This is a story you are not going to believe.
It concerns an 86 year old retired senior American corporate executive called James Prigoff.
Mr Prigoff is a with it sort of guy with impressive credentials. He was the former president of a division of Levi Strauss the jeans manufacturer and previously the senior vice president of the Sara Lee Corporation in Chicago. Mr Prigoff also happens to be a professional photographer. In fact, he has been a photographer for most of his life. His speciality is photographing murals, graffiti art, and other pieces of community public art. He’s also co-authored three books based on the many photographs he has taken, one of which, Spraycan Art, sold more than 200,000 copies. His photographs have appeared in many other publications and his photography has been exhibited at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington and in many other galleries. Mr Prigoff has also given lectures on photography and public art in museums, universities, and venues worldwide. He knows his stuff.
It’s a lifestyle he clearly loves but it’s one that got him into serious trouble.
Trouble that started when he attempted to photograph the “Rainbow Swash” outside Boston in 2004.
For those of you who may not know, the Rainbow Swash is an iconic piece of public art painted in 1971 on the circumference of a 140-foot or 45 metre high liquefied natural gas storage tank and repainted in 1992. It is actually one of the largest copyrighted pieces of art in the world. The original artist was Korita Kent.
Now how could doing that get Mr Prigoff into so much trouble you might ask?
Mr Prigoff went to Dorchester, Massachusetts., to photograph the storage tank. But before he could take his photograph, he was confronted by two security guards who came through their gate and told him he couldn’t take pictures because the tank was on private property.
When he pointed out that he was taking his photographs in a public place well outside the fenced area, and was not on private property – they insisted he leave.
Mr Prigoff not wanting to cause offence or confrontation did what he was asked. That should have been the end of the matter.But it wasn’t.
A few months later, Mr Prigoff discovered a business card on the front door of his home in Sacramento from someone called Agent A. Ayaz of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, asking Mr Prigoff to call him.
In fact one of Mr Prigoff’s neighbours, an elderly woman, later told him that two men wearing suits had come to her door to ask her about her neighbour.
Armed with this information, James Prigoff did what most curious people might do if they found themselves in that situation.
He called Agent Ayaz.
What followed was a very strange conversation. Agent Ayaz asked Mr Prigoff if he had been in Boston recently. It was at that moment that it suddenly dawned on him why they might be asking those kinds of questions.
Mr Prigoff realized that the security guards at the Rainbow Swash site must have taken down the car license plate number of his rental and reported him to a law enforcement agency.
There could be no other possible explanation.Mr Prigoff never gave the security guards any information about himself, so clearly he must have been traced across country through his rental car record.
But why would they bother? Well the answer is frighteningly simple even if it makes no sense.
Even though James Prigoff might have been a professional photographer taking a photo of a well-known Boston landmark according to the Joint Terrorism Task force what he was doing was considered to be engaging in suspicious terrorist activity.
Mr Prigoff said : ” I lived through the McCarthy era, 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 Government may be recreating that same climate of false accusation and fear today.”
James Prigoff aged 86 says photography is an important part of his life, and what’s more he plans to keep photographing public art and public places – like he has been doing for the past 69 years.
He can’t understand why his legitimate artistic pursuits landed him on a national database potentially linking him to “terrorist” activities”
He says there is no reason for it. He is absolutely right about that.