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November 9, 2007

The war on photography
Posted by Avram Grumer at 07:01 PM * 82 comments

Back in the ’80s, my parents (who are Balkan folk dance enthusiasts) visited what was then the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, a Communist nation. While there, my father photographed a picturesque lake. He snapped off a shot or two, and was interrupted by a government official who told him that photographing that lake was forbidden, due to the presence of some militarily sensitive facility (I forget what; a power plant or something). My father put the camera away, and that was it. They didn’t confiscate the camera or the film, didn’t make him expose the roll to the light, didn’t haul my parents off for an interrogation. A print of the photo hung on my parents’ wall for years; no sort of industrial facility is visible in it. It’s just a photo of a pretty lake.

Compare that with the treatment this Japanese tourist got at the hands of Amtrak and the New haven police:

The train is a half hour west of New Haven when the conductor, having finished her original rounds, reappears. She moves down the aisle, looks, stops between our seats, faces the person taking pictures. “Sir, in the interest of national security, we do not allow pictures to be taken of or from this train.” He starts, “I….” but, without English, his response trails off into silence. The conductor, speaking louder, forcefully: “Sir, I will confiscate that camera if you don’t put it away.” Again, little response. “Sir, this is a security matter! We cannot allow pictures.” She turns away abruptly and, as she moves down the aisle, calls over her shoulder, in a very loud voice, “Put. It. Away!” He packs his camera.

Within a minute after our arrival in New Haven, two armed police officers entered the car, approached my neighbor’s seat. “Sir, we’re removing you from this train.” “I…;” “I….” “Sir, you have breached security regulations. We must remove you from this train.” “I…,” “I….” “Sir, we are not going to delay this train because of you. You will get off, or we will remove you physically.” “I….”

[…] The police speak through the interpreter, with the impatience of authority. “The conductor asked this man three times to discontinue. We must remove him from the train.” The traveler hears the translation, is befuddled. Hidden beneath the commotion is a cross-cultural drama. With the appearance of police officers, this quiet visitor is embarrassed to find he is the center of attention. The officers explain, “After we remove him from the train, when we are through our investigation, we will put him on the next train.” The woman translates. The passenger replies, “I’m meeting relatives in Boston. They cannot be reached by phone. They expect me and will be worried when I do not arrive on schedule.” “Our task,” the police repeat, “is to remove you from this train. If necessary, we will do so by force. After we have finished the investigation, we’ll put you on another train.” The woman translates. The traveler gathers his belongings and departs.

More stories in a similar vein can be found through the War on Photography blog. For example, one photographer was detained and questioned for taking photos in a state park, and another was thrown off a bus in Denver for taking a photo of an advertisement. And some people taking photos of a bridge in NYC were detained for two hours of interrogation by the cops, who deleted their photos and told them their names were being added to a terrorist watch list.

So that’s the USA today, making Communist Yugoslavia look good.

Update: According to this collection of rail transit photo policies, Amtrak’s official policy does not ban amateur photography on their trains.

Comments on The war on photography:
#1 ::: Neil Willcox ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2007, 07:26 PM:

In the 60's my parents went to Yugoslavia on holiday, and had a similar experience; it seems that the sardine factory was a state secret.

#2 ::: Meg Thornton ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2007, 07:31 PM:

To quote large chunks of LiveJournal: OMGWTFBBQ?!?!?

What the hey was so nationally sensitive on the train ride it couldn't handle things like having a Japanese tourist taking happy snaps? Another thing to add to my list of "reasons not to visit the US in a hurry", I suppose. I mean, I'm sure you folks have a wonderful country and all, but quite honestly, the amount of daft practices which appear to be becoming quasi-legal at least is somewhat daunting.

#3 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2007, 07:31 PM:

Tourist photographs
threaten this mighty state:
abolish cameras!

#4 ::: Maggie Brinkley ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2007, 07:34 PM:

I have always wanted to visit the US but now I think I'll pass.

#5 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2007, 07:38 PM:

DHS. Empowering and employing a generation of officious paranoid twits.

I wonder if this idiotic incident will get cited as an example of "successful apprehension of foreign national photographing sensitive transportation infrastructure" when the P.A.T.R.I.O.T. act comes up for renewal.

#6 ::: Del Cotter ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2007, 07:43 PM:

For Noreascon in 2004 I was staying in the Boston Marriott Copley Place, and, toward the end of my stay, on my way back to my room on one of the higher floors, I thought me to take a picture of the Charles River below from the elevator lobby. And it was in this quiet lobby, far above the busier parts of the hotel, with no-one else around, that a large security guard appeared from nowhere to tell me forcefully that there was to be no taking photographs from that spot. I argued a bit, but he was big and getting meaner about it, so I gave up, went to my room and took the picture from there. Not as good an angle but it was basically the same "offence", only from my room they couldn't see me doing it.

