Will They Ever Learn?

A watchful eye
Originally uploaded by afagen

I’m downtown DC this evening photographing some buildings as the sun sets. It’s a great night to shoot reflections on windows, something I enjoy in photographing buildings. And I’m making my way towards L’Enfant Plaza to begin heading home and there’s a perfect shot of the Dept. of Transportation building’s windows being intersected by its neighbor. A great mirroring image. So I stop, fiddle with my settings, set my stance, and begin photographing.

Well, it’s a long story but I’ll keep it short. Basically, one of the DoT security guys tells me in broken English that I cannot photograph the building unless I have a permit. I explain I’m on public property and can take pictures at will. I explained – repeatedly – that I’m an amateur photographer and take architectural photos. He says I can’t take the pictures. I ask to see where such a policy is written. He calls the supervisor.

Now, the supervisor was a nice guy. He seemed a bit confused as well, but I patiently explained that I didn’t need a permit to photograph. His counter? “Well, you know, terrorists walk around, taking pictures, plotting stuff. You could be one. So we can’t let you do that.”

Um, yeah, ok. Not. (I hardly look like a terrorist, people.) I explained the whole public property deal, told him I appreciated him doing his job – but that he was misinformed about photographing public buildings. There’s no permit required, nor do I need “permission.” Going inside? Different story. So we exchanged info – yeah, I cooperated because there’s no need to be a tool here – and then I went on my merry way after we shook hands. It certainly wasn’t a Union Station experience.

Unfortunately, the sun set and I lost the light. Oh well. At least someone got an education tonight.

Ain’t DC grand?

Having lived in the DC area for ten years, Ben still loves to wander the city with his wife, shooting lots of photos and exploring all the latest exhibits and galleries. A certified hockey fanatic, he spends some time debating the Washington Capitals club with friends – but everyone knows of his three decade love affair with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

A professional writer, gamer, photographer, and Lego enthusiast, Ben remains captivated by DC and doesn’t plan on leaving any time soon.

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28 thoughts on “Will They Ever Learn?

  1. They always pick out the people using SLRs, because clearly terrorists always use big honking lenses and don’t attempt to hide their activities while taking pictures of buildings whose photos are already all over the internet. A Photographer’s Rights printout is useful to pass around in this case.

    I love the photo because that’s the Ron Paul March in the background and you can see the “READ ATLAS SHRUGGED” guy just left of center, also seen in Wonkette’s photos.

  2. It sounds like you handled the situation well.

    Have you ever heard any report that terrorists walked around photographing their targets beforehand? I mean a real report, not a movie plot. I don’t think so.

    Bruce Schneier, a respected expert who testified before the 9/11 Commission and the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the US, has some good articles about how this type of restriction on photography is misplaced “security theater”, in addition to being illegal.

  3. Oh, I so wanted to give a smart-assed reply to the whole “terrorists taking photos” comment, but I’m not that mean to people I don’t know. Especially guys in uniform, no matter how ill-informed.

    Sadly, it’s more a reflection on the poor quality of factual education and reliance on fearful paranoidial gossip these days, all in the name of “security.” I can’t fault them for trying to do their job, but I wish employers – private and public – would do a better job of educating and training their employees.

    Best advice I can give to others who fall into the same situation? Be calm, be professional, and don’t be a tool when responding.

  4. I don’t know, Ben. Wouldn’t a terrorist want to pose with cute cats to make himself look more innocent? We should probably round up everyone who has cute cats.

    This is nonsense, but good for you for being polite about it. I am more the confrontational type, as you may have guessed from this piece. Your way is probably better. thruhike98 is right, referring to it as security theater. Denying people their rights does not make us safer.

  5. You left out the part of the story when you ripped open your shirt, exposing 20 sticks of dynamite strapped to your body. I think that’s a pretty key detail.

  6. I agree with Sid. Even a terrorist heart would be warmed a bit by a fluffy kitten.

    What exactly does a terrorist “look like” anyway?

  7. Apparently, me. Because I am totally freaky looking with my engineer boots, faded jeans, Hanes T-shirt, backpack, mp3 player and SLR camera (with 200mm lens). I mean, if that doesn’t describe a terrorist, what does?

    Kidding aside, I think he was (sadly) just responding in rote; I just found it extremely funny that I got painted with that brush…

  8. Ahhh…living in the Securitocracy.

    Although this is a particularly egregious example of securi-noia run amok. No photography of federal buildings? I don’t mind guys just “doing their job”, but they’ve got to receive better training than this. If these guys honestly thought that taking pictures of a federal building is illegal, then something has gone horribly wrong with the way the federal government trains and educates its employees. Taking pictures is the only thing half the people who visit the city end up doing anyway.

  9. I don’t think it has anything to do with situations or appearances anymore, “because of terrorism” has become the default refrain for why law enforcement does anything anymore.

