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Union Station Photo Follies

Here we go again, though this time, the security obsession that is making life miserable for anyone who dares to take a photo in a public place seems to be winning out. Somehow, to security officials who see terrorism in every tourist's family snapshot, Union Station is a high-security zone in which a tourist's family photo translates into a threat against the nation.

Last year's kerfluffle over whether overzealous security agents had the right to stop a pedestrian from taking pictures in downtown Silver Spring ended when Montgomery County's chief lawyer made it clear that even though the downtown development is managed by a private company, that company may not prevent citizens from exercising their rights of expression, whether that consists of protests, political speech or just taking photos.

"Ellsworth Drive constitutes a public forum," the county attorney's office ruled, ending a battle that started when photographer Chip Py was prevented from taking architectural pictures on downtown Silver Spring's main street.

It doesn't look like there will be nearly that neat a resolution of the latest photo stand-off, one of a series of incidents at Union Station that has left amateur photographers and random travelers completely at sea about what's allowed and what isn't. Union Station is a classic case of the overlapping and contradictory lines of authority in the District--it's all at once an Amtrak train station, a privately-managed shopping mall, a federal landmark and attraction, and a D.C. transportation hub.

In March, Washington photographer Joel Lawson happened upon Amtrak security agents who were chastising a traveler for daring to take a photo inside Union Station. Lawson confronted the Amtrak staffer and told him that the train line's own policy specifically allows photography inside stations. No matter--the policy seems to have little bearing on the enforcement tactics at the station.

Fast forward to last week, when producers from National Public Radio wandered over to Union Station to test out a cool new robot camera that produces spectacular panoramic photos. Andy Carvin and Wright Bryan set up the camera in the retail area of the train station and were in the midst of producing some pics that Union Station's PR folks would just love, when alert security guards put a halt to the photo session.

To their credit, the NPR guys refused to stand down until they won an audience with someone in charge, and that someone turned out to be Robert Mangiante, Assistant Director, IPC International Corporation, a large provider of shopping center security services. He promptly threatened to have the NPR guys arrested, according to Carvin's account.

That put an end to the panorama experiment, but only started a new debate over photographers' rights in public places. And make no mistake--a private firm may be in charge of managing the retail space at Union Station, but the building itself is as public a crossroads as there is in this city. Of course, that doesn't mean you can just walk in and hold a demonstration of 10,000 people in the mall. A raft of court decisions over the years makes it clear that there are restrictions that mall managers can lay on that govern behavior more strictly than it can be governed out on a public street. But the courts have generally ruled that malls must allow some degree of public expression because they are essentially public spaces.

Court rulings and corporate policies, however, make little difference when security guards take it upon themselves to make up the rules on the spot. And many photographers say that's what's been going on at Union Station.

Photographer Erin McCann has been pursuing this issue for months, and finally got a top official of the company that manages Union Station to issue a ruling that photography is allowed. "She also told me their director of public safety would be retraining the guards," McCann says. The mall manager told McCann that she held a meeting with security officers "and hopefully everyone understands the policy.... It was obvious there was confusion."

Still, after the NPR incident but before the reeducation meeting with the guards, McCann set out to test the policy, "and was told by a guard, yet again, that photography is not allowed anywhere but the Great Hall and that the rules were different for me because I have a 'professional' camera (I don't)."

This spurious distinction--one that comes up again and again in these disputes, including in one I wrote about in which a MARC train security officer launched a suspicious person investigation of a young photography student in part because she was using a nice Nikon--shouldn't make any difference, and yet it's a refrain photographers hear over and over.

The harassment of people who take pictures in front of public buildings is second only to the bizarre fixation we have with the meaningless ritual of checking ID cards at building entrances in the catalogue of security silliness that we have permitted since 9/11. Every single major public building in Washington is exhaustively detailed in art, journalism and official photography available to anyone in books, magazines and all over this here web. Many transit systems, including Metro, provide extensive collections of photographs of their facilities right on their own sites.

If having lots of rent-a-cops wandering around makes people feel better protected against terrorists, fine, let the mall managers and federal bureaucrats waste their money on hiring up. But leave the photographers alone--having their eyes watching over public places is surely a more effective means of prevention than any number of bored security guards.

Coming up at noon today here on the big web site: Raw Fisher Radio is back with a look at the uncertain fortunes of the newspaper business. Just days after The Washington Post completes a buyout of more than 100 of its editors and reporters, the editor of Washington City Paper, Erik Wemple, and the deputy editor of, Jack Shafer, join me to discuss the risky business of gathering the news. Tune in at noon--or listen anytime thereafter--at

By Marc Fisher |  May 20, 2008; 7:53 AM ET
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Maybe the photographers can get organized and start taking pictures of the guards.

It shouldn't take more than 15-20 people with cameras to get a few really good shots of the guards at "work".

While you are at it, try and get a couple shots of Mr. Robert Mangiante, Assistant Director, IPC International Corporation too.