Leaving aside how bizarre the actual offence was, the really crazy features of the incident, to me, were:

* this was a private security guard, not any law enforcement officer

* there was nobody around. Had he just let me take the photos, not only would no authority figure have discovered and punished me after the fact, no authority figure could possibly have discovered and punished *him* after the fact. He was enthusiastically and aggressively enforcing dumb rules on the customer without any prospect of praise for doing it, or punishment for failing to.

Plus, like I said, disgruntled customer goes to his room and does it anyway. So, Boston Marriott Copley Place. Charming institution. I like Boston a lot, so I was sorry to see it embarrass itself as a city so badly with the "Great LED Panic" a little later.

#7 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2007, 07:51 PM:

#6: Today you'd have SWAT teams called on you, like the Fox news commentator (!) from Europe who made the mistake of using the bathroom to change into his suit in a suburban Boston-area pizza parlor. He also committed the serious crime of using his cell phone a lot.

(Sorry, I can't find a link; but it's been all over the local media.)

#8 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2007, 07:53 PM:

6 ::: Del Cotter wrote:
So, Boston Marriott Copley Place. Charming institution.

Indeed. They've so charmed me that I refuse, full stop, to endanger my health by staying with them again.

#9 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2007, 07:54 PM:

I can't help but wonder how much skin colour played into this episode as well. "Somebody that doesn't look like me", taking pictures with the spectacular enthusiasm of the Japanese tourist...

#10 ::: ethan ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2007, 07:55 PM:

When I read about this (on Schneier's blog) I almost burst into tears. Talk about a terrifying experience in a foreign country.

And, yeesh, I ride that train relatively frequently. Good thing I forget my camera every time I leave my house.

#11 ::: Adrian ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2007, 08:06 PM:

Jon, I think you mean this incident.

Notice that part of the suspicious behavior is that the guy acted scared and tried to reach the police on his cellphone, on an afternoon when there was some kind of police manhunt going on, and the schools were all locked down. It's hard to imagine they expected a stranger to come into town and not act nervous.

#12 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2007, 08:12 PM:

There seem to be a number of strands to this thread: one is obviously officious/vicious petty bureaucracy*. Another is clearly racial and national xenophobia, since a disproportionate number of targets of this nonsense are non-white, or at least non-USian looking or dressing.

It's funny, because I periodically take a half-day or a day and wander around Portland with my camera (a big, honking digital SLR, that just screams "Not taking snapshots here") taking pictures of anything that tickles my fancy. I have yet to be even looked at strangely, let alone ordered to stop. But then, I'm white and old enough not to be an obvious combatant, and I don't wear a turban, dashiki, or jellabah.

Maybe I should be a little more circumspect in where I go on those shoots; staying away from the Federal Building, City Hall, and Police Headquarters might not be a bad idea. I wonder if the Central Library is a secure area?

* The motto of which is something my kids used to say when they were 4 or 5 and they'd done something that was really not acceptable: "I can if I can!"

#13 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2007, 08:13 PM:

#11: Thank you, Adrian.

#14 ::: CAVoigt ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2007, 08:32 PM:

Wow. Is it an East Coast Amtrak thing? Because no one on the train said *anything* this past May when I took some 400+MB worth of photos out the window while the Coast Starlight was crossing Vandenberg AFB. There were half a dozen foreign tourists in the car with me, doing the same, as well as some real photography buffs.
Now that I've posted this I'll go wait for the knock on the door :)

#15 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2007, 08:44 PM:

I especially appreciate the technique where the authority figure speaks louder to the victim who can't speak English. That trick always works. "I have a red pencil box."

#16 ::: PixelFish ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2007, 08:55 PM:

I had a security guard at Dallas's Chase Building tell me that if I didn't put my camera away, he'd call the Dallas police. He also told me that since 9/11 it was policy not to allow pictures in the SkyLobby. Except...SkyLobby is frequently rented out for weddings and society 'dos and whatnot, and there is photography then. (Also, this was my second trip since 9/11 and on the first trip nobody complained.)

#17 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2007, 08:56 PM:

The gentleman in the Needham MA incident is Hillel Neuer.

Read the Wikipedia article now - it's been flagged as "not notable".

#18 ::: Gabriele Campbell ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2007, 08:56 PM:

Ok, that shoves the US below Siberia on my places to visit list - and so far Siberia had been on the bottom. ;) I wish I could say Bush-US, but I don't think the country will recover any time soon from that damage.

