Department of Photo Security--Redux
Last Sunday's column told the story of a Maryland woman who was stopped by police and questioned after commuters saw her taking photographs of the wrought-iron lampposts at the Odenton train station. Preety Gadhoke's experience, and her questions about whether she was stopped because she looked like a foreigner, have sparked a debate
here on the blog and elsewhere.
Preety and I appeared on C-SPAN's Washington Journal with Brian Lamb this morning to discuss the events, and Channel 9 reporter Dave Statter passes along this account of his own dogged and enlightening reporting on the inconsistent, illogical and sometimes downright idiotic efforts by the homeland security apparatus to fight the scourge of innocent photography of some of the world's most-photographed buildings:
In 2004, and again in 2005, I sent two different, young, Caucasian, native-born, female interns around Washington armed with a disposable camera and a wireless microphone. Their instructions were to stand in a public place and shoot public buildings. While this was going on, I was with a photographer a half block down the street videotaping the interns actions and the reaction of various security guards and police.
I can report that the one place where she wasn't hassled was the White
House. But on sidewalks outside DOT, NASA, EPA, IRS, Washington Marine
Barracks, Ronald Reagan Building, J. Edgar Hoover Building, Justice
Department, a US Capitol Police roadblock and the FBI's Washington Field
Office she was confronted by security or police. In most cases when the TV
camera was spotted (we were out in the open), we were also confronted.
I guess we should expect that security will legally attempt to find out the
identity of anyone who is extensively photographing government buildings.
But the misinformation and outright lies that were told to this "tourist"
and to us were quite amazing. Here is a partial list:
1. It is illegal to photograph any government buildings. (EPA)
2. We arrested a man for drawing a picture of this building last week. (EPA)
3. You are not allowed to take pictures and I can confiscate your camera.
4. You have to have permission from our public affairs officer to photograph
this building. (NASA, Ronald Reagan Building)
5. We have a cabinet secretary in there so you can't shoot pictures of this
building. (DOT both in 2004 and 2005)
6. The GSA rules printed on the front door show it is illegal to take
pictures of this building. (At the Ronald Reagan Building, where the GSA
rules on the door, often cited throughout the city, actually say just the
7. We stop terrorists all the time who take pictures. (US Capitol Police)
8. You can't take pictures of people going into and out of this building.
Of course, there is nothing true about any of these statements. We later
contacted officials with each organization, along with the Department of
Homeland Security. Not one could cite any law or regulation that prohibits
anyone standing in a public place from taking a picture of a building or
anything else that is in public view. Each agency/organization (including
the US Marines), except one, admitted to us that their people were in error
and would do retraining. In fact, the Federal Protective Service,
responsible for guarding government buildings all over the country, tell us
they now use our stories in roll calls and training sessions for their
The one exception is the Department of Transportation on 7th Street, SW.
Officials there refuse to acknowledge the right of the public or the press
to take pictures of the building without DOT's permission. They also told me
they saw no reason to retrain their guards. Take a walk with a camera
outside the DOT building and watch what happens.
I should also tell you that representatives at all the buildings and
agencies tell us they will regularly try to legally find out who the picture
taker is, but will not otherwise interfere with the picture taking. I guess
we should expect that action, post 9/11.
Now as far as railroads are concerned, there are a lot of people whose hobby is taking pictures of
trains. Think of O. Winston Link's famous picture of the Norfolk and Western
steam engine passing behind the plane on the drive-in movie screen in West
Virginia. These people are being hassled out of a hobby. Your former Post
colleague, Don Phillips, wrote a recent column in Trains magazine about the
One problem for Ms. Gadhoke is that apparently she was on "their" property
when taking the pictures. That may have emboldened the officer to seize her
film (I have heard from a number of people that the Pentagon police do this
to the press and public who take pictures on Pentagon property without
permission, but allegedly they don't seize film when you are on public
property taking the pictures).
New Jersey Transit's chief of police is one of the railroad people taking
and encouraging a hard line approach with picture takers. NJT finally
officially backed away from the policy in January after a lot of pressure
(including the Trains magazine column). Here are some articles about NJT's
short lived photography ban that some claim is still being enforced:
http://www.lightrailnow.org/news/n_newslog006.htm#NJ_20060215 (this one has
a series of railroad related articles in chronological order ... check
February 13 and February 6)
A few months back I was with a Channel 9 photographer for about two hours of
videotaping AMTRAK and CSX trains at Ivy City and then along the tracks at M
Street Southeast. A heavenly assignment for two train buffs.
At Ivy City an engineer called dispatch to report us to police (I was
monitoring on the scanner). When we moved to M Street another engineer did
the same. As we left M Street a CSX police officer pulled up. It turned out
to be a guy who I had been a volunteer firefighter with 30 years ago. He
apparently came down from the Baltimore area to answer the call. I got the
impression he was the only CSX cop on duty in DC at the time (what does that
say about rail security?). My friend said as long as we were off the track
area and not on CSX property we can take all the pictures we want (his chief
must not subscribe to NJT's policy).
It's a mess out there, and the most unfortunate part of the situation is that the confusion and the contradictions only serve to undermine public confidence in our security and law enforcement agencies, while the efforts to halt photography of public places wastes valuable resources and persuades all too many Americans that our tax dollars are being diverted from security measures that might really protect us.
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