James Prigoff, a 76-year-old photographer and former Senior Vice President of the Sara Lee Corporation, had no idea what he was getting himself into when he strolled into Boston back in 2004 to snap a couple photos of an outdoor art piece. Prignoff (now 86 years old) recently wrote a statement as a plaintiff in an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the government's "Suspicious Activity Reporting" program. In the statement, Prigoff shares a story about the time FBI counterterrorism agents tracked him down for taking a photo of Corita Kent's Rainbow Swash (above), a work painted on a gasoline storage tank in the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester. The piece is known as the "world's largest copyrighted work of art," so getting the photo was not as easy as the photographer had hoped it would be.
Of the now 10-year-old incident, Prigoff says, "I went to Dorchester, Mass., to photograph it, but before I could take a picture, I was confronted by two security guards who came through their gate and told me I could not because the tank was on private property." He argued that there are pictures of the piece online, and that he was outside of the gate and therefore not actually on private property.
The photographer goes on to say that a few months after the incident, things got weird. "I found a business card on the front door of my home in Sacramento from Agent A. Ayaz of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, asking me to call him. One of my neighbors, an elderly woman, told me that two men wearing suits had come to her door to ask her about me, her neighbor...When I called Agent Ayaz, he asked if I had been in Boston recently." Prigoff knew then what must have happened after his conversation with the two men at the gate. "At that moment I realized that the security guards at the Rainbow Swash site must have taken down the rental car license plate number and reported me to a law enforcement agency. I never gave the guards any information about myself, so I must have been traced across country via my rental car record."
Prigoff and the ACLU are fighting to have the program, under which he was redflagged as a potential threat, ended completely. "I lived through the McCarthy era," he adds, "so I know how false accusations, surveillance, and keeping files on innocent people can destroy their careers and lives. I am deeply troubled that the SAR program may be recreating that same climate of false accusation and fear today."
Excuse us while we go burn a few memory cards.