Taking Photos While Brown revisited

IanSpiers-studentIn July of 2006, I read Ian Spiers’ statement about being reported to the police, harassed by security guards and Domestic Security, made to show his ID, and warned away from photographing a tourist attraction in Seattle. He is a resident of Seattle and a U.S. citizen. What bothered him were that dozens of others were photographing the same scene at the same time and no-one tried to stop them. “Taking Photos while Brown.”

In the U.S. it is legal to stand in a public place and take pictures of public scenes and any buildings that are visible. It seems as if the police who came to Ian Spiers’ home to interview him for “suspicious behavior” and the eight men and a police dog who converged on him when he was taking pictures of the old waterway’s ship locks along with dozens of tourists were indulging in what Bruce Schneir calls the theatre of security rather than any practical action.

I just read the article again and the police actions seem totally egregious. Their response, “We gotta investigate anything suspicious” seems pathetic, since Spiers was doing nothing different from anyone else except perhaps making notes about each picture. When the police talked to him, he was able to show them that he was working on a photography project for a course he was taking. He was at the locks because the assignment was to find “things in motion” and he was required to note his exposure and F stops. There was no need for police to press him for ID papers, take down his name, look him up, or write reports.

Perhaps photographers should ask the relevant authorities at various public places, e.g. the locks, city hall square, etc. to put up a sign saying, “Photography is permitted.” Or photography of public places is permitted,” in case some jerk takes that as permission to stick their camera into people’s faces.

I’m a middle aged, female Canadian of European ancestry, so that would get me classified as “white,” but with my olive skin I’m probably about the same shade as Ian Spiers. So, since I read Mr. Spiers’ article, I’ve been testing the other side of the coin.

I travel to the U.S. occasionally and I take a lot of photos. I take pictures of airplanes from the airport windows. I take pictures of monorails at the terminal. I take pictures of baggage carts, plane jockeys, stairwells, kiosks, rooflines, runways, and cryptic signs. I don’t photograph people directly as they might not like it, but they are included in some shots, e.g. the guy signalling a plane to park. I take pictures out of the plane window. I take videos of baggage trains moving or the terminal and planes as we taxi for take-off. Last month I was in Washington, DC, taking pictures of the trains, platforms, and escalators of the Metro (transit system), the layout of my hotel, and the buildings in the Capitol Mall. Mind you, I don’t fly often–maybe twice in the last year.

But en famille, we’ve driven round trips to Madison, Wisconsin, and the Florida Keys (via Research Triangle Park, Savannah, Coral Gables, Wilmington NC, Washington, and Philadelphia), snapping photos all the way, mostly of touristy things like beaches and palm trees, but also of all manner of publicly visible objects.

I take pictures of bridges, waterways, ships, roads, hotels, cars, signs, beaches, docks, ports, city buildings, museums, schools, churches, factories, houses, store windows, gardens, historic sights, and so on.

At home in Ontario I take pictures of our tall downtown buildings, pictures of police stations if they happen to be in a street scene, crowds of passers-by, universities, construction projects, power plants, overpasses, streetlights, doorways, police on horses or bicycles, demonstrations in front of the U.S. embassy (from the car or from a distance). I take pictures out of the car window.

For the last year or so I’ve had only my cell phone for a still & video camera, after I managed to drop or otherwise damage four snap-shooting cameras in two years. So I don’t look like I planned to take pictures. I generally slip the phone into my pocket if anyone takes any notice so maybe they don’t think it’s worth bothering about.

It’s an experiment of one, but no one has ever said anything to me. Odd, isn’t it?

Well, that’s not true. I was taking pictures of the Christmas display in a Toronto drug store when one of the staff asked me not to. So I stopped. I guess they don’t want their ideas stolen.

I hate double standards.


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