Thursday, August 18, 2011

Security theater

This week's Security Theater Outrage has to be the hoohah in Long Beach CA where a photographer/artist was detained by the police for taking a picture "with no apparent esthetic value."  Seems he photographed a rusty wall at an oil refinery and the cop asked for ID and held him for a bit while checking his driver's license.  The cop apparently decided everything was OK and left.

photo by Sander Roscoe Wolff

That part was relatively simple, and you might think that the forces of good prevailed.  But after the incident was reported in the local paper, and the National Press Photographer's Association got into the fray, the official explanation leaves many with sinking feelings in their stomachs.

The police chief explained that cops are required to follow up on suspicious activity that might indicate terrorist intentions.  Suspicious activity includes taking pictures "with no apparent esthetic value," taking notes, using cameras and binoculars, and asking about an establishment's hours of operation.

Those of us who typically carry cameras around with us, and like to take pictures of rusty walls, and might write down something as we walk, should probably take pause.  (And who might wonder what time the restaurant opens...)  Of course, the police have always had the power to inquire into suspicious behavior, even before 9/11 put everybody on pins and needles, and in any encounter with law enforcement civilians have to hope for good judgment from the officer.  But it's disturbing to realize that written guidelines officially establish what most of us would consider ordinary behavior as suspicious -- and that many people are perfectly willing to go along with this shadow on our rights.

I was tipped to this story through discussion on the Quiltart list, which can always be counted on to provide a wide range of opinions on any subject.  Most of the commenters agreed with me that the Long Beach episode verges on Security Theater.  But a few made remarks that I found deeply discouraging.

One person wrote:  "What a wonderful photo!  I can see why the police were concerned though. I guess it pays to get permission first."  (As for me, I can't see why the police were concerned.  And wonder whom one might ask for permission to photograph rusty walls.)

Another wrote:  "Just because we claim to be an artist, or a professional photographer, does not does mean that we have special privilege to go anywhere we please or take any photograph we please, or use our binoculars or zoom lenses anywhere we please.... Yes, there are places in the USA, and definitely in other countries, where you cannot take any photos you want to take, places such as refineries, electrical/power stations, military bases/ports, water supply systems, dams, manufacturing plants, and a whole bunch of other places."

As for me, I don't claim special artist privilege to go anywhere I please or take any photo I please.  I do claim ordinary citizen privilege to go anywhere it's legal to go, and take a picture if I want to, whether or not a cop thinks it's pretty.  If there are legitimate security reasons to keep me from taking photos, then they can post a sign, or better yet, put up a fence to keep me out and/or block my view.  Ironically, if a real terrorist wants to case out a refinery, he can probably do a much better job from the privacy of his own cave, thanks to Google Earth and Google Street View.


  1. My husband likes to photographs trains. He and his buddies always stand on public property. I can't tell you how many times he has been chased off by the police and been told he can't take a picture. It's pretty alarming, since if he doesn't leave, the police can always just arrest him as they see fit.

  2. How about this. One of my friends went to a high school reunion. His hometown is far away and he had not visited for sometime and he took pictures all over town including one of the public swimming pool where he swam as a child. He was run off and told to stop taking pictures by police. We assume they feared he was a creep watching children. We live in a world consumed by anxiety and fear. Sometimes these concerns make sense and others are like taking pictures of rusty walls or wanting to document places and things we remember from long ago.