There are a lot of other places with scenic nature, like Iceland, Greenland, New Zealand etc where I doubt such a thing would happen.

#19 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2007, 09:03 PM:

Hmm. I went out to the Arizona Memorial a couple of years ago and had no trouble taking pictures, even though there's an excellent view of ships in port at Pearl Harbor.

I wonder if that's because we're so hardwired for tourists that it hasn't occurred to officialdom that the evil terrorists might show up with cameras.

#20 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2007, 09:16 PM:

#19: Someone might attack Pearl Harbor? Unthinkable.

#21 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2007, 09:17 PM:

I've been hassled, a couple of times, while taking pictures (usually at the beach). The cops have been pretty csaual about it. Sent an undercover (which was nice, no uniform to make it me look bad), asked what I was doing, ran me for wants and warrants; told me someone thought I was taking pictures of little kids (whaa...!), talked a bit about photography, and left.

Never asked to see the images (since this was a dSLR).

The kids who got sniffy when they were in my shot were precious. Threatened to call the cops, I offered to let them use my phone; hung 'em up. They also didn't know what to do when I didn't quiver at threats to come up and take my camera away.

People are wierd about phototography, always have been. These days, well it's worse, because "ANYONE COULD BE A TERRORIST".

Hah. If I wanted to pull some recon, that's not how I'd do it. Yeah, there are stupid terrorists, but WTF?

#22 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2007, 09:21 PM:

I see Japanese (and other) tourists with cameras at LA Union Station fairly often, taking pictures with and without trains. I haven't seen anyone try to stop them. Of course, the station gets used for filming too, sometimes in areas where all the passengers have to walk around the camera crews and whatnot, at rush hour.

Maybe it's a matter of being used to tourists.

#23 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2007, 09:21 PM:

Jon @ #20, Yeah. I think Walter Lord's book (and Gordon Prange's books) were fiction, myself.

#24 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2007, 09:48 PM:

Huh. I took a bunch of pictures from various parts of Boston Marriott Copley Place last Feb. at the APTA combined sections meeting. Nobody even blinked. Ditto this past summer, from Harvard Bridge and various points on the Charles River, MIT Campus and the exterior of the Gardner Museum. Guess I must not be brown enough.

#25 ::: AHT ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2007, 09:49 PM:

Jon Meltzer, #20: You are entirely responsible for the tea bath my laptop just got. Thank you, good sir. A good laugh never goes amiss.

As for the rest of it, that Amtrak route travels right past the Coast Guard Academy, as well as a whole host of naval facilities. Other side of New Haven, but I wonder if that contributes to the paranoia.

#26 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2007, 09:54 PM:

The whole trains and photography thing has been a thorn in the railfan community's side for the past six years. It's quite inconsistent but never really goes away.

As far as Amtrak and actually being on a train is concerned, the unfortunate thing is that about the only thing you can do is raise hell after you get off the train. On their own turf the railroad police are full police officers as well as acting as private security guards, so on the NE Corridor at least they certainly could do what they did. Outside the corridor, probably not, because jurisdiction probably belongs to the railroad who owns the track.

One hears of attempts to harass rail photographers on city streets. I think this may have died down due to the problem that there's no actual law to throw at these people. The trick is to stay off railroad property so that you can't be cited for trespassing; off their own property railroad police revert to being state cops. It's all extremely stupid of course, but then the railroads have frequently been extremely callous to the railfan community, who ought to be their best allies.

#27 ::: Keith Soltys ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2007, 10:19 PM:

A few years ago I was hassled in Edmonton for taking pictures of a fountain at the Edmonton City Hall, on a rainy day, because picture taking wasn't permitted because "perverts" had been taking pictures of kids in the wading pool by the fountain. The pool was completely empty when I was there.

#28 ::: John Faughnan ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 12:11 AM:

I was going to write a blog post on this, but I've hit my quote for daily negative posts.

The only way to even start recovery is to get the GOP out of power.

#29 ::: FungiFromYuggoth ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 12:56 AM:

The variance in attitude about photography is a feature, not a bug. It's about normalizing arbitrary exercise of power.

Well, that and stupidity.

#30 ::: meredith ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 02:23 AM:


Yeah, I live in New Haven. SO proud to admit that today. :P Good sweet lord.

#31 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 02:25 AM:

Perverts photographing kids is the usual scare-motive for hassling photographers in the UK.

With mobile phones able to take pictures, you can understand the nervousness in a few locations, where there's some expectation of pseudo-privacy. For instance, changing facilities at swimming pools.

I suppose that what digital photohgraphy does is take away the chance for somebody in a lab to notice something dodgy. But if anyone was serious about their perverted interests, they could develop their own E6 film, just as today they can feed their digital pictures through their own computer and printer.

