TSA warns you to report photographers

I like to take pictures. A lot of my friends like to take pictures. Sometimes, we even like to take pictures of things like airplanes. You might call us hobbyists, photo enthusiasts, or just photographers. But now, thanks to a new campaign from the Transportation Security Administration, there’s something else you can call us: terrorists. Yep, that’s right, gang, it’s time for another round of Security Theater Will Not Actually Make You Safer, starring the TSA and a bunch of scary, scary people armed with cameras.

Via Carlos Miller’s Photography Is Not A Crime site and Reason Magazine comes word of a TSA poster apparently designed to encourage passers-by to report suspicious photographers–helpfully shown wearing dark pants and hooded sweatshirts–to the police. Sigh. Really, TSA?

The poster is actually part of a larger campaign encouraging airport employees “to be vigilant about general aviation security and report any unusual activities to TSA.” In the video accompanying the campaign (scroll down on the link above), its clear the scary photographer person is actually meant to be lurking outside a gate, and the message to airport employees is to make sure the gate is secure. In context, directed at small-airport employees, it makes sense. And the TSA, pioneers of behavioral detection analysis, certainly seems to a grasp of the fact that that in some instances, context is everything.

So what’s with this poster? Why would they strip it of all its context and send it around the country apparently ignorant of the message its sending? The TSA is playing into the irrational fears photographers deal with every day, especially here in DC, home to every kind of federal structure you can imagine and an army of private and federal officers guarding them. A security guard who has seen that poster is going to feel justified in pushing a photographer away from a federal building or a national landmark or National Airport or Gravelly Point, because his own government–his BOSS–is telling him to fear the photography threat.

After the poster made the rounds yesterday, drawing complaints from photographers, TSA quickly crafted a response in which they acknowledged the critics, saying, “Some felt this poster didn’t go far enough in distinguishing between general photography and suspicious surveillance activity.” No, TSA, it didn’t. Photographers especially know the power of an image, and the image in that poster made no distinction at all between general photography and suspicious surveillance activity. Maybe if he’d been wearing a pink hoodie instead?

There was a small ray of hope in the TSA blog post, though, when Blogger Bob made the point–argued by photographers all around this city and beyond–that “many photographers would be prime candidates to use such vigilance programs to report suspicious activity since they’re extremely observant of their surroundings.” That’s actually a really great point and one I’d like to see on a poster and hung in the break rooms of every federal building in this city.

From the TSA security video

I cannot believe that we have to continually point this out to the people who are in charge of our national security, but here it goes again: there has not been a single documented instance in which a terrorist or someone accused of involvement in a terrorist plot surveilled a location with a camera before carrying out that plot. NONE. ZERO. You are making up this threat. To quote from Bruce Schneier, a security expert who wrote on the topic in 2008:

The 9/11 terrorists didn’t photograph anything. Nor did the London transport bombers, the Madrid subway bombers, or the liquid bombers arrested in 2006. Timothy McVeigh didn’t photograph the Oklahoma City Federal Building. The Unabomber didn’t photograph anything; neither did shoe-bomber Richard Reid. Photographs aren’t being found amongst the papers of Palestinian suicide bombers. The IRA wasn’t known for its photography. Even those manufactured terrorist plots that the US government likes to talk about — the Ft. Dix terrorists, the JFK airport bombers, the Miami 7, the Lackawanna 6 — no photography.

Below is a collection of photos taken at or near Gravelly Point, a favorite spot of athletes, picnickers and, yes, photographers, with a great view of the planes landing and taking off at National Airport. Next time you’re over there, make sure you’ve got the police on speed dial. Wouldn’t want anyone suspicious to get away, now would we?

Photo courtesy of
courtesy of ‘Kevin H.’

Photo courtesy of
‘US Airways 737 Taking Off’
courtesy of ‘Mr. T in DC’

Photo courtesy of

courtesy of ‘KentonNgo’

Photo courtesy of
‘De Plane, Daddy!’
courtesy of ‘flipperman75’

Photo courtesy of
‘Here for a moment’
courtesy of ‘karthikkito’

Photo courtesy of
courtesy of ‘bhrome’

Photo courtesy of
‘Gravelly Point – To Fly – 12-29-08’
courtesy of ‘mosley.brian’

Photo courtesy of
‘planes and sun flare’
courtesy of ‘needlessspaces’

Erin McCann

Erin takes pictures. Lots of them. And then she tweets about them.

