COMES NATURALLY #77 (November 20, 1998)
Copyright © 1998 David Steinberg
TO SHIP A PHOTOGRAPH:
CRAIG MOREY, NUDITY, AND DHL WORLWIDE EXPRESS
Photographer Craig Morey wanted to send four of his fine art prints to a publisher in England. He took them to the office of DHL Worldwide Express in Cincinnati, filled out the paperwork, and sent them on their way.
Morey is a well-known photographer whose work has been published and exhibited in many parts of the world, including Japan, Germany, France, Great Britain, Switzerland, and Scandinavia. Books of his work include "Studio Nudes," published in the U.S. in 1992 and "Linea," recently published in Japan. The main body of his work consists of elegant, somewhat stylized erotic nudes of women, together with similar portraits of men and women together. He favors conventionally attractive models, emotionally aloof, posed on draped platforms, artistically lit, meticulously printed in black and white. Sometimes Morey includes light bondage imagery -- models with their wrists or ankles stylishly bound with heavy cord or leather, models who are blindfolded, that kind of thing. The mood of his photos is consistently serene -- almost wistful -- rather than passionate or playful. Morey is not as well known as some fine art erotic photographers, but his work does get around. His prints sell to collectors for $350 to $700.
Shipping photographic prints abroad is standard operating procedure for Morey. He does it all the time and he has never had any difficulty as a result of the content or quality of his work. But Morey has, for the most part, shipped his work from the San Francisco Bay Area, where he has lived since the early 1970's. During a commercial project earlier this year, Morey temporarily relocated to Southern Ohio. Morey would be the first to tell you that Southern Ohio is a completely different world from San Francisco, but he didn't think the difference would affect something as mundane as his ability to ship copies of his work easily. Not until last May, that is.
Two days after Morey gave his prints to DHL, his package was mysteriously returned to him. There was no explanation and, aside from the fact that it had obviously been opened and examined, Morey had no idea what was going on. Perplexed, he called DHL, and spoke to a woman named Jeannie in Customer Service. Jeannie informed him that the photos had been determined by DHL to be pornographic. "DHL does not handle pornography," she informed him curtly.
Morey was surprised at the reaction from DHL. The four prints in question were hardly controversial. Two were classic nudes. In one, a is woman standing, seen from behind, not showing her breasts, her genitals, or her face. The other is a shot of a woman's legs with her hand between them. The two remaining photographs were stylized bondage shots. One showed a woman in a leather corset and collar, her wrists bound and raised over her head. The other was of the same woman kneeling, blindfolded, her wrists bound behind her being pulled, not forcefully, to the side by a chain.
The photos are one step beyond standard fashion photography in that the women's breasts are bare, but they are very much in a style familiar to the advertising that appears in the world's slick, mainstream, glamour monthlies. The photographs would never be deemed legally obscene in the United States. Even the more stringent obscenity criteria of Great Britain -- where Morey's prints were headed -- permit publication and distribution of photos such as these, as a wide variety of photographers, including Morey himself, have found many times before.
Trying to understand what it was about his photographs that DHL considered objectionable, Morey asked Jeannie -- and eventually her supervisor, John Corrigan, Operations Manager for DHL in Cincinnati -- for clarification. What about the photos made them pornographic in DHL's eyes? Was it the nudity? The bondage? The tone of the photos? Was there a DHL policy on what constituted pornography? Or was it simply that Jeannie, or Corrigan, or someone else who had inspected Morey's parcel simply was offended by his work? Morey says he was unable to get any explanation beyond a reiteration that the photos had been declared by DHL to be pornographic and therefore undeliverable. When he asked for a written statement of DHL's policy on pornography, Morey was told that none was available. According to Morey, throughout the interaction both Jeannie and Corrigan were "rude and unprofessional." "I have nothing else to say to you," Morey says he was told when he tried to persist.
How does an international courier service like DHL determine what material is legally obscene according to statutes of the United States, or according to the laws of some foreign destination country? Is it required, appropriate, or even legal, for a private corporation to make its own judgments on these matters, rather than leaving such issues to police authorities domestically, or to customs officials abroad? Is an international courier entitled to restrict the material they handle and ship based on what they, or their employees, find objectionable, separate from whether that material is or is not legally obscene in the United States or a country to which it is being shipped? With any of these screening procedures, how does a shipping company determine what material it will and will not handle, and how does that company then communicate those criteria to the hundreds of individuals scattered across the country who must then make specific decisions to accept or reject the individual packages they find in their hands?
