Iranian-American's patriotic roadtrip targeted by authorities
One photographer's journey to discover America turned into something out of The Twilight Zone when authorities became suspicious and began tailing him from state to state and questioning his motivations.
Ramak Fazel, an Iranian-born American citizen who arrived in this country at the age of 2 months, was inspired to take a patriotic road trip when his mother dug his old stamp collection out of the attic in their Fort Wayne, Indiana home and told him to do something with it. When a dealer offered him less than $1000 for the collection, he decided to turn it into an artistic project instead.
According to CNN, Fazel "spent the next three months criss-crossing America, visiting every state capital. He would snap a picture and then make a postcard decorated with stamps from his collection."
Fazel mailed each of the postcards to himself, using the artistically arranged patterns of stamps as ordinary postage. "That's when I felt that this collection had been liberated, when I was using it in that way," he told CNN.
All went without incident until Fazel reached Tallahassee, FL, where a police car followed him through the city. Then in Jackson, MS, he was ordered out of his van by police, forced to the pavement, and handcuffed while his vehicle was searched. In Anapolis, MD, he was held without explanation for four hours and read his Miranda rights by agents who tried to speak to him in Farsi.
After that, Fazel passed through a "gauntlet" of state and federal agents in 15 different states, but "it was only towards the end of the trip that the pieces started fitting together."
"In Kentucky, one of the state police officers ... was a bit sympathetic," Fazel told CNN. "He showed me a document that had a detailed description of a conversation I had had earlier during the trip on a flight from Sacramento to Honolulu with a passenger sitting next to me." That woman had apparently become alarmed by Fazal's description of his project and notified authorities.
Fazel told CNN that although he couldn't help feeling paranoid, he tried not to let the surveillance bother him. "I was so intensely concentrated that I couldn't let that become too much of a distraction," he said. "I have great confidence in our systems and our institutions and I felt that in some way, I would have to be protected. ... There was a limit to how much really could happen to me."
Fazel has since filed Freedom of Information requests to try to find out exactly what happened. Meanwhile, his collection of postcards is on display at a New York City art gallery.
This video is from CNN's American Morning, broadcast January 23, 2008.