POINT OF VIEW

What's it like covering elections in both Istanbul and the Bronx

Posted

(re: “Voters give Cabrera primary nod,” Sept. 14)

In my relatively nascent career as a photojournalist, I never thought working in the Bronx would make me nostalgic for a country ranked 155th out of 180 for press freedom.

That country is Turkey, and it’s where I lived and worked for two years.

On election day, I was assigned to cover the local primaries for this paper, where I work full-time as chief photographer. An integral part of election coverage is a set of photographs from inside polling places. 

The only requirement to do this is an official letter from the elections board granting press access to members of the media. As an employee of The Riverdale Press, the letter was relatively easy to get. It came two days after I first called the general office.

When my colleagues and I arrived at the Marie Curie School on West 231st Street and Sedgwick Avenue, we were anticipating a relatively easy assignment. What could be easier than talking to some voters and taking some pictures of voting booths?

Upon entering the polling site with the letter from the elections board in hand, we were told by the polling coordinator that taking pictures was strictly forbidden. My colleague, who’s covered a few elections in this part of the Bronx already, showed her the letter, and explained that he’d been there before.

Despite this, she stonewalled us, called her contact, and got the answer she was seeking — we weren’t allowed to take pictures.

Conveniently, the letter we were given provided a number to call in case there were problems, which we did, and the woman on the other and of the line could not be more helpful. Yet, after the coordinator spoke with her, she claimed that the person on the phone could have been anybody, much to our disbelief.

After 45 minutes of waiting, an older gentleman who worked for the elections board arrived, and gave us the clearance to take photos. 

But like a North Korean government minder, he followed me everywhere I went as I took pictures. In the midst of all of this, the coordinator told poll workers to get out to the other side of the cafeteria, so as not to appear in any of my pictures.

I got the shot I was looking for, and left the school in search of another polling place.

My colleague and I then found our way to the Fort Independence Houses on Bailey Avenue, where we learned there were two polling coordinators. The first one, a young 20-something was exceedingly gracious, knew the drill after seeing our credentials, and gave us clearance to take pictures. 

The moment we turned away from her table, the second coordinator — an older woman in a motorized wheelchair — approached us immediately, and delivered awful news: We are absolutely not allowed to take photos. So it was with that we jumped back in the hamster wheel of bureaucracy. 

Understandably, polling workers don’t want to lose their jobs, and there is apparently a clear order not to allow photographs under any circumstances. Yet, here is a clear miscommunication between headquarters and the workers on the ground, and it is particularly Kafka-esque to be told that the letter from the elections board could be fabricated, and that the elections official on the phone could be “anyone.”

Here’s what happened when I covered a major parliamentary election in Istanbul in 2015. My colleague and I walked into a local polling station, spoke with the Turkish equivalent of a polling coordinator, and spent some time taking pictures.

Then we made our way to another polling station, took some more pictures, and left.

Turkey is not an easy place to work as a journalist. Reporters Without Borders ranks it 155 out of 180 for press freedom. The United States comes in at 43, which is better, but not amazing when you consider that freedom of the press is enshrined in the Constitution.

I’ve had journalist friends who were arrested in Turkey, and others who arrived at Atatürk Airport in Istanbul to find that they couldn’t enter the country.

Many more Turkish journalists have been arrested on bogus charges. 

The government there takes a hard-line stance against coverage it doesn’t like. Yet, people still manage to do amazing and necessary journalism in Turkey — but it can come at a very high price.

Here in the United States, journalists have relatively more freedom to do their jobs than in Turkey, despite the Trump administration’s war against outlets that don’t produce favorable stories. A journalist’s job is to inform, to tell the truth. And a photographer’s job is to visualize that truth.

A polling place in the Bronx is the last place where I expected to have one of the most difficult experiences of my career.

The author is the chief photographer of The Riverdale Press.

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