And the same for terrorists.

All we catch are the stupid.

#32 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 02:52 AM:

CAVoit #14: Is it an East Coast Amtrak thing?

Nah, it's probably a Random Conductor Being An Asshole thing. Amtrak doesn't even have an official policy banning photography on their trains.

John Faughnan #28: The only way to even start recovery is to get the GOP out of power.

I'm all in favor of getting the bastards out, but this isn't a GOP problem. The Amtrak incident took place in the heavily-democratic Northeast Corridor, and involved local New haven police. One of the other incidents I mentioned involved (I think) New York City cops. This sort of thing sure as hell isn't going to magically stop happening if Clinton takes back the White House for the donkeys.

If anything, we might be better off with a Red Congress and a Blue White House. At least the Republicans could be relied upon to scream bloody murder when a Democratic president tried to exercise unconstitutional power.

#33 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 04:01 AM:

Gabriele Campbell #18 : I recommend Siberia. Beautiful place, specially in the fall. We went through on the train, back when it was the USSR and supposed to be suspicious of all westerners. We took photos everywhere, on and off the train - nobody gave a blink, certainly not the train crew.

#34 ::: Ms. Jen ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 05:25 AM:

Yesterday morning I arrived in London Paddington station after an all night flight from the States, it was just before 8am and the sun was streaming in from the big back arch. It was beautiful, really lovely with all the Victorian iron work.

I set my bags down, got my camera phone out, went to take a photo, when security told me to stop. I was astounded.

Me: "But it is truly beautiful. Look at the morning sun."

Very Young Security Officer: "Sorry, you cannot take a photo here."

Me: "Sir, look how lovely it is."

VYSO: Doesn't look. "Really, you can't take a photo, put the camera away."

Me: "Ok, but do you know that there are hundreds of photos on Flickr of this station? Are you going to ask them to take it down? Do you have a Flickr account?"

VYSO: embarrassed.

Me: Walks off and tries the shot at another angle. Camera phone does not do justice to the colors.

For the rest of the day, I asked my UK friends if they thought it was aiding and abetting the terrorists, if I took a photo at Paddington. They all referred to the above incident with the Japanese tourist and found it all ridiculous.

I am more distressed that beauty can't be celebrated in the name of protecting a train station that has been widely, widely photographed for over a hundred years.

#35 ::: Nix ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 07:08 AM:

The building rent-a-cops tried to threaten me when I took a picture of the Gherkin (apparently the appearance of the building was the owner's intellectual property or something insane like that), but telling someone not to take a picture of Paddington station?

That's right up there with the BT Tower (visible from halfway across *Greater* London) being a sensitive and secret installation.

#36 ::: Bruce Adelsohn ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 07:28 AM:

The rules for film and photography in NYC were recently revised, largely due to citizen protests over their ambiguity and incompleteness, and spurred by a lawsuit on behalf of Rakesh Sharma, an Indian filmmaker who was hassled while shooting with a consumer-grade camcorder. They're still under consideration, but the photography community seems to approve of them.

I don't know if the new rules change this, but per the MTA's website, "Photography, filming or video recording in any facility or conveyance is permitted except that ancillary equipment such as lights, reflectors or tripods may not be used. Members of the press holding valid identification issued by the New York City Police Department are hereby authorized to use necessary ancillary equipment."

I wouldn't bet, however, that being able to cite the rules to a cop hassling a photographer would prevent the cop from arresting them; nor would I bet on the person being hassled being a Caucasian male.

#37 ::: John Chu ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 07:46 AM:

Wouldn't this mean that Google Maps Street View is our greatest threat to national security?

There have always been people who enjoy exercising their authority, whether exercising it was the right thing to do or not. Nowadays, we also have people who treat terrorism the same way they treat chain letters warning of people stealing your kidney at parties. (i.e., they know the letter is junk, but they're going to pass it on just in case. After all, maybe there is even a 1% chance that it's accurate.)

None of it means that the way these people behave is ok. What I find disturbing is that I never see anything that says that the Amtrak conductor, random security guard, or whomever has gotten reprimanded. If it is just a few rotten apples, I don't see the recognition from TPTB that they need to fix this before the entire barrel rots.

#38 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 08:20 AM:

Time to turn on the laugh-o-matic: not only is there no mention of any such thing on Amtrak's policy pages, there's a contest sort-of-thing that assumes that you'll be taking pictures on the train! (And here's a winner which quite clearly does have such pictures.) In 2005 they had a calendar photo contest where you had to photograph the trains (complete with directions on how to do it legally)!

