L.A. Photographer Faces Criminal Charges for Documenting Graffiti
Documentary photographer Jonas Lara appears in L.A. County court tomorrow where he faces misdemeanor graffiti charges stemming from an arrest this past February. Prosecutors claim that Lara was acting as a lookout for two graffiti artists when all three men were arrested in South Central back on February 4, 2010. If convicted on the charges of aiding and abetting, he could serve up to a year in prison.
While Lara believed his case could be argued under the First Amendment, David Gottesmann, his former public defender, disagreed and the two parted company. To date, he has refused two plea deals and plead not guilty to the charges.
“At this point, I’m looking for an attorney who I can afford,” says Lara. “The fund raising has been going pretty well, but I’m still short of what I need. I’m definitely looking for someone who will be able to bring up the issues of First Amendment and photographer’s rights.”
What took Lara to South Central that night in February was a long-term documentary project he’s been working on — one focused on visual art. “[The project] involves documenting various artists of all disciplines,” he explains. “It just so happens that what these particular artists were doing was illegal. But I’ve photographed architects, art directors, graphic designers, illustrators, collage artists, and musicians. The idea to approach this subject came after I was taking a cultural anthropology class during my undergraduate studies [at Art Center College of Design] and I became interested in documenting subcultures.”
The stakes in this case are high. If convicted, not only will Lara face a year in prison, he’ll also be unable to pursue his MFA at the School of Visual Arts, where he’s slated to begin classes this September.
“I keep reading wild allegations on the Internet where people fantasize about my part in the graffiti,” says Lara. “For the record, I maintain neutrality in my work. I do not encourage, nor do I help plan or anything even remotely close to that. People keep asking if I knew [the taggers] would be there. Of course I knew. I don’t know how that translates into me being guilty of the crime of vandalism. Does a photojournalist with a magazine blindly drive around at night hoping that he stumbles on a story? No, he conducts research and receives tips on where a story might occur. The painting would have taken place regardless whether I was there or not.”