    On my more empathetic days I feel somewhat understanding; becoming the victim of random violence is scary in large part because there’s little we can do about it. What could anyone in the World Trade Center have done to avoid their fate short of living in the woods in a shack? No reason to believe law enforcement is any different – these folks want to feel they’re doing something, and obsessing over photo-takers gives them an activity.

    Unfortunately it’s an activity akin to walking through Manhattan beating on a trash can lid in order to keep the bears away. It does nothing but annoy everyone else and allows them to say that it must be working because they don’t see any bears.

  10. Did you get *his* information as well? I think it’s always important to follow up with a letter to someone at the agency/building. At the very least, I wouldn’t give my personal information to someone suspecting me of being a “terrorist” simply because I have a camera, given how security agencies often mishandle information, without making the situation equitable by getting their information also.

  11. Good deal, Ben. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton might be a good CC on any letter of concern you may send, given her interest in DC having jurisdiction over its own city’s public property, and given her committee positions regarding both Transportation and Homeland Security.

  12. Let’s see how long it takes them to put you on the no-fly list Ben. Want to set up a betting pool?

  13. You can get a good legal point of view on this week’s http://www.photoshopusertv.com/. In this episode they discuss such a topic as taking pictures from a public location and of government buildings. In fact, there are laws governing taking pictures from a public location of government buildings. I highly recommend watching this week’s episode.


  14. what does a terrorist look like? why couldn’t a white person look like a terrorist?

    seems like the average white person would be a perfect terrorist – the police wouldn’t expect it.

  15. “I hardly look like a terrorist.” What the hell does how you look, which naturally relates to ethnicity or race, have to do with whether or not you’re actually a terrorist or a threat?!

    Limiting violations of liberties only to people who look a certain way is hardly an improvement. I realize you tossed that remark in as an aside, but maybe you should give a bit more thought to the implications that lurk behind it.

  16. I’ll grant you that, sure. But how do you think that guard made *his* assumption? There was another person half a block down from me photographing the Education building as well as Transportation – only he was an older white man with a point-and-shoot. Me? I’m a darker skinned Native with an SLR.

    So apparently, the guard went based on looks. Because that older white gentleman wasn’t yelled at from across the street to come over to him “immediately.” Only me.

    I offered to let them search my bag, look at my camera photos, etc. All politely refused. They had every opportunity to check me out; instead, I’m told a lame excuse as to why I can’t photograph and then it’s implied I could be a terrorist threat.

    My offhand remark you refer to is just my response to such a stupid assumption on the guard’s part.

    You are right, Jake – there are some implications that do lurk beneath all this; questions that we all have to ask ourselves. But that’s not why I blogged this. It’s simply to report what happened to me and my snotty reply to the whole situation after the fact. Nothing more. Because I know if I’d said that phrase to them in the tone I reserve for sarcasm, I might still be in the bowels of the DoT building…

    Look at it this way: At least I didn’t write a nasty note on a dollar bill and tip the guys with it… :)

  17. How much do SLR cameras usually run these days? I am thinking about getting a decent camera besides one of those pocket family photo takers. Also, I dabble heavily in Photoshop on a professional basis for what I do at my nonprofit in enhancing our online presence and personally on my blog.

    For someone looking for a hobby, is the SLR the way to go?

  18. The “look like a terrorist” comment is a bit unsettling on a few levels. First is the idea that one can “look” like a terrorist. But second, and more disturbing to me at least, is the implication in that statement that if you did indeed “look” like a terrorist, the situation would be somewhat more justified.

    I have two friends who were detained by transit police in Baltimore for 4 hours when “caught” taking pictures in the harbor at night. They are both shades of brown and one has a very Muslim name. Does they’re appearance lend credence to the otherwise ridiculous actions of the police?

  19. You don’t have to look like a terrorist to get stopped when photographing government buildings–it happens to me all the time, a 40-something red-headed pale white chick, who happens to be wielding an SLR. I’ve been chased down by DC cops who got called by the Navy Yard after I was seen taking pictures of the entrance at Hull and M, SE, even *after* one of the guards chased me down as well.

    I especially enjoyed when it happened during the construction of the ballpark. What was happening there was that the low-paid security staff were probably being told to keep lookie-loos away by any means necessary, and had been given “pictures aren’t allowed” as one of the options. Sure, if you stepped onto the ballpark footprint, they could get rid of you however they wanted, but I loved being told I wasn’t allowed to take pictures when I was standing across the street.

  20. Did Timothy McVeigh look like a terrorist? What about Eric Rudolph? They both were white guys who were terrorists. Thank goodness that terrorism is here to break down the tensions between the races.

    The moral of the story is that SLR = terrorist. Sneaky point-and-shoot = tourist.

    None of this makes sense. Ben – you have a cool head. I would have been hog-tied, pistol-whipped and shipped to Gitmo because I turn into a dick in this type of situation.