Follow-Up on the SWAT Office and Little Boy Photo


After I posted the image of the SWAT officer and the little boy on Monday (with comments at The Agitator), the photographer who snapped the picture, Justin Cook, sent me an angry email. I called him, and we chatted for about an hour. His contention was that I and many other people around the Internet had taken the picture out of context. He said the moment he captured was a tender, humane one. I replied that my original post drew no conclusions about what happened on that particular raid, only that the picture effectively captured many of the absurdities of the drug war, and the increasingly militaristic way we police it.

Though our phone conversation did at least end cordially after beginning somewhat hostilely, it's safe to say that we still disagree. Cook initially accused me of libeling him and violating his copyright. The former is absurd. The latter is bit more murky, so I agreed to take the image down from the Reason site and from my personal blog, and to replace it with a link to the photography competition that's hosting it.

I also invited Cook to write a response that I promised I would post here and at The Agitator, with an ensuing response from me. Here it is:

As a photojournalist there will always be criticism, wild distortion and gross speculation over the content of my images. While I must have a thick skin, I feel it necessary share my side of the story at times. There is not much for me to say other than that during a chaotic day, this one moment was an ironic sliver of compassion and humanity. You were not there for this event and simply the reality of what this image stands for is not congruent with your stance. While I do not want my image associated with your views and opinions, that seems inescapable at this point. I do however completely support your freedom of speech.


I am not going to argue with you further. I see your point and consider your efforts admirable. However my real, authentic experiences (which you seem to disregard) lead me to disagree whole-heartedly with your own conclusions. I feel that no matter what I say here you will use it to further assert your point and diminish my image and the events I witnessed. This is a losing battle for me and I am gracefully bowing out. But I do want to thank you for numerous things. Thank you for taking the image down – the use was unauthorized and likely falls under copyright infringement. In the future if you continue to champion the cause of the common man, remember to respect the laws that protect my rights as a photographer as well. Thank you for unknowingly increasing my notoriety as a photojournalist; creating an uproar like this means that I must be doing meaningful work. And finally, thank you for your efforts at being a watchdog even though we agree to disagree.

From our conversation, I surmised that part of Cook's concern was that he was given some pretty remarkable access to the Durham SWAT team, particularly for a college student. And he's still quite supportive of what they do. As the person who took the picture, he feared that people, including his contacts at the police department, might mistakenly attribute my and others' comments on the picture for his opinion. So I'm happy to give him the opportunity to say he doesn't agree with the way I see that picture.

He saw it as a tender moment, where a SWAT officer took a little boy in to pee after a raid on a suspected drug dealer. I made no judgments about the particular officer in the picture, and I didn't make any conclusions about the merits of this particular raid, except for the usual objections to dynamic entry raids for nonviolent drug offenses, particularly when there's a child inside (I did note that the Durham police department has been involved with mistaken raids in the past, and I commented on one particularly disturbing sentence in the description that went along with the picture -- both fair game, I think). I thought the picture was a striking example of just how far the government will go to stop people from getting high, and that the image more generally wasn't one I associate with a free society.

As for the specific raid that led to that photo, Cook says he doesn't remember if any drugs or weapons were seized. He says he seems to remember a woman being taken to jail, but he isn't sure. He says the little boy and his mother were inside at the time of the raid, but didn't live in the home. The boy's mother was not the woman arrested. I did make efforts to contact Cook to get those details prior to posting the picture, including emailing the editor of the college paper he worked for, checking Internet phone listings, and checking information for the state of North Carolina. Turns out, he's currently in Florida, interning with the St. Petersburg Times.

Finally, I would certainly agree that Cook has done some meaningful work, even if in ways he doesn't necessarily intend. It's really an amazing picture. He also has an impressive portfolio, particularly for someone just out of college.

NOTE:  Here's the original set of photos , when they first appeared on Cook's blog.