Trying to find answers to these questions as they apply specifically to DHL, I was passed uncomfortably (DHL's discomfort, not mine) from one DHL office to another until I gratefully found someone who was willing to talk to me about these issues. That turned out to be one David Fonkelsrud, a DHL public relations specialist located not in Cincinnati, Dallas, or some other Bible Belt capitol, but in San Carlos, California, a suburb in the heart of hedonistic Northern California.
I am glad to be talking to Fonkelsrud. He sounds like a reasonable sort of guy, sympathetic to, or at the least willing to take seriously, my concern about the potential for abuse and arbitrary action in matters such as these. Maybe I give him too much credit. Maybe he's just a skillful PR professional who knows better than to challenge or rankle an upset customer or an inquiring reporter. But I give him the benefit of the doubt. Like I say, I'm glad to have finally found someone at DHL willing to talk to me at all.
"DHL is governed by the customs regulations of all the countries we ship to," Fonkelsrud begins, reasonably enough. "There are differences in the customs regulations of different countries," he continues. "We reserve the right, as do all private express carriers, to open and inspect the contents of any shipment."
I tell David Fonkelsrud that I understand all this, that I'm not challenging DHL's right to inspect packages. What I want to know is why DHL, in the case of Craig Morey's non-descript folder of photographs, put itself in the business of trying to decide what British customs would or would not consider obscene or objectionable, instead of simply letting British customs decide for themselves.
At first Fonkelsrud makes the case that DHL is merely trying to protect the interests of its customers. "We do it as a customer service," he says. "If a customer were to send a package and have it rejected by customs [in some foreign country], we would have to make the customer pay for the return shipping of the package." He pauses as if he has just said something of considerable weight.
I tell Fonkelsrud that I don't believe this is really DHL's primary concern. I point out that Craig Morey -- and probably other customers as well -- would certainly prefer to pay return shipping in the unlikely event that his photographs were rejected by British customs, rather than be unable to ship his package at all. Given that passing judgment on what is and is not pornographic is a fairly complex matter, I ask Fonkelsrud again why DHL interjects itself into the process at all. "Why," I ask, "don't you just ship the package and let British customs decide what they will and won't allow into their country? If you thought there might be a question about certain photographs, you could even alert customs, to show that you are cooperating with them, and ask them for their judgment."
Fonkelsrud admits that "it's always a very touchy issue because these questions can be subject to interpretation," but defends DHL's taking what he calls "a fairly conservative approach" because it smoothes DHL's relationship with customs officials. "It would reflect negatively on DHL," he claims, if DHL were to ship packages that ended up being rejected or seized by customs. "We would," he claims flatly, "lose our credibility." In contrast, he says, pre-screening "enables us to maintain a strong relationship with customs overseas. If they know we pre-screen, they don't scrutinize our shipments as closely as they would otherwise, and that saves customers cost and time."
"DHL is not in the business of testing the bounds of foreign customs restrictions," he says several times. He maintains (incorrectly, as it turns out) that "DHL has a legal obligation to insure that shipments in its networks are in compliance with foreign customs laws and restrictions."
"Many countries, such as the UK, have prohibitions on the importation of pornography. Since the shipment in question contained nude photography, it fell into this category." Nudity equals pornography. End of story.
I explain to Fonkelsrud that neither current interpretation of American law nor current British customs policy equates nudity with pornography. He seems surprised to hear this and, I think doesn't believe me. He repeats his belief that "a naked photograph would more than likely be considered pornography." Presumably, in this case, he means that nudity would be considered pornography by British customs. "After 25 years of operating in this business," he tries to assure me, "we have a good understanding of customs regulations in other countries." I explain in return that I also have a good deal of experience shipping erotic photographs to many countries around the world, including Britain, and that while the photographs involving bondage are more questionable, there is no country in Western Europe that considers nude photography to be inherently pornographic." Fonkelsrud is unimpressed.
"Let me be absolutely clear," I say, trying to force him to acknowledge the extremity of what he is saying. "You're telling me that no one can ship a nude photograph of any kind to the UK via DHL."
"That's right," Fonkelsrud confirms, unfazed.
