January 22, 2012

Shooting Snapshots: Terroristic Activity?



     I want to thank George F. Will. A recent newspaper column he authored, A snapshot of our times*, has me concerned.

     Will cites examples of photographers questioned about their terroristic tendencies due to the subjects included in their photographs. One was photographing controversial new turn styles in the Los Angeles subway. Another was photographing industrial scenery at night.

     Still another was taking photographs to accompany a news article. The issue about his photographs was the presence of a courthouse in the background.

     Why do these examples raise a concern?

When the Los Angeles Police Department developed a Suspicious Activity Report program, the federal government encouraged local law enforcement agencies to adopt its guidelines for gathering information “that could indicate activity or intentions related to” terrorism…From the fact that terrorists might take pictures of potential infrastructure targets (“pre-operational surveillance”), it is a short slide down a slippery slope to the judgment that photography is a potential indicator of terrorism and hence photographers are suspect when taking pictures “with no apparent aesthetic value” (words from the suspicious-activity guidelines).* (bold print mine)

     Deputies detained and searched the turn style photographer, and asked him if he was planning to sell the photos to al-Qaeda. When the photographer claimed his right to remain silent the deputy said You know, I’ll just submit your name to TLO (the Terrorism Liason Officer program). Every time your driver’s license gets scanned, every time you take a plane, any time you go on any type of public transit system where they look at your identification, you’re going to be stopped. You will be detained. You’ll be searched. You will be on the FBI’s hit list.*

     The industrial scenery photographer finds aestheticism and occasional monetary value in depicting nighttime industrial scenes on film. One night, however, while on a public sidewalk photographing an oil refinery with a large camera on a tripod, deputies ordered him to stop taking pictures, lest they put his name on a troublesome FBI list.*

     A journalist, writing a story on drivers distracted by texting and use of hand-held phones, was taking illustrative pictures at an intersection. A courthouse was in the background. Deputies called the courthouse a “critical facility” and labeled his picture-taking as “suspicious activity,” gave him a pat-down search, and demanded to see the pictures he had taken.


     In the decade since Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has comprehensively reduced civil liberties in the name of an expanded security state. The most recent of this was the National Defense Authorization Act, signed Dec. 31**. (not the subject of this post, but worth exploring for a future post)


     So why should I be concerned?


     When my husband and I traveled to Munich, Germany, I heard one piece of advice: obvious and continual use of a camera would label me as a tourist.

     I pondered that while preparing to travel.

     While living in one community I stopped in the local diner for my morning coffee break. When I arrived I was chastised for being incompletely dressed: for some reason, I didn’t have my camera around my neck.

     My camera was, is, a part of how people define me. As a journalist, I provide my own artwork. I also record people, places, and events with my camera. Between the five or so years that I purchased my first quality camera and my digital camera I accumulated forty shoeboxes of photographs.

     I ignored the advice not to carry a camera around in Munich, preferring to behave as I do in my home country.

     My camera records many things. This past mid-January weekend I photographed the interesting structure of the Church gym where my grandsons were playing basketball.

     I photograph many structures in the manner I photograph many things: wide lens for an overall view down to the fine carving on wood structures and statues.

     One structure I enjoy shooting is my county courthouse.

     The land for the courthouse was purchased—in the 1770s—by a committee of five. One was my ancestor. Another was the ancestor of a good friend. The land was purchased from the ancestor of my good friend’s wife. Thus the court house offers this New Englander an unexpected connection to my retirement community in Southwestern Pennsylvania. As such, I tend to photograph the structure from many angles and sites.

     The courthouse celebrated its hundredth anniversary with an open house, during which the walkway under and around the dome was opened. I photographed the surrounding community from this high point, as well as the architectural structure of the top of the courthouse. I knew this opportunity wouldn’t occur again at any time in the near future, perhaps never again in my lifetime.

     I also photographed the architecture throughout the courthouse interior from the high dome to the basement jail (I even had someone take a picture of me behind bars).

     I photographed it as I would photograph any other structure: thoroughly. Some of my pictures clearly have aesthetic value. Others were taken to record details in the architecture or signs that explain the structure.

     I’ve also had the opportunity to photograph the almost complete installation of a gas fracking machine in my home area, and details of bridges both locally and in New England. All were photographed from many angles. Many of these infrastructure or scene photographs have no redeeming aesthetic value.


     Again, why should I be concerned?

     Apparently, in the Los Angeles area, my photography style would make me vulnerable to being stopped by a deputy, vulnerable to having to defend myself as merely a photographer—or a photojournalist (which I am, still occasionally writing for a newspaper writing)—and not a terrorist.

     And what about the phrase aesthetic value? At the risk of quoting an overused phrase, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Ergo, one man’s ugly is another man’s aestheticism. It’s all in the eyes of the photographer


     Awareness of the situation in Los Angeles made me conscious of how my actions might be interpreted by a deputy who observes me photographing the infrastructure of the church, which I did last weekend. . Could he interpret my actions as activity or intentions related to” terrorism? Could he determine that the pictures of the structure have no aesthetic value?

     Fortunately, I don’t live in the Los Angeles area.

     It’s beginning in California. How long before it travels east to my part of the world?

     And what about this young photographer is older? What will limit his rights to do photography? Will the rights I took for granted before reading Will’s opinion column be severely limited for him?



BRAMBLES (Brief RAMBLES) 1-6 July 1, 2008

BRAMBLES (Brief RAMBLES) 1-7 July 15, 2008

 Two Photographers Named Cornell




**‘Land of the Free’? Think again, Jonathan Turley, Greensburg Tribune-Review, January 22, 2012, pp. D5



  1. I’ve been there! I was visiting my brother as he worked restoring the Nathan Hale Schoolhouse in New London, CT. I was taking a lot of pictures for him. I wandered off, called by the whistle of trains and ferry boats at the adjacent station and harbor. I shot still and video of the trains, and of the ferry boats coming and going. I went to get a different angle, when on the dock, a dock worker came running out to me. I was told don’t turn and shoot toward the river or a whole array of security would descend including a helicopter to stop my activity! I would have, had he not warned me, I’m attracted to water and boats and wouldn’t have thought for a second about the submarine base across the way! The ominous warning took some of the fun out of my day!!!

    Comment by carolynstearns (@carolynstearns) — January 24, 2012 @ 1:12 am | Reply

    • I, too, was stopped from photographing (the ocean) in New England. I was at Walker’s Point in Maine, and told not to pause (to continue walking) and not to shoot…
      Is New London near Groton, Conn?

      Comment by carolyncholland — January 24, 2012 @ 9:42 am | Reply

  2. Oh good grief. I am an amateur photographer and love to shoot a variety of different scenes and subjects. The only problem I’ve had is taking photos of my Granddaughter’s dance routine at a competition. The facility says it’s to protect the girls from unsavory types taking their pictures, yet they have a professional who takes their photos but they display them on a web site. Who are they protecting? That alone annoys me but taking shots of buildings, etc. and being stopped, well that is un-nerving. Being a die hard freedom lover, I am appalled to say the least.

    Comment by Martha Ann Buday Jenkins — February 5, 2012 @ 12:13 pm | Reply

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