January 20, 2004

Waiving my rights

Jon Rou is assistant director of University Photography.

You have the right to remain silent.” The words echoed in my head as I sat in a tiny office at the Albuquerque airport. Minutes earlier I had been standing in the security screening line when I heard my name over the intercom: Jon Lowell Rou, please report to the nearest courtesy phone.

Shaking, I picked up the phone. I figured the only reason I was being paged was to inform me of a loved one’s death. My mom was traveling to Florida from Tennessee, and immediately I imagined some deadly highway accident on I-75.

The operator told me to report to the Albuquerque police located in the airport; I was
“wanted for questioning.” I was completely caught off guard. Questioning? What did that mean? Did they find something in my luggage? Was my name on a terrorist threat list? Did my face look suspicious? These questions raced through my head as I walked down a desolate airport hallway where an officer was awaiting underneath a huge “POLICE” sign.

He carried a plastic bag with the Delta logo on it and asked me to step inside. He instructed me to take a seat, and then he asked if I knew what Miranda rights were. I replied with a very shaky “yes,” and the officer began reading me said rights. The experience was surreal, to say the least. My mind wandered; how would I explain this to my mom? What would my boss say? I was, after all, leaving a photography workshop that Emory had paid for. Would I lose my job?

When I drifted back to reality, I heard the officer ask me a question I hope I never hear again: “Mr. Rou, are you aware that mere possession of child pornography is a felony?” Believe it or not, a sense of relief swept over me because now I knew why I was being detained.

The officer pulled a book from the Delta bag and informed me that a baggage screener had seen the book in my checked luggage and thought it might be child pornography. He said the screener unsealed the shrink-wrapped book and, upon flipping through the pages, made the conclusion that it was indeed child pornography. The police were notified immediately.

The officer wanted to know exactly where I’d purchased the book. I told him I bought it a day earlier in Santa Fe at Photo Eye Books, widely considered the preeminent photography bookstore in the country. I also informed the officer that the photographer was an internationally recognized artist and that respected publishing houses generally don’t produce child pornography in hardbound, coffee-table-book format. The officer couldn’t have cared less. I said the book was available at bookstores worldwide including on Amazon.com.

At this point a second officer who was witnessing our dialogue went into another room and started searching online. The first officer then began going through the book page by page, pointing to the many photos that showed nude children. This, he said, was child pornography. I informed him that I would need a lawyer to continue the discussion.

Before I go any further, let me explain that the book, New Work by Jock Sturges, does contain nude images of children, and also of men and women—families. The photos, taken mainly on the beach, are beautiful, classically composed nudes. Nothing sexual takes place in any of the photos, and the families are complete and willing partners in this endeavor. It was a collaborative work; several subjects are photographed over a span of years. Like fellow photographer Sally Mann, Sturges has a fair number of critics who find his work objectionable. However, it is completely legal, and I obtained it legally. Trying to convince the Albuquerque police of this
wasn’t so easy.

By now, my mind was reeling. Was I about to go to jail for a difference of taste? I pictured the smug face of Attorney General John Ashcroft smiling from a bunker in Washington. He would, no doubt, consider this an added bonus to his efforts to stop terrorism, and he would be pleased.

After my request for an attorney, the second officer returned and said the book was indeed available online and that the photographer was legitimate. To this, the first officer actually said, “What should we do with him?” Meaning me, of course.

They conferred briefly and told me I was being released. They would, however, need to take my Social Security number and other pertinent information. They said the Albuquerque district attorney would be investigating the bookstore and I may hear from the DA as well.

I asked if I was being profiled or put on a child pornography list; they said that would only happen if charges were filed. The first officer put the book back into the bag and told me he would need to notify Delta and personally escort me to the gate.

We walked to the gate in relative silence. My attempts at small talk went nowhere, and it was obvious my status as a first-class “pervert” had not changed. As a homosexual man, I’ve been vilified before—heck, I’ve even been spit on by the “Reverend” Fred Phelps, who called me a “dirty faggot”—but never had I been viewed as some kind of threat to children. It was not a good feeling.

I agree that child pornography should be punished to the fullest extent of the law and that mere possession of such material is as dangerous as producing it. This was clearly not child pornography. It may be objectionable to some, but by no means does it fulfill the definition of pornography. The line between art and pornography is growing thin, and my fear is that one day that line may altogether disappear. Let me remind you, this is the same administration’s attorney general who paid thousands of dollars to have the exposed breast of a nude statue in the Department of Justice draped with a curtain.

I arrived with the officer at my gate, where I boarded the plane and left for Atlanta.
I called the bookstore to let them know what happened and to expect a visit from the DA. They informed me that my purchase was completely legal, and they would support me if this matter went any further. Upon my return to Atlanta, I filed a complaint on the American Civil Liberties Union’s website.

There’s already a form dedicated to airport screening grievances. I can only imagine that mine was one of many, as the “War on Terrorism” slowly chips away our rights—rights that seem to disappear eerily with each passing day.