George Steinmetz Wonders: Was It Worth Getting Arrested for National Geographic Cover Story Photos?

Brookover Ranch Feed Yard near Garden City, Kansas, with adjacent crop circles of grain used to fatten cattle. © 2014 George Steinmetz/National Geographic

A picture worth being arrested for? Brookover Ranch Feed Yard near Garden City, Kansas, with adjacent crop circles of grain used to fatten cattle.                © 2014 George Steinmetz/National Geographic

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.”

© National Geographic

© National Geographic

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.

Another view of Brookover Ranch Feed Yard near Garden City, Kansas. © 2014 George Steinmetz/National Geographic

Another view of Brookover Ranch Feed Yard near Garden City, Kansas. © 2014 George Steinmetz/National Geographic

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.

Related: Hearing Set in Arrest of Aerial Photographer George Steinmetz

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33 Responses to “George Steinmetz Wonders: Was It Worth Getting Arrested for National Geographic Cover Story Photos?”

  1. Nigel G Says:

    America. The land of the free and the custodians of freedom

  2. T. C. Knight Says:

    He needs, right now, to ask National Geographic attorneys to start proceedings to get the record and all associated documentation expunged. They can even get his fingerprints back from the FBI and expunged from their records.

    This is happening all too frequently and our inability to defend ourselves financially is used against us more and more. Since National Geographic is involved they need to pony up and make this right.

    Not only am I an ag photographer, I am a former rancher and farmer too. Although I support the fight against animal rights advocates disparaging agriculture, Law Enforcement needs extensive training on how to handle legitimate press.

    The article said that there were no agriculture interests interested in cooperating. I find that extremely hard to believe. I am allowed to photograph agricultural operations any day and 90% of the time I ask.

    NG could have saved the money from the Brazil trip by asking the American Agriculture Editors Association for help, and there would have been more budget to fight the legal battle.

    T. C. Knight

  3. Fabiano Silva Says:

    T. C. Knight, maybe the small ones agree to show their facilities but I doubt it about the big ones. I say the big ones as JBS in Brazil who slaughter and process 11 million head of cattle per year. Maybe was this they were looking for in Brazil, the giant and massive herds.

  4. Dave P Says:

    Evidently cattle ranchers in Kansas have never heard of satellite imaging….. As in Google Earth. Obviously they don’t believe consumers have a right to know about the food they eat and are concerned that if consumers knew the truth behind the production of their food, massive changes would be demanded which would effect profits.

  5. George Steinmetz Says:

    Fabiano Silva is correct. In Brazil I was able to get access to large-scale protein producers, including JBS, which runs the largest slaughterhouse in Latin America. Similar access in the US was not forthcoming. The Brazilians were proud of their modern and efficient operations, while the US producers seemed nervous about negative publicity. I had no agenda except to show where our food comes from.

  6. T. C. Knight Says:

    I can understand them being nervous but to deny access is not very conducive to their story being told. Hmm. I see a story here too.

    Thanks George. I see where you are now. However, may I suggest to anyone wanting access to these facilities to just explain why and ask. I never approached an operation as big as that in Brazil but I have been given access to vegetable producers employing as many as 300 and a dairy once that milked over 2500 head. Those are large operations in their particular fields.

    Here may be the difference. Those were privately held operations; non corporate.

    George. What happened to you is ridiculous. I hope you have the record expunged.

  7. Geof Kirby Says:

    What kind of a legal system allows the retention of all that personal data when the poor guy has not been convicted of anything. Has anyone looked at a defamation action against the Brookover mob ?

  8. Bayardo Caceres Says:

    Hello George! I thought you could photograph anything from the air unless the airspace is restricted,
    why is NatGeo not showing these images? Are they afraid of a lawsuit?

    And lastly, if you ever need an extra assistant I’ll be happy to help out, I’m a photographer who just got my PPL and pretty excited to do some work from the air

    Best Wishes George!

  9. Amy Rubinstein Says:

    He could have saved himself a whole lot of trouble and photographed them like this: http://www.wired.com/2013/09/mishka-henner-factory-farms/

  10. George Steinmetz Says:

    I was able to get into farming operations in the US with fairly easily, but animal operations were a different matter. NG did not publish my pictures from the flight over the Brookover Ranch because there was not enough space in the magazine. By the time the story was published, the case against me had been dismissed, and so there was no legal issue. The feedlot was not restricted airspace, and there is nothing illegal about taking aerial photos there.

