Photo Of The Day

Photo: AJ Reynolds/ & The Athens Banner-Herald

Photo: AJ Reynolds/ & The Athens Banner-Herald

Imprisoned For Taking Photos

Apparently it’s illegal to take photos of certain things in UAE

The day started simply enough. Robert Alan Black stepped out of his Abu Dhabi hotel on the morning of Oct. 21, just as he?d done in so many other hotels in so many other cities for the previous 128 days. He didn’t know he wouldn’t be back.

Black, an Athens resident since the late 1970s, was in the United Arab Emirates to speak at a creative thinking conference and was due in Malaysia the next day. He didn?t make it.

He would instead be invited to climb into the back of a security truck ? no time to ask questions or to get any answers, the dress and demeanor of the men who?d come to collect him implied. A misunderstanding, he was sure. After all, he?d had permission to photograph the inside of that mosque; a young man outside had given his blessing. Black had not only photographed two mosques, but also a handful of houses and street scenes. It was something he?d done for nearly half a year ? a pledge to his health, and to walk somewhere new each day. It inspired him, and for a man in his 70s with the health problems that sometimes accompany the years, he needed the exercise.

It wasn’t the photos of the mosques that would get him in trouble, or the houses, but an innocuous photo of a secure area (he uses the vague term because he still doesn’t know why it?s secure, or what?s behind the wall).

His travels took him abroad frequently, and he?d never encountered legal trouble, or men with guns. A visitor, not a tourist, he did his best to tread lightly and go largely unnoticed.

?Why would I want to go somewhere else and live as an American?? he quipped in an interview.

So, without any way to anticipate the way the next 27 days would look like, he climbed into the truck. The only alarming thing, he thought, was the color of the truck ? shades of white and gray, a strange sight in the middle of the desert where he was used to sand-colored everything.

Questioned for hours, then released when his new acquaintances realized he posed no threat, he was told not to photograph secure areas and given back his camera. He saw a sign that said as much, he said, but he didn?t take it seriously.

It was the equivalent of a ?keep off the grass? or ?no flash photography? sign in the United States, he thought. Certainly he wouldn?t get himself in trouble if he broke the rules this one time. Certainly he wouldn?t be charged with a crime or taken to prison.

So he snapped the photo and moved on. The white and gray truck came back.

He was taken to the same place as before, and again questioned. The men took away his camera for good this time. Soon, he?d be handcuffed and shackled, a hood placed over his head.

?Standard procedure,? he was told.

After being booked into Al Wathba Prison, a relatively well-maintained facility, Black said, with a pecking order among the inmates he never quite figured out, he was placed in a cell with about a dozen other inmates.

?The offenses varied in severity, I?d say, but most of them were what we might consider here to be misdemeanors,? he said.

?I made a commitment to myself to not write anything down,? he said, to avoid incriminating himself. It wasn’t easy for a man used to recording his ideas and memories every day.

A week passed, and still he hadn’t heard from an attorney, or seen a judge, or even been charged with a crime. A friendly inmate who?d shared some cookies and given him a change of clothes when he?d first arrived, handed Black the phone. It was there for the use of the inmates during certain hours of the day, but Black had no way to reach the outside world because he didn’t know any local phone numbers. The other inmate?s wife was a welcome voice on the other end of the line, and offered to call a family member in the United States.

He had no way of knowing if he?d been missed. It wasn’t until he was released from prison on the 28th day ? after his first and only courtroom appearance, after signing a confession stating he took an illegal photograph but had no ill intent ? that he learned thousands of people had signed petitions and donated money to an online fundraising campaign to cover legal fees. As it turned out, his friend and colleague Rosemary Rein had been working tirelessly with several other people to drum up support. She acted as a media liaison and the case got worldwide media coverage.

?There?s no way he would do anything intentionally wrong or disrespectful,? Rein said about a week after Black was detained.

The Facebook group dedicated to keeping the world updated about his ordeal was named ?Friends of Alan Black.?

?I never realized how many friends I truly had,? he said.

He was released from Al Wathba on Nov. 18 and on his way back to the U.S. the day after his court appearance. The panel of three judges found him not guilty and waived a fine for time served. He was later told he got off easy.

?I’m grateful it happened there, instead of another country that wouldn’t have been as forgiving,? he said.

Black has spent the time since his return to Athens knocking around the idea of writing a book about his experience. He?s written to as many people who donated to his case as he could. He replaced the camera that was confiscated when he was arrested.

?I don?t think I would have wanted to see it again anyway,? he said.