The latest threat to American freedom appears to be the humble camera. A lot of photographers are finding out that aiming a camera at a building or bridge means, to the ignorant and paranoid observer, that you intend to blow it up and steal America’s soul. If you want to capture an image of something that interests you, expect to be harassed by security guards, policemen, highway patrol, FBI, Homeland Security, or anyone else with a uniform and badge. And since I happen to be someone who loves photographing interesting buildings and other structures, this makes me a bit paranoid myself nowadays.
The first time I heard of this happening to someone was in 2004, when a local Seattle guy was questioned by police multiple times because he was taking photos of the Ballard Locks. His brown skin was likely an issue, since many non-brown people were around taking photos at the time, and that means someone around him thought he was a threat and reported him as such. Some fearful citizen, fooled into thinking that all brown people are terrorists. (He was later harassed by security people immediately when he showed up again.) This was a huge deal locally, and I was astounded that a one photographer out of a group could be singled out as a terrorist threat. My first thought was, "What country is this, anyway?" My next thought was, "Why am I surprised?"
In the past few months I’ve been seeing more and more stories about photographers (of all colors) being harassed for absolutely no reason at all, and
they’re getting increasingly more alarming. I’ve saved a few which you simply must read if you plan to do any photography of public buildings and places. You’re not guaranteed to be harassed, but those chances are increasing every day.
- Taking pictures on LA’s Red Line violates the "9/11 Law". What law is that? I also like the bit about the guy getting a stern scolding via loudspeaker.
- "Two FBI agents just showed up at my door for taking photos in the Port of Los Angeles"
- Two ferry riders sought by FBI last summer were just tourists. Ahhhh, more fun in Seattle, this time riding the Paranoia Ferry.
- Shelby County, TN Sheriff: watch out for photographers and radical greens, they might be terrorists. People with cameras, especially brown people, should take special care when traveling through TN.
- Art Professor Detained for Taking Photos on Public Property. Yet more Seattle action! Her crime? Taking pictures of power lines for an
art project. Aha! Those art people are definitely a threat to freedom. Fuckin’ hippies!
Boing Boing has been doing a lot of posting on this subject lately, and the other day they blogged about a Photographers’ Rights Rally in L.A. on June 1. If I lived in L.A., I’d be there with camera in hand! I also found a website called Freedom to Photograph, which reports on nothing but harassment of photographers around the world. One more useful website is The Photographer’s Right, written by an attorney who provides a downloadable flier (.pdf) explaining your rights when you’re being harassed for using a camera in a public place. Pretty handy stuff.
Of course this shit is happening all over the world, not just here in the U.S. There’s an unbelievable amount of paranoia in the UK, where security cameras are becoming as numerous as street lights (and yet they don’t really help catch criminals). One particular puke-inducing story comes to mind: a guy who took a photo at Spitalfields Market in London was immediately accosted by a security guard who tried to confiscate his camera and delete the photo! It’s a great little story because of the audaciousness of the guard, but it’s also infuriating to think it could happen to anyone. Anyway, we’re traveling to Germany and Switzerland next month, and while I didn’t have any problems the last time we were there, you just never know. Some are obviously getting weirder about people carrying cameras.
Cameras are not guns, cameras are not bombs. Chill out, people — stop letting fear dictate your every move, and stop treating everyone as a suspect. It’s one thing to be alert for truly suspicious activity, but when you’re treating every activity as suspicious, something’s very wrong.