Photographers Becoming Security Concerns

Photographers across the country have complained of getting harassed by law enforcement officials citing security concerns since the September 11 terrorist attacks.

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Imagine you're on vacation. You take out your camera to snap a picture of the sun setting behind a bridge, and the next thing you know, the police are asking for your ID. Since the September 11th terrorist attacks, amateur photographers across the country say they've been hassled, intimidated and even arrested for taking pictures on public property. Law enforcement officials say they're protecting potential targets of terrorism. From member station WHYY, Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE reporting:

Robert Cheney(ph) didn't think he was doing anything wrong. Earlier this year, Cheney was standing on this public sidewalk near the Walt Whitman Bridge.

Mr. ROBERT CHENEY (Photographer): Well, we're on Delaware Avenue in Philadelphia. It's just sort of an industrial area on the Delaware River, where there are various terminals for commerce.

ROSE: Cheney says he was interested in the patterns that power lines make against an overcast sky. He says he'd been snapping pictures of them for about 45 minutes when a police officer drove up in an SUV.

Mr. CHENEY: She came up and she said, `What are you doing?' and I told her I was shooting these images with this old Polaroid camera for this art exhibition. At that point, she told me to stand against the vehicle, asked me to spread my legs, frisked me.

ROSE: Cheney says the officer took his camera and the pictures he had taken. After a few minutes, she gave him back the camera, but not the pictures.

Mr. CHENEY: I said, `Was this trespassing? Is that the problem?' She said, `It doesn't have anything to do with that.' And `Have you been asleep for the last few years? Don't you know about 9/11?'

ROSE: Cheney says the officer told him he was standing near a chemical plant, a potential target of terrorism, but the laws concerning photography have not changed since September 11th. Victor Perlman is general counsel for the American Society of Media Photographers. He says there's nothing in the Patriot Act or any other Homeland Security legislation that restricts the right to take pictures from public property.

Mr. VICTOR PERLMAN (American Society of Media Photographers): If you were photographing something that is visible from a public space while on a public space, there are virtually no laws that really prohibit that. The problems aren't with the rules. The problems are with either people not knowing the rules or not enforcing them properly.

ROSE: In Philadelphia, police are trying to be sensitive to the rights of photographers, says inspector Robert Tucker, head of the department's Domestic Preparedness division. But he also says photographers who are taking pictures near bridges, refineries or chemical plants should expect police to ask questions.

Mr. ROBERT TUCKER (Domestic Preparedness Division, Philadelphia): Would we like them not to photograph sensitive infrastructures? I would. It would make our job a lot easier. But you know what? There's some beautiful photographs. And we understand that. But with that understanding, know that if we should get a 911 call, that an officer will respond and ask reasonable questions. And you know what? You have reasonable answers, there'll be a very positive interaction.

ROSE: It wasn't a positive interaction for amateur photographer Bill Madeira. In June of 2002, he and a friend were taking pictures of oil refineries in South Philadelphia at dusk.

Mr. BILL MADEIRA (Amateur Photographer): A cop came along. We showed him our IDs, and he went away, and then about 15 minutes later, there was a helicopter and four squad cars and 10 cops with their hands on their guns. When I asked, `What's going on here?' they said, `Don't you know what's happening in this country? And it's illegal to take pictures of an oil refinery.' And I said, `That's not true.' And long about then, they handcuffed us and threw us in the back of different squad cars and held us for close to midnight without letting me call a lawyer or charging us with anything.

ROSE: The local chapter of the ACLU filed a wrongful arrest suit on behalf of Madeira and his friend. The city settled out of court, giving them each $2,500. Stories like these are not confined to Philadelphia. In December of 2003, security guards stopped amateur photographer Jeffrey Thorns from taking pictures outside a federal office building in Portland, Oregon. Thorns says he was shooting pictures of the decorative ironwork on the building's gate.

Mr. JEFFREY THORNS (Amateur Photographer): They surrounded me, told me I couldn't take any pictures, it was illegal to take pictures of this building, and they needed to do a background check on me right away.

ROSE: That was their word, `illegal'?

Mr. THORNS: Illegal--that was their word, yeah. They were under the impression that just taking a picture of that federal structure from a public sidewalk was illegal.

ROSE: It's not illegal to photograph federal buildings, except for classified military bases. Internet discussion groups are full of amateur photographers like Thorns, who claim they've been harassed and intimidated for taking pictures of bridges, trains and federal office buildings. Victor Perlman of the American Society of Media Photographers says even professionals are worried.

Mr. PERLMAN: Before September 11th, we almost never got calls about photographers who've run into a problem. Now I think routinely, we hear reports probably on a monthly basis or even more.

ROSE: Some are turning to the Web site of attorney Bert Krages. Just before September 11th, he published a book called "Legal Rights of Photographers." After the attacks, he posted a one-page summary of photographers' rights modeled on the ACLU's Bustcard. He says it's been downloaded more than a hundred and seventy thousand times. He thinks photographers are running into a general fear of their medium.

Mr. BURT KRAGES (Attorney/Author): I think it's more a cultural fear than one that's based in reality. When you go and you look at actual terrorist attacks and how they're carried out, images just have never played an important role.

ROSE: But the Department of Homeland Security says photography has played a role in planning for terrorist attacks. DHS spokesman Brian Roehrkasse says the department has evidence that al-Qaeda used photography to study financial institutions in New York City, Newark, New Jersey, and Washington, DC.

Mr. BRIAN ROEHRKASSE (DHS Spokesman): There is intelligence that we know al-Qaeda has conducted surveillance activities, and one of the ways in which they do so is to use photography.

ROSE: Roehrkasse says the Department of Homeland Security is trying to help local officials understand the law so they can balance security and civil liberties.

Mr. ROEHRKASSE: We've provided a number of different items for guidance, including terrorist threat reporting guides, things that gives them guidance on how to determine what activities could or could not be suspicious based on what they know about their communities.

ROSE: Roehrkasse declined to share those threat guides. Ultimately, he says it's the responsibility of federal, state and local agencies to decide what is a real threat and what is not, but that may contribute to what Eugene Mopsik calls a climate of inconsistent enforcement. Mopsik is executive director of the American Society of Media Photographers. He's also a former commercial photographer. Five years ago, Mopsik says most of his colleagues knew what they could and could not do.

Mr. EUGENE MOPSIK (American Society of Media Photographers): The problem is now, you're not sure when you're on the wrong spot or when you're photographing the wrong thing, because what one man perceives to be a threat is not necessarily