"What about nude photographs shipped within the US?" I ask, taking the absurdity a step further.
"The same procedure would apply," Fonkelsrud insists.
"What about written material?" I ask, going yet a step a further.
DHL, says Fonkelsrud, would apply the same "conservative approach" to any written material that could possibly be considered pornographic.
When I ask Fonkelsrud how DHL personnel are supposed to understand not only the subtle generic differences between pornography and erotica, but also how these subtleties will be interpreted by a particular customs official on a particular morning in a particular office somewhere in London, Fonkelsrud refuses to answer. He has had enough of me for one afternoon.
"We don't disclose [the details of how we enforce these policies]," he says, "because we don't want to communicate that information to people who are attempting to get around our procedures." He does tell me that training in these matters is developed in conjunction with DHL's legal department, and that it the training is given to all service and operations personnel, management, and individual couriers as well.
So, as far as DHL is concerned, it's no nude photographs whatsoever, no books that are so much as semi-risqué. Not for shipment overseas; not for shipment within the United States. Presumably that means DHL will never ship any illustrated art history books either, although I failed to inquire specifically about those. Absurd? Indeed. Inconvenient? Definitely. Censorship? Well, that's another matter. There are, after all, other carriers. Or are there?
What about the other large express shipping companies? Craig Morey tells me that after his confrontation with DHL, he took the same photos to Federal Express, and they arrived safely at his publisher's office in London the next day, bright and early, just like any other package -- no questions asked, no hassles, no inspections -- neither from FedEx nor from British customs.
Indeed Federal Express policy turns out to be the very opposite of DHL's, belying Fonkelsrud claim that common carriers have "a legal obligation to insure that shipments... are in compliance with foreign customs laws and restrictions.") Larisse Woods, an international customer service representative at FedEx, explains to me lightly that Federal Express never opens, inspects, or attempts to pre-screen packages, neither for domestic nor for international shipment. Even if a customer were to advise FedEx that they were shipping photographs that might be problematic in terms of being deemed pornographic, she says, FedEx would leave it entirely up to customs officials of the destination country to decide what they would or would not allow into that country. Fine art nudes, she assures me casually, would definitely not be a problem. Material that was legally obscene would be another matter, but Federal Express would not presume to determine what is or is not legally obscene separate from governmental authorities.
United Parcel Service, on the other hand, apparently has a policy that is fully as intrusive and restrictive as DHL's. According to Mary Ellen Brinson, a manager in the San Antonio UPS Customer Service Department who is more than a little reluctant to answer my questions, nude photographs of any sort would be rejected out of hand by UPS, just like DHL.
I try my up-against-your-policy confrontation one more time, this time remembering to use the art textbook example.
"So you're telling me," I demand in my most incredulous tone of voice, "that UPS would not, for example, accept an art history textbook that included a photograph of a 16th-century painting of a nude?" I'm ferrying questions to Manager Brinson through a cooperative customer service underling who keeps failing to get Brinson to actually talk to me herself.
"That's correct," I'm told.
"Are there written criteria by which UPS personnel determine what material is acceptable and what is objectionable?" I persist.
Ms. Brinson passes word that UPS does not have any fixed criteria, that it would be up to each individual UPS worker to decide what he or she thought was proper and improper, pornographic and non-pornographic, for both domestic and international shipments.
The people I spoke with at the American Civil Liberties Union did not have detailed information on whether common carriers like DHL, Federal Express, and UPS have completely free reign to determine which materials and customers they will deal with and which they will reject. I was told quite clearly, however, that there is no First Amendment guarantees that extend to private companies such as express package carriers.
So the bottom line seems to be, "Thank God for Federal Express." Could be a great TV commercial. Opening shot of a decidedly middle-of-the-road, middleaged woman looking appreciatively at a life-size reproduction of Michaelangelo's "David." She turns and faces the camera. "I wanted to send this poster home from Europe to my son who's studying Renaissance Art, but DHL and UPS said it was pornographic. If it weren't for Federal Express, I would have missed his birthday entirely." Cut to shot of Federal Express plane flying into the sunset, then her son unrolling the poster and beaming appreciatively, while a voice over announces, "Federal Express: We take care of the shipping and leave questions of taste up to you."
[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see www.spectator.net). If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at firstname.lastname@example.org. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]
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