  11. Jacqueline Furniss Says:

    I think that well thought-out work such as this should be considered for serious reportage photo awards such as WPA. It takes great skill as a photographer, dedication to your concept, and creativity to illustrate a global social issue such as this. Being in the right place by accident is more “luck” than photographic acumen, and going into a war zone is courageous but doesn’t mean the images are outstanding as photos. Well done GS! (it’s a great article and looking forward to the rest of the series)

  12. Brent Says:

    Here is a simple concept, if he wanted to photograph an animal ag operation, just ask. Farmers and ranchers that I know are very proud of their farming operations and want to show them off. However, when a stranger shows up and starts taking pictures, there is a big concern. Just ask for permission and these problems don’t happen. Such a simple concept. And, the photographer was incorrect in his statement, “I don’t need permission to photograph from the air”…yes you do provided you are meeting certain requirements. The air space above a property is still included in private property.

  13. Heidi R. Says:

    Brent, if farmers and ranchers are very proud of their operations and want to show them off, why would there be a big concern “when a stranger starts taking pictures”? Plus, only a portion of the airspace above private property is protected from invasion as “private property”. At a certain height, certainly above 500ft, it becomes navigable. Most importantly, it seems to me the public interest outweighs any property rights these proud ranchers might have.

  14. Brent Says:

    Heidi, would you like someone to come to your house and start taking pictures without your permission and consent? Perhaps they are harmlessly taking pictures or perhaps they are taking those pics for something other than honorable purposes such as thief. Same with farms. However, asking for permission alleviates many of these issues.

    Second, it depends on where you are on how air rights are determined. For instance, here in Colorado, air rights are tied to surface rights and they extend to space, and to be honest, I am not sure the FAA makes that line of delineation. However, I do know if the concept of beneficial use comes onto play. Now, for low altitude flight, the courts have upheld that landowners are entitled to certain private property protections and flights below a certain level violate this. So, depending on the altitude of flight in question in this article, he very well may have been trespassing.

    But, missing from this conversation is this, “Steinmetz took off in his motorized paraglider from a corner of the Brookover Ranch Feed Yard”. So, to begin with he was trespassing when he took off!

    All this could have been avoided had he knocked on the door and asked for permission.

  15. George Steinmetz Says:

    The article was incorrect. I took off from a fallow corner of a crop circle over 1200 ft. from the feedlot. There were no gates opened, fences crossed, or visible signs saying “keep out” “private property” etc.. Nor did we see anyone on the way in from the paved road to ask for permission as it was 45min before sunrise. I was arrested for “criminal trespass” but that requires that the land to be posted “no trespassing” or the owner asks you to leave. Furthermore, no law enforcement officer saw me on the site, so the arrest was not legal either. I only found out weeks later that the crop circle I had taken off from was owned by the same entity as the feedlot.

  16. Brent Says:

    George…you took off from farm ground. That in itself highly suggest that it is private property and that you trespassed…PERIOD. Every entry onto private property is unlawful and trespass unless consent is given by property owner…and in this case it sounds like there was no consent…there wasn’t even an implied consent. Everything you mentioned in your post, “fallow corner of a crop circle over 1200 ft. from the feedlot. There were no gates opened, fences crossed, or visible signs saying “keep out” “private property” etc.. Nor did we see anyone on the way in from the paved road to ask for permission as it was 45min before sunrise.” is completely irrelevant! All land is considered private, thus maintaining private property protections, unless otherwise noted or posted.

    And stop calling them crop circles. They are fields or fields with center pivots. The only people I ever hear call them “crop circles” are those who have no connection to farming.

  17. Craig Says:

    Part of the problem is simply the mindset of the vast majority of the people in western Kansas. This is a very right-wing, conspiracy theory, minded segment of the population. Not joking, he’s actually quite lucky someone didn’t start taking shots at him.

  18. John Says:

    Neat photographs, George!

    Factor farming is unfortunate. Sorry to read that you were harassed by those attempting to hide ecologically and ethically unscrupulous practices.

    They have not yet realized that the tiny wet rock that we happen to currently inhabit cannot be divided up into parcels and privately “owned.” Our tiny wet rock simply exists, and some of us occupy particular parts of it for brief instants in time.

    In this case, some ape happens to be tending some bovines, similar to how ants tend aphids, on this tiny wet rock in the middle of nowhere.

    Keep up the excellent work, George!

  19. Nate Says:

    Great work George! Sorry you had to get hassled by these people. It is truly sad that these people can trample on photographers’ constitutional rights. Land of the free? Not any more. And agribusinesses like it that way.

    If agribusinesses insist on keeping secrets and violating photographers’ constitutional right of free speech, there is one sweet satisfaction that we still have: not buying their products. I don’t buy any meat or poultry products and haven’t for over 15 years. I read about their agricultural and political practices years ago and as a result, they lost a customer for life. I simply won’t support their business in any way.

    Brent, instead of hassling George, please go enjoy a nice juicy burger made from cows that were injected with [ secret ] and fed [ secret ].