18 thoughts on “TSA warns you to report photographers

  1. This article is written with a lot of psuedo-drama. It reminds me of the website white whine.com

    Note the difference between taking a photo of the ground and loading areas of an airport and the photos that show an aircraft in flight. Photographing anything around an airport that isn’t a plane flying IS a shady activity. Why bother pretending that this is going to lead to unmitigated profiling of hobby flight photographers like you? It seems for the sake of hyperbole.

    I shouldn’t even bother noting that the argument of “no one took photos before” doesn’t allow for new precedent.

    Anything that makes TSA do their job more vigilantly is a good thing for me, as I’m a frequent flier. Quit giving readers a reason to make them think that global scale security best practices are less important than each of their own hobbies!

  2. I have long thought that all of these security rules and regs are written by people who grew up reading and watching movies about World War II, where every little thing was considered a target.
    I was stopped once for being in a field with a camera looking for birds. There was an apartment high-rise a quarter mile away and the police officer thought that it was suspicious because he assumed I was taking pictures of the building.

    People who visit an area regularly just to observe (photographers, birders,etc.) are more likely to notice something suspicious or amiss than, say, some folks wrapped up in a soccer game.

    Everyone has to wait until the plane gets off the ground to take a picture? What is this? Duck hunting? Airports and airport operations hold much fascination for many people. Anything out there can be described in writing or sketched out.
    And this isn’t hyperbole given last year’s fight over taking pictures in Union Station, an historic structure with many interesting architectural details worthy of photography.

    In the Union Station incidents up to 3 or 4 security guards would go an confront the “suspicious” photographer, an approach which always made me wonder who was guarding the rest of the building from actual crimes.

  3. “Photographing anything around an airport that isn’t a plane flying IS a shady activity.”

    This is dumbest statement I’ve ever seen.

  4. Whoever designed the poster failed in their attempt to make airport employees more vigilant. It’s an awful ad. Not only does the poster fail to communicate its message it also riles up ordinary citizens, reinforcing the view that the TSA is a giant, clueless bureaucracy.

    “Don’t let our planes get into the wrong hands.” How does a photographer behind a fence endanger a plane?

    Instead, why not show somebody on the other side of the fence, walking toward the plane? Or, even better, someone in a pilot’s uniform with a fake badge, like Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can. Airport staff should be looking for people on the tarmac who don’t belong there, not hobbyist photographers in public areas.

    The call to action is vague – “call local law enforcement”? Shouldn’t the poster be customized for individual airports, with more specific contact info?

    Even a totally hammered Don Draper could come up with something better than this!

  5. @ Timothy: I realize you are taking a position that emphasizes caution. But please take a moment and think about this: if you aren’t supposed to take pictures of something, than why have any part of this something (airport; bridge; building; whatever) be seen from a publiclly accessible location? Hundreds of people walking by, looking at what we are being told is dangerous if a photograph is being taken of it. That doesn’t sound like good security to me.

    And there are a large number of security experts who feel “common practices” by the TSA are a waste of time and make everyone less safe. The refrain I keep hearing is “looking for things and not looking for threats”. This poster comes off to me as looking for things (taking pictures), rather than looking for threats (unusual behavor). And taking pictures of airplanes, as soon by the pictures above, is not unusual behavor.

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  8. the statement about ‘Photographing anything around an airport that isn’t a plane flying IS a shady activity’ is plausible, sure. if you have absolutely no imagination whatsoever.

    c’mon, timothy. fear is not progressive. well for fascism, sure, art not so much. leave the visionary stuff up to us.

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  11. The poster says report it – not that it is illegal or that the photographers are suspected terrorists. Its valuable for tsa, police, etc to have some human intel on what is happening – maybe they’re looknig for something or someone, or they want to catalog a baseline…

    stop the panicking… no one said you’ be arrested for taking photos.

  12. I’m curious. Was the photographer who took the picture of the ‘hooded’ photographer taking the photo, absconded and hauled off to jail for questioning? Rohn Engh -photosource.com