catastrophe or accident and someone was in peril, and there were no other suitable individuals who could offer life-saving aid, I would immediately put the camera down and go help. (I can recall doing that only once– but being really close to doing it a few times.) That’s just being a responsible citizen, nothing more. And if I came upon criminals engaged in a destructive act which I was reporting on, there might well come a time that I would put down the camera and take action (if a life was about to be taken, for example.) And I’ve come close to doing that a few times as well.

    Being a journalist does not remove the primary label as “citizen” or “human” from your description. And I have found that those reporters who see themselves primarily as citizens are much better storytellers than the rest of them because they genuinely care about the welfare of PEOPLE, and that makes for much more compelling storytelling.

    As for Jonas Lara, I suspect his self-identification may not be so well-defined, but I don’t know him.

    I had no idea this would become such a lengthy and detailed missive, but it’s been an integral part of my life for over 30 years, having to make decisions every day that go to “who I am.”