The only vaguely security-ish thing on the NE corridor is that the sub factory in New London is directly across the harbor from the tracks. There was a kerfuffle a month or two back where a Google Earth picture out on the other coast showed a submarine propeller, which is a major no-no. Of course, since we own all the photo-recon satellites we can take care of that. (/sarcasm)

#39 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 08:29 AM:

re 35: I've heard stories about the gherkin like that before. My response is, "Then get it off the street if you don't want anyone to see it!"

#40 ::: John L ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 08:39 AM:

The "you can't take pictures" attitude of many security and law enforcement officials is a big headache for highway enthusiasts. I know many of them and they all say they've been hassled for taking pictures of infrastructure (bridges, transit stations, etc). Some were politely told not to take photos, others actually had their film confiscated or were told to erase photos from digital cameras.

#41 ::: Martin Wisse ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 08:49 AM:

#35: in the Netherlands, the appearance of a building is the intellectual property of the architect, so officially you do need to have their permission to photograph it. Derived works and all that. In practise, nobody hassles you about this unless you are doing something commercial with the pictures, like selling postcards.

The original incident is just a symptom of a larger tendency these days, which is not limited to the US by any means, in which everything that is not explicitely allowed is assumed to be forbidden or illegal. It's partially due to the fear of terrorism, partially due to more general fear of crime and such and partially due to the rampant commercialisation and privetisation of public grounds.

#42 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 09:06 AM:

One of my Islamic friends once told me that it is a fundamental principle of Islamic law (I'm not sure if this is the same as the Sharia) that anything not expressly forbidden is permitted. If we westerners have reached the opposite position, things are indeed crook.

#43 ::: Trey ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 09:37 AM:

OK, if its illegal to photograph, what about sketching? IIRC, in previous centuries that was considered a necessary skill for military officers and spies.

#44 ::: Gabriele Campbell ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 10:02 AM:

John Stanning #33

The reason Siberia is low on my list is not so much problems with state authorities than my wish to have some basic amenities when I travel - like clean toilets with toilet paper. ;) It's the reason France tumbled down a bit on my list as well because I'd need more money to get what I want than fe. in Scandinavia or the UK.

#45 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 10:26 AM:

Gabriele, now I understand what you meant about Siberia being on the bottom.

You want clean toilets with toilet paper??? That does cut out quite a lot of the known world.

#46 ::: Debbie ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 10:53 AM:

In 1977 we were in the midst of d├ętente. During a semester in London, I took advantage of an opportunity to take a trip to the USSR -- one week Moscow/Leningrad*, all-inclusive, for $175. Two experiences pertinent to this thread come to mind.

One was climbing to the top of a cathedral (in Leningrad?), and being greeted by the sight of two grim, elderly ladies, whose job appeared to be to sit holding rolls of ripped-out film. Message received. No language barriers.

And as for making sketches -- I still have a souvenir collection of postcards from the Winter Palace. They are exquisite, perfect in every detail, depicting contemporary views of the interior. And they are painted, not photographed. At the time, we decided that was because the Soviets were just paranoid, and they truly believed that photographs would somehow aid the capitalist subversives. It's sad to see similar wacko thinking in the West.

*as it was still called

#47 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 10:55 AM:

I think a good response to being told one cannot take photos of some public place would be to organize a flash mob (does anyone still do that anymore?), and then watch the fun as hundreds of people show up en masse to take pictures. In fact, it could be a flash photo mob.

#48 ::: Craig R. ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 11:40 AM:

Keith # 27 --
"..The pool was completely empty when I was there..."

couple of years ago I was attending an evening performance of one of the local Shakespeare In The Park events.

My wife was sitting in the car, waiting to pick me up after the performance, when a local policeman told her she shouldn't be there in the evening (it was in the park parking lot, and there were all those other cars there that people had left there during the performance).

It *might* have been reasonable if the stated reason for her "not supposed to be there" had had any connection to reality.

His stated reason, volunteered, not asked for, was that it would be unsafe for her, a woman alone in a car in the evening. So far so good. However, the "clincher" was that the danger to her was because the park had been gaing the reputation asd a meeting place for gay men.

She was supposed to be afraid for her safety because some gay men might want to practice the Love That Dares Not Say Its Name. With her.

If the sated reason as the real reason, it was really, really a confused policeman.

If it *wasn't* the real reason, what ever happened to the practice of being truthful?

#49 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 12:05 PM:

9/11--the bad cop's best friend (and it turns out there are a lot of bad cops.)

#50 ::: Andrew K ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 12:49 PM:

From Avram's holiday story and Debbie's comment at #46 it seems we can precisely gauge the paranoia of Amtrak security: worse than Yugoslavia but not quite as bad as the Soviet Union.