Post them online for all to see.

Posted by: SoMD | May 20, 2008 8:29 AM

Anybody interested in what are the rights of a photographer in a public place should visit the website of Portland, OR photographer and attorney Bert Krages; he's got an overview of the subject at that can be conveniently printed onto a single sheet of paper.

Posted by: occasionally-paid photographer | May 20, 2008 8:39 AM

What a joke. This sounds like the time I was not allowed into RFK stadium during one of the first Nats games there because I had a "professional" camera. What I had was a 10 year old Canon SLR with two different lenses. To the guards, anything that was not a tiny point-and-shoot was regarded as professional.

I agree with taking pictures of the guards. A few good pictures of them napping on the job should be enough to get them to back down.

Posted by: JMT | May 20, 2008 8:52 AM

I think someone should schedule a flash mob protest where 100s of photographers show up and take pictures in Union Station. That would be crazy.

Posted by: Andrew | May 20, 2008 9:05 AM

Union Station management is a joke and an embarrassment.

It's a stunning building, in a world-class location.

Yet they do little to keep it up. Quite often the the beautiful arched walkways heading from the Metro Station going East are filled with people bum-rushing you for money, quite aggressively. Complaints to the management company are never responded to.

And the taxi que there is terrible. Literally the worst I've ever seen. It can take 20 to 30 minutes to get a cab there, as one slow cab after another dribbles by in the terribly designed taxi que.

It could be easily fixed by adding another traffic lane for cabs. But apparently that's more effort than they are willing to do.

Supposedly there are plans for renovations to the Union Station plaza. But those plans are very hard to find, as the management company is oddly very secretive.

Really, folks. This ain't Bugtussle. Union Station is a vital transportation hub and is a public resource, not a personal fiefdom. Start treating it as such.

Posted by: Hillman | May 20, 2008 9:07 AM

These photo stories drive me nuts and you are also touching on the stupidity of the 100% photo ID checks... woo hoo. You mean they half look at your ID and tap it with their finger and you are good to go. I know in my building I wouldn't count on the rent-a-cops for any actual security if it was required. I mean not really their fault since the chances of anything are so small and it wouldn't be cost effective to get actual people that were capable of providing actual security. So they are basically there for show and the basic checks to try and make sure you are allowed in the building.
Oh and I hear Union Station is planning on total re-doing the basement food court getting rid of all the small vendors and making them more upscale restaurants like the crap upstairs. Really how does the America restaurant charge so much for such bizarre,random and not very good food.

Posted by: Robbo | May 20, 2008 9:21 AM

These are the issues where lawsuits are really needed. Instead we get Roy "Pants Man" Pearson clogging the system with his worthless junk.

Sue the management of these places. Sue the security guards in their individual capacity and make their employers defend them. Freedom is much more important than some blowhard's pants.

Posted by: M Street | May 20, 2008 9:29 AM

After reading this article, I will be going to Union station to exercise my rights to take pictures...

To make sure I get attention, I will be using a professional camera as well as a throw-away... I wonder what they will think of me then! ;)

Keep your eyes out for someone starting a lawsuit if they try and stop me... I have nothing better to do and I think this is the perfect cause.

Posted by: HowRetarded | May 20, 2008 9:40 AM

Much the same in Crystal City. Lots of rent-a-cops with little to do unless they come upon some tourist who looks easy to hassle. My main question is, at what clown supply store do they get those uniforms? And by the way, the supposed distinction between professional and other camaras is just as phony as the difference between so-called "assault weapons" and other semi-auto firearms, but then harassing gun owners minding their own business is just fine with the Post.

Posted by: Bob | May 20, 2008 10:02 AM

Thanks for continuing to cover this issue.

Luckily I've taken many pictures at Union Station and never been hassled, though I guess it was always in the Great Hall and it sounds like they care less about that. (I also have a very tiny Elph camera, so that probably helps.)

The one place I WAS hassled was inside the Gallery Place complex where you go into the movie theatre (where Bar Louie, Thai Chili, etc. are). I was taking photos for my blog and a security guard told me I couldn't take photos - when I challenged him on it, he seemed sheepish and shrugged but said "they" made him tell people they couldn't take photos.

Posted by: PQ | May 20, 2008 10:05 AM

Ironically, if any terrorists are taking pictures, they're doing so with tiny point-and-shoot-cameras or camera phones.

Posted by: Dan | May 20, 2008 10:43 AM

I have a friend who is a TV news guy and anytime he wants to do a story there about anything even things that promote union station he has to ask at least 48 hours in advance and be approved. Most of the time the news guy wants to promote the place and they can't just show up, which they can do most anywhere else in the city. It's not just a photographers thing, it is a control thing from the managment of the place.

