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Monday, May 10, 2010

LA Photographer Faces Criminal Charges for photographing graffiti artists

via PDN

LA Photographer Faces Criminal Charges, Appeals for Help
Los Angeles-based photographer Jonas Lara faces up to a year in prison if convicted of aiding and abetting two graffiti artists whose work he was documenting when the three men were arrested on February 2, 2010 in South Central Los Angeles.

Lara has declined two plea deals and has pleaded not guilty to the charge, believing that he was within his rights as a photographer to be at the scene documenting the work of the artists. However Lara says his public defender, David Gottesmann, has so far refused to consider his rights as a photographer as part of the defense. “Every time I bring [photographer’s rights or First Amendment rights] up, he just laughs at me,” Lara says.

Jeff Sedlik, Lara’s former teacher, has offered to testify on his behalf to establish his credibility as a photographer, but Lara says Gottesman insists that the case has nothing to do with Lara being a photographer.

Lara has appealed for help with the case to rights organization like the ACLU, but Lara says the organizations have told him they do not get involved in criminal cases.

If convicted, the Art Center College of Design graduate and former US Marine would be unable to enter the MFA program at the School of Visual Arts, into which he was recently accepted, in September.

Recognizing the need to hire a private attorney, Lara has established a legal fund to solicit help from friends, family and colleagues. Lara’s jury trial is scheduled for next Tuesday, May 11.

Lara’s camera, lenses and memory cards, which he uses to make a living, were also seized, and have not been returned to him.

When he was arrested, Lara was working on a long-term project for which he has documented the work and creative processes of 30 visual artists. Lara met the two graffiti artists at an abandoned building in South Central Los Angeles to photograph the pair as they worked on the illegal mural.

An LAPD helicopter spotted the group of three men and a patrol car was quickly on the scene. The artists attempted to walk away from the scene and were apprehended, Lara says. He remained at the scene and was arrested, although the arresting officers never let Lara know what he was being charged with.

The photographer says the officers were understanding when he explained his reason for being at the scene. They told him they needed to process him, and that he would be free to go in the morning. After advising Lara that it would be dangerous to leave his car in the neighborhood, one of the officers even drove Lara’s car to the police station so he could avoid a towing fee.

Once he got to the police station, however, Lara’s situation became much more precarious. The police held Lara for eight hours before telling him he was being charged with felony vandalism. He was held for 26 hours in total.

Two weeks after being bailed out by his wife, Lara was arraigned and the charge of felony vandalism was downgraded to a misdemeanor. At a pretrial hearing Gottesman told Lara that rather than vandalism, he was now being charged with damaging a fence at the scene. Then the charge was later switched again, this time to the misdemeanor of aiding and abetting. Prosecutors now claim Lara was acting as a lookout for the two graffiti artists.
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