#51 ::: DQ ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 01:20 PM:

In cultural studies we're studying Foucault and the Panopticon, and last week Mulvey and the male gaze of the cinema. Looking and being looked at as a power dynamic, and those who want power want to do all the looking.

#52 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 01:40 PM:

#29Fungi: Definitely! I'd also suggest that they want to get the populace out of the habit of recording their surroundings, as part of their general War On Reality.

#53 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 01:44 PM:

I keep wondering if, during my long flower-photography sessions in my own yard, one of the frequent overflights of Army Airborne equipment should get in my sight-line, might I get in trouble? Also, if such should happen, would the time I flipped the bird at a hot-shot in a Blackhawk who came over my clothesline at tree top level when I was hanging up my newly laundered dainties be held against me?

#54 ::: T.W ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 01:44 PM:

In the growing season I walk around the neighbourhood and take pictures of garden flowers on the public side of property lines. Most folks beam with pride when they spot me but others get nervous of the sight of me taking macros of a bloom in public and some come out to the street to question and then harass me. Seriously, if you don't want attention why are planting eye catching displays of plants outside the fence? Just as weird as the girls who dress to show off then complain they get noticed.
Isn't the point of building something other than a box in architecture to be looked at and be cooed over.

#55 ::: Gabriele Campbell ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 02:07 PM:

John, at least in trains and other closed spaces where you can't just pee somewhere. I can get along without such luxury in the nature - which is a lot cleaner than some toilets I've seen. :)

It's a bit more of a problem for a woman, too.

#56 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 02:08 PM:

Gabriele Campbell #44: The reason Siberia is low on my list is not so much problems with state authorities than my wish to have some basic amenities when I travel - like clean toilets with toilet paper.

So pack a bunch of rolls of soft, durable Amerikanski toilet paper, and sell some of it to the locals to help finance your trip. By the way, is Tunguska open to tourists?

#57 ::: Madeline F ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 03:00 PM:

#26 C. Wingate: Hey, we've got one of those guys! I work right next to the Emeryville Amtrak station, a really nice station and probably one of the major ones in the Bay Area. There's a pedestrian bridge going over the tracks to a nice food court, and while heading to lunch I often see a guy with an SLR camera and a notebook and a vest, intently watching for trains. What's up with that?

The one place I ran into trouble taking photographs was Monaco: there was a "Young Frankenstein" (!) slot machine pillar, and I wanted to collect a photo to take back to my parents, who are often known to say things like "Werewolf? There wolf! There castle!" And it was a really good photo of me, too. And a guy in a tux immediately materialized and made me delete it in front of him. Bah!

#58 ::: Dave Hutchinson ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 04:10 PM:

Ms.Jen@34 - I travel through King's Cross Station most mornings on the way to work, and most days I see people taking photographs and nobody seems to bother them. It may depend on which security guard/jobsworth notices you at it. Or maybe King's Cross isn't worth protecting.

Anyway, I'm sorry that happened to you.

#59 ::: Nathan ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 04:31 PM:

I scout locations for movies for a living and I run into this crap all the time. More often than not, when a cop asks me what I'm doing, they leave me alone after I explain. More rarely, I've had to ask them to call the NYC Mayor's Office of Film Theater and Broadcasting to establish that they do, in fact, know me and that I'm legit.

Once, a guard outside the Federal Courthouse in Foley Square kept me standing there after he radioed his boss with my name (he asked to see some I.D.). After a minute or so of waiting, he got a radio call saying, "Let him go. He's got an IMDB listing." I've never had anyone try to confiscate my camera or make me erase my shots.

Some colleagues haven't been so fortunate. One guy I know was taking pictures of a vacant lot in the Bronx when he was "detained for questioning". He was taken to the Precinct and it took all of 15 minutes to establish that he was legit. The cops explained that the site he was shooting was going to be a staging area for the Police for some event scheduled for the next day, so they were being extra sensitive about things. If it had ended there, he would have just shaken it off, but then they explained that once they brought someone in for questioning in a "Homeland Security" connection, they had to hold him until the FBI got a chance to interview him. He was stuck there for another six hours before the FBI showed up, looked at the report the cops had prepared, and then said to let the guy go without even talking to him.

Life here is Bizarre and getting Bizarrerer.

#60 ::: Cerulean ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 04:48 PM:

Authoritarians fear anything that does not lie.

#61 ::: Gabriele Campbell ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 05:12 PM:

Earl #56

Germanski toilet paper, in my case. Friends of us did indeed take some with them and it was needed. But they kept that to themselves and used ball pens, lighters and some other stuff to bribe the local authorities. :)

#62 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 05:17 PM:

John #28:

I fear this statement is true, but only in the same sense that the first step in treating your lung cancer is to stop smoking. Getting the current gang running the GOP out of power is a good idea, but it's miles from being a cure for what ails us. If the GOP flat went away, we'd soon have Democrats willing to do the same crap, because it's effective for winning elections. Go ask Joe Lieberman, or for that matter, Hillary Clinton.

