Forward to next post: I made this half-hawk half-dove monster to please you
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.