Posted by: Tucky | May 20, 2008 12:48 PM

I saw two young people being harrassed by police officers in Philly yesterday. They were taking pictures of the ceiling of 30th st station, which is beautiful and I had never noticed it until this incident. What struck me the most is when the officer came over to talk to the photographer he told them what he was taking a picture of and stated he hadn't taken any pictures of the security cameras or down on the tracks. The officer responded, "well you just raised the issue, I need to take your pictures and review them". I know I'm going to butcher this quote, but it is something about people who are willing to sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither, really comes to mind in these situations. In Philadelphia no less!

Posted by: Traveler | May 20, 2008 1:06 PM

The problem here may be the new management company at Union Station. The old managers had good cleaners, kept the riff-raff from the front of the station, and made it one of the most successful malls (on a sales per square foot basis) in the mid-Atlantic region. The new managers seem to be more interested in getting a few big-box retailers in to reduce the hassle of store turnover and cutting back on the quality of the cleaning and security staff. Two weeks ago, in broad daylight, I actually watched someone roll up a $20 bill and snort a line of something not ten feet from an oblivious security guard. Maybe he was too busy looking for terrorists to notice the drug activity?

Posted by: Stanton Park | May 20, 2008 1:17 PM

oh, please, someone organize it and I will bring my 2 Nikons to this photo jamboree. Yes, yes, yes let's get hundreds to show up and click away. We've all had enough of George Bushes Homeland Security scare tactics

Posted by: Charlie Gaynor | May 20, 2008 2:57 PM

Well, I wanted to post back and let you know how my photo session went today....

I brought both cameras... Just in case. And I was able to walk around the entire place with BOTH snapping pictures....No hassles, just some odd looks from a few of them.

I was even taking pictures of the train areas ;)

Either they all finally got trained, or they thought twice about approaching a 6'3" 250lb "photographer".. Who knows, if I had kids or a wife with me they would have probably swarmed flexing their muscles....

As it stands, over 200 photos shot today... several of them of guards(none sleeping though heh)

... 0 hassles.

Posted by: HowRetarded | May 20, 2008 5:01 PM

"I know I'm going to butcher this quote, but it is something about people who are willing to sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither, really comes to mind in these situations. In Philadelphia no less!
Posted by: Traveler | May 20, 2008 1:06 PM"

Here's what you're referring to:

"The man who trades freedom for security does not deserve nor will he ever receive either."
Benjamin Franklin

An internet search using the words "trade Freedom for Security" turned up 692,000 hits with B. Franklin in first place.

Posted by: Fotophil | May 21, 2008 11:18 AM

Smash the homeland security power structure! Take pictures everywhere! Bush resign now! Your security apparatus has its pants down in a wide stance! Just look at the glass building 1/2 block from Union Station! Completely unguarded! Yeagh!

Posted by: Ben Cranklin | May 21, 2008 3:13 PM

June 1st, 2008 Photographers' Rights Rally at Hollywood and Highland May 15, 2008

Photographers throughout Los Angeles, with cameras in hand, will gather at Hollywood and Highland and Union Station to peacefully rally against the unnecessary treatment they have received from security guards, LAPD, and LASD while photographing in public places, and on the Metro.

Start Time: 11:00am
Location: Hollywood and Highland, 6801 Hollywood Los Angeles, CA 90028

At about 1:30pm we will board the Metro and travel to Union Station for more picture taking.

Start Time: 2:00pm
Location: 800 N Alameda St Los Angeles, CA 90012

Flickr Group:
Press Inquiries:

Posted by: | May 22, 2008 2:47 AM

Marc: this is beautifully written piece! Kudos.

Posted by: antibozo | May 23, 2008 12:57 PM

Update: Security Guards Interrupt Amtrak Official's Pro-Photography Interview

Posted by: Anonymous | May 31, 2008 12:39 PM

It seems that more freedoms are being eroded away for Americans and is being treated like there's nothing wrong with that by our elected officials, I'm sure that our senators do watch news shows and see these reports yet we never hear from them on this subject. maybe we need to elect people who care what happens to citizens in our own cities apparently our elected officials don't.

Posted by: Karl | June 1, 2008 10:10 AM

Unfortunately, when Mr. Fisher writes: "If having lots of rent-a-cops wandering around makes people feel better protected against terrorists, fine, let the mall managers and federal bureaucrats waste their money on hiring up," these nitwits are not wasting "their money," they're wasting yours. Bin Laden is still free. You're less so every day. Remember that.

Posted by: sim | June 2, 2008 9:39 AM

Our National Anthem ends with the words. "land of the free, and he home of the brave".

It is most unfortunate that our Homeland Security bureaucrats and the "highly trained" rent-a-cops who try to capture ego glory to make up for minumum wage pay, have never listened to the words of the great song.

Posted by: Ashkicker | June 2, 2008 9:47 PM

Nobody seems to have remarked about the fact that the disgusting hypocrites who harass photographers at Union Station and other DC venues insist seem to think they have a God-given right to photograph everybody and everything on and passing by their premises. If photography is banned, the ban should include the Big Brother spy cameras that are everywhere in the District.

Posted by: D. C. Russell | June 3, 2008 7:29 AM

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