Foreign policy based on bombing half the world, and bribing the rest, unlimited executive power, a surveillance state, the feds pre-empting most important issues on behalf of the interest groups that spend the most on them, all those are almost as popular among Democrats as Republicans. The Clinton administration had plenty of interest in those things, and the Democratic congress is continuing to support them.

I'm not saying that the GOP doesn't deserve to lose, because they do. But don't imagine Democrats in power are going to fix the awful trends in US culture and government. That's a very small step in a very long journey.

#63 ::: Nikki Jewell ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 05:52 PM:

Regarding the taking pictures of kids strand, there are lots of schools now in the U.K. who won't allow parents to take pictures on sports days but who do employ an official photographer to record the moments.

This is only tangentially related to photography, but a few weeks ago I was going from one job to another at about five o'clock on a Friday evening. This was a little rural journey from one village to another, in the U.K. I had an hour to kill so I decided to stop and read for a bit. I pulled over in a grassy lay-by on a country lane and was happily reading when a car pulled up behind me - a big 4 by 4 with heavily tinted windows. A man got out. I wound down my window. The man had no uniform or anything official about him. He told me I needed to move. I asked why. He said I was parked right by an airfield and that it wasn't safe, and that if I didn't move, well, I should just move on. Bear in mind I had absolutely no idea I was looking at an airfield - no signs, no wind sock, nothing except a stubble field. The man got back into his car and waited behind me until I drove away.

I think the people who've suggested a racism strand are probably right; I would have hated to have been a Muslim woman then who just wanted to park with a nice view across fields.

Also, does anyone remember that there was a big media fuss (it might have only been in Britain) when some British plane-spotters were arrested and jailed in Greece for taking pictures of planes?

#64 ::: T.W ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 06:06 PM:

If you want to keep an airfield secure and unnoticed one should not be telling random strangers that it's there in the first place.

#65 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 06:31 PM:

"those who want power want to do all the looking"


#66 ::: NelC ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 06:41 PM:

Contrast with me in Japan for the WorldCon, taking snaps of, well, nearly everything. Including a dress rehearsal for a state visit of some kind (I never found out who it was) to the Budokan in Tokyo. Hundreds of JSDF soldiers, sailors and airmen, not to mention police, lined up along the road, looking bored, not in the least concerned with a gaijin tourist taking pictures. And why should they? There must have been plenty of pictures taken of the Budokan over the years. And there's maps of the park dotted around the park itself. If I had been planning some kind of atrocity there, just walking through the place a couple of times would have given me all the information I needed.

In fact, the only time I got even growled at by a uniform in Japan was when I tried to take a sip of water in front of the Yasukuni shrine. Shrug. Fair enough.

#67 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 06:57 PM:

Politicians, journalists, and government agencies have learned two really important lessons:

a. Fear sells.

b. Rational fear only sells till people settle down and think of how to address their fears. Irrational fears sell forever.

People pretty much can't reason about extremely rare, horrible risks, like terrorism or abduction of a child by some stranger who wants to molest him. So those are *great* fears to harp on. You can build almost unlimited agency budgets, electoral wins, police powers, arbitrary and silly "security measures," and constant "breaking news: the Islamofacist threat" stories on the TV. Because people can't reason about them, which they'd need to do to recognize that limiting liquids to one ziplock bag of 3oz containers, or wiretapping every phone in America, or putting National Guardsmen in airports to stand around looking dangerous, makes absolutely no sense. Reasoning about those kind of rare events isn't something that's built into our mental hardware, since we evolved without the benefit of global 24 hour news channels.

I don't ever expect to see an end to this, because it pays off. Irrational fears *work*. They get votes, donations, acceptance of obviously nutty actions. Anyone who points out that the fears are overblown is at best ignored, and at worst attacked. Powerful interests need those fears to remain intact, and they'll keep broadcasting them 24/7. ("Please be on the lookout for suspicious activity.")

#68 ::: Christopher Davis ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2007, 11:29 PM:

JESR (#53): Well, at least at the actual airfield (at Ft. Lewis) they have had signs banning photography since at least the late 1970s when my dad was first stationed there. Photos of overflights, though...what are they going to do, hang a sign under the aircraft that says "NO PHOTOS"?

#69 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2007, 01:14 AM:

albatross @ #67 writes:
"a. Fear sells.

b. Rational fear only sells till people settle down and think of how to address their fears. Irrational fears sell forever."

