I’ve encountered plenty of prohibitions on picture-making in fifteen years as a photojournalist. But the most infuriating came recently at the home of Thomas Jefferson, of all places.
U.S. News & World Report had assigned me to photograph a touring Elderhostel group for the magazine’s annual retirement guide, and I was thrilled. This was the kind of job a photographer relishes: scenic, upbeat, and uncompetitive. My editor had cast one warning, though: a representative for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and operates Monticello, had said I could not take photos inside the home. The space was too tight, apparently, and filled with valuable antiques.
Just a smokescreen, I thought. If a dozen photographers can race in and out of the Oval Office without destroying the place, a solo act in Jefferson’s residence could work. This was the home of the founder of democracy, after all, and the father of the free media.
I arrived at Monticello’s Visitor Center with the Elderhostel group, and a tour guide stepped from the house and began his spiel. Halfway through came this: “There is no photography allowed inside the house because we don’t own the photo rights to all the furniture.”
Furniture has photo rights? I pretended not to hear and followed the group inside. Barely through the door, another guide came at me. “You can’t make pictures in here. Let’s talk outside.”
We stepped onto the front porch and I pleaded my case: “I’ve photographed in there before.” I had, with permission, when the Sally Hemmings story broke.
“Well, when it came out that Jefferson was, um … .”
She stared like a stone.
“ … was molesting his slave.” I smiled, hoping she’d recognize the awkwardness of that occasion. She didn’t.
“We don’t have photo rights for some furniture.”
“How about I have the furniture sign a release?” She didn’t even acknowledge the joke. And her voice was louder, edgier now. I could see heads turning. “Maybe there’s someone else I can speak with?”
Not a minute later there appeared another woman. I threw a Hail Mary. “I’m supposed to be photographing that Elderhostel group.”
She held out a printed e-mail. “This says you have permission to photograph your group on the grounds only.”
“You don’t think this is a little ironic? This being the home of the man responsible for the First Amendment?”
“No,” she said. “Your ticket is for grounds only. You’re not allowed inside the house.”
“But you guys gave me the ticket!”
“And we gave you one for grounds only.” She smiled as she shut Jefferson’s front door in my face.
I spent the next hour sitting on a porch, engaged in an imaginary argument with the woman. Maybe we photogs are a little sensitive these days, all treading water in the deep sea with no Carpathia in sight. Yet these incidents seem to be increasing—and turning our industry into an imitation of what it once was. In the past year, I’d encountered the police officer who told me I couldn’t make pictures on a platform of the D.C. Metro; the poll worker who pushed me into a wall for photographing a line of voters; the pro-life protestor who grabbed my camera on a public street in Wichita; and the park ranger at the World War II memorial who told me I needed a permit. Unlike those objectors, the Jefferson Foundation was well within its legal rights to restrict photography. But did doing so serve its interests or the legacy of the man it works to exalt?
Eventually the seniors came out, and I tried to make up for lost time. I snapped them squinting in the sun, as if emerging from a matinee. I photographed a couple strolling a path that runs the length of efferson’s vegetable garden—a fine enough image, but not one that said Elderhostel tour or Monticello or “Boy are we having a happy retirement.” Then I climbed an embankment overlooking the green Virginia Piedmont, put down my cameras, and prematurely called it quits.