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 Slate.com, Jack Shafer, join me to discuss the risky business of gathering the news. Tune in at noon--or listen anytime thereafter--at washingtonpost.com/rawfisherradio
By Marc Fisher |
May 20, 2008; 7:53 AM ET
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