This month’s cover story of National Geographic, about how to meet growing worldwide demand for food, is the story that got photographer George Steinmetz in trouble last June, and he’s still stinging from the experience.
Caught in the political crossfire between animal rights activists and agribusiness interests trying to make it illegal to photograph factory farm operations, he wound up in jail in Kansas while on assignment to shoot the story, called “The New Food Revolution.”
“It was quite a surprise to me,” says Steinmetz, who is renowned for the beautiful aerial landscapes he shoots all over the world, and who is used to encounters with authorities. “I’ve been detained in Iran and Yemen, and questioned about spying, but never arrested. And then I get thrown in jail in America.”
The premise of the May cover story, which kicks off an 8-month series about food, is that crop production will have to double by 2050 in order to feed the growing world population and satisfy its increasing appetite for protein. But images of US pig, cattle, and chicken farming operations are conspicuously absent from the story, largely because those producers have all but shut out the media. So Steinmetz ended up photographing meat and egg operations in Brazil, where owners are proud of their state-of-the-art facilities and feel little pressure from animal rights activists. (Separately, photographer Jim Richardson shot portraits of farmers from around the world for the story.)
But Steinmetz did travel to Kansas last June to shoot aerials of cropland and cattle feedlots. Near Garden City, he found what he thought was a good aerial view of the food production cycle: irrigated crop circles adjacent to a feedlot with white cattle, which stood out from the air much better than the black or brown cattle that are more common in the area.
Steinmetz took off in his motorized paraglider from a corner of the Brookover Ranch Feed Yard around dawn on June 28, without realizing he was on Brookover property. While he was airborne awaiting good light, his assistant, Zhang Wei, radioed from the ground to say that some feedlot employees wanted to know: Did Steinmetz have permission to photograph the feedlot? “I don’t need permission to photograph from the air,” he answered back.
Zhang radioed two more times, to tell him the employees were increasingly angry, but Steinmetz was determined to get his photographs. So he told Zhang to leave the area and wait for him at another location a few miles away.
“I was arrested when I landed,” Steinmetz recounts. Sheriff’s deputies told him the owner of the feedlot wanted to press charges. “They said there were concerns about agro-security. Apparently I was endangering America’s food supply.”
Steinmetz was handcuffed for his ride to the county jail. “My hands went numb,” he says. His vehicle was impounded and searched. His fingerprints and mug shot were taken. While he was trying to make bail and worrying about spending a weekend in lock-up, he asked for a copy of the statute he’d allegedly violated, and learned that he and Zhang were being prosecuted on criminal trespassing charges.
He managed to post bail, and with the help of National Geographic attorneys, fought the charges. In November, they were finally dismissed because Steinmetz and Zhang had had no advance notice–from fences, signs or the property owner–that they weren’t allowed on the property. Moreover, local authorities never saw them trespassing, so the criminal trespassing charges were legally unsupportable.
“I’ve been through a lot of indignities for flying. It’s all part of a package deal. But in this case, I felt like it was press intimidation,” he says. “They couldn’t [arrest me] for what they were upset about, but it was cheap and easy for them to hassle me, and difficult and expensive for me to defend myself.”
Looking back on the experience, Steinmetz says it “made me curious about what they [Brookover Ranch owners] are trying to hide.”
PDN’s calls to the Brookover Ranch were directed to Ty Brookover, who did not respond to phone or e-mail requests for comment.
Ten months after his arrest, Steinmetz is still animated–and frustrated–on principle. Factory farm operators, he says, “have a right to privacy, but not from the air…if they don’t want people to see it, put a roof over it.” At the same time, he says, consumers have a right to know where their food comes from. “If you have a more transparent food industry, people feel better about it, and it’s better for [the agricultural industry] in the long run.”
But his frustration is also personal. With his arrest and fingerprints on record, every time he re-enters the US from abroad “I get sent to the Group W Bench for questioning,” he says, referring to the holding place for undesirables in the classic Arlo Guthrie song, Alice’s Restaurant. Stories about Steinmetz’s arrest also continue to pop up near the top of Google search results. “The stain lasts even though you’re acquitted,” he says. And the pictures he got arrested for? To his disappointment, they didn’t make the final edit of the story.
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