That's one of the principal theses of Al Gore's book The Assault on Reason, which I'm halfway through. Through Chapter Five it's essentially a presentation of evidence of all the lies the Bushies have told us through mid-2007.

It's very good.

#70 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2007, 03:32 AM:

As soon as I get my Type S scout, I'm outta here.

#71 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2007, 08:41 AM:

On one level the GOP has nothing to do with this. In fact, I'd bet that a non-neocon-activated Republican president-- say, GHWB-- would have responded much more proportionately in 2001. The thing is that officiously barring photography is a old tradition in this country, and a municipal specialty.

#72 ::: NelC ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2007, 01:34 PM:

Dave @70: Yeah, but how many Scouts live to muster out? Should have joined the Merchant service; a Free Trader will get you off this world just as quick, and you're more likely to live to collect it.

#73 ::: Samuel Tinianow ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2007, 02:19 PM:

Boston. SRSLY. And Amtrak to boot. How could you expect this to NOT happen?

#74 ::: A.R.Yngve ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2007, 02:59 PM:

C. Wingate wrote:
"The thing is that officiously barring photography is a old tradition in this country, and a municipal specialty."

Has this something to do with Puritanism, copyright issues or just old-fashioned superstition??

#75 ::: Lucy ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2007, 03:13 PM:

The first time I came to the US, in 2000, I took photos of my friends going through the queue at customs and all I got was a stern look from the officer who told me to put the camera away.

Every time my mum hears about something like this, she starts alluding to 1930s Germany and warning me to get out while I still can.

#76 ::: Manny Olds ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2007, 09:01 PM:

I live near a block of redevelopment that has been leased or something similar to a private company. (The details on this are vague.) This, however, applies to only part of the block.

On the completely-city part of the block, you are free to wave signs or do any of those all-American activities. On the sorta-private side of the line, you can't do *anything* except spend money and pose picturesquely around the fountain.

This was all undercover until one of the people they had strongarmed for taking pictures of the fountain went to the Post. Turns out they have been confiscating cameras, etc. all along as allowed in the fine print of their contract with the county.

The only people who were really aware of this were the skaters. From Friday night to Monday morning the whole block is closed to auto traffic, so they like to hit it with their boards. If they stray across the line into the sorta-private side, they get their boards confiscated, so they are all acutely aware of that line.

What dismays me most is not that the company is doing this, or even that the county signed a contract that allows it. It is that so many people stepped across that invisible line and just went on as if it were normal to have their cameras or skateboards confiscated on an open downtown street.


#77 ::: Janni ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2007, 09:15 AM:

Gabriele said:

There are a lot of other places with scenic nature, like Iceland, Greenland, New Zealand etc where I doubt such a thing would happen.

In fact when I was in Iceland I unwittingly took pictures somewhere I ought not have (the National Museum). When the woman working there pointed this out, I started to rattle off profuse apologies, images of having my camera seized (or at the very least the photos on it being deleted) going through my head ... and she looked at me like I was nuts.

"It's all right," she said. "Just don't do it anymore."

So you're right ... in Iceland, the response to taking pictures you ought not seems to be a sensible, "So just don't take them anymore."

It was (still is) disconcerting to ponder later just how startled I was that the only response to breaking the rules was ... a polite request that I stop breaking them.

#78 ::: Lisa Padol ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2007, 09:45 AM:

#75 -- And go where, though?

#79 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2007, 12:42 PM:

The US is a nation at war. No - a Nation at War. It is vital to maintain the strength of the National Soul. Photographs of important bits of the nation (sorry, the Nation) steal important bits of the National Soul. Therefore, ban photographs to prevent attacks by foreign witch doctors.

#80 ::: NelC ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2007, 01:20 PM:

Ms Jen @34: It's just occurred to me that with all the fuss made over the re-opening of St Pancras station, with all the cooing at the architecture and photos in the national press, there are going to be a lot of architecture students taking pictures of that station. I'm racking my brains as to what the rationale would be for allowing photos in one station and not the other.

#81 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2007, 03:54 PM:

A.R.Yngve @74

It's a consequence of the Fruit Punch Czar Principle: those control freaks with the least actual power are compelled to use it most in arbitrary ways.

#82 ::: kitte ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2007, 03:42 PM:

I spent a couple hours in the evening taking photos at St Pancras and spoke to some station staff. They are very strict about flash photography on the platforms, they do try in the station area but so many people do it - its a losing battle it seems. They also don't like tripods. However it was a while before they noticed I had one and they didn't ask me to get rid of previous images.
They are pretty relaxed about photography otherwise in the station as they realise the importance of the building.

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