  20. Nate Says:

    T. C. Knight, George doesn’t need to ask NatGeo to make this right. NatGeo doesn’t need to make this right. The people who did something WRONG are the ones who need to make things right. The people who wrote and passed these stupid unconstitutional ag-gag laws (that you support) need to make this right. The people at Brookover Ranch need to make this right. But of course they won’t.

  21. Thakur Dalip Singh Says:

    Thanks for publishing this storey and comments of others. it helps me to know these things. I am from india, doing lot of aerial photography in all countries. Not much in my country because here getting permission for aerial photography is almost impossible. Though I got it with difficulty.

  22. Thakur Dalip Singh Says:

    my websites: landscapesofindia.com, earthfromabove.net

  23. Dana Says:

    You know what? People need protein. They don’t need grain, they need protein. And they need *good-quality* protein that their bodies don’t have to waste resources working quite so hard to process. Plant proteins are *harsh* on the human body. Why? We’re not herbivores! It’s no more good for us to eat tons and tons of plant matter (some plants, yes… not *huge amounts* of them though) than it is for a raccoon or black bear to eat that way. We have way more small intestine than large intestine compared to other simian primates, and we MUST eat accordingly.

    So to paint this whole food war issue as being attributable to “humanity’s increasing appetite for protein” is just a scumbag thing to do. The issue of starvation in developing countries is an issue of protein deprivation primarily. I would *expect* there to be an increasing appetite for protein since there is an increasing *world population* as well. It’s that, or have a world human population that’s mostly suffering from stunted growth, mental illness, and drastically increased child mortality.

    But I agree we need to find more sustainable, humane solutions for meeting this protein need. Starting with a comparison of industrial feedlot operations against grassfed rancher operations that also finish their cattle on grass.

    Funny how that doesn’t seem to get a whole lot of attention. I wonder whose interests are served in ignoring it?

  24. Morgan Says:

    You have to ask yourself: are these agribusinesses owned and run by honest people who are proud of their facilities, methods and products? Or are they owned by evil people who have some wrongdoing to hide? If they were honest people, they would welcome photography, even photography by animal rights activists, and especially by a prestigious entity like National Geographic.

    Photography merely describes the visible facts, just what’s there to be seen. If what they’re doing is decent and presentable, why not show it? Their own actions suggest that they have something to hide. Their legal iron curtain suggests that what they are doing to the land and to the animals is so brutal, horrific and unsafe that the public can’t see it for fear of the backlash to their business.

    By the way, disparaging any business or product is legal, so long as the statement is truthful. That’s why we’ve always had laws about defamation which allow truth as a 100% defense. Otherwise, Consumer Reports would have been shut down a long time ago for all of their negative product reviews. But these agribusinesses have somehow got a totalitarian grip on free speech, so that the truth can’t be spoken or shown.

    And photography from the air and from public places is perfectly legal. Otherwise Google Maps would need permission from millions of people before publishing any satellite views or street views.

    How freaking sad is that Mr. Steinmetz got treated better in Iran and Yemen than in the USA? That is really screwed up. Brookover Ranch: you suck for doing this to him.

  25. Deveron Says:

    Unfortunately Dana, most of what you just said was either mere conjecture or pseudo-science.

    As you have made these statements: plant protein is “harsh on the human body”, “starvation in developing countries is an issue of protein deprivation, mainly”, “we MUST eat accordingly” because of the size of our intestines; the burden of proof falls on you. Defend your claims with some evidentiary materials. Show me the study which shows beyond reasonable doubt that humans “MUST” eat meat. Where are the repeated and exhaustive trials which have shown consistent negative effects from the exclusive consumption of plant proteins instead of animal proteins.

  26. Frank Says:

    Some people seem to be under the impression that these large operations still belong to the local “farmer or rancher”. Many of them belong to a corporation in a far off city and they make the rules. The rancher may have once owned the ranch but then he sold it to a corporation and became the caretaker, thus an employee enforcing the policies of the company, ie, no unauthorized persons on the property. Idaho’s legislature just passed a law, signed by the governor, that authorizes criminal tresspass charges for anyone taking unauthorized photos or video of agricultural operations.

  27. PJL: May 2014 (Part 1) - LightBox Says:

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  28. Hernan Zenteno Says:

    Ridiculous. And this happen in al places where there are something obscure. I am from Argentina and some years ago I never had permission to do photos in the port where there are loaded the ships with soy beans. We are between the first three exporters of that grain. But the thing that put all worse in the US is that in that state there are a law that allow those big owners of farming or cattle to not show what they are doing with the things that will be ate by citizens of the same country, this is not only ridiculous, is incredible.

  29. Ian Says:

    A couple of years ago in Florida they tried to make taking pictures of any agricultural property illegal, even if they were taken from public property like the Interstate. The scary thing is that the bill was killed in the Legislature is because they realized that it would also make it illegal for the police to photograph crime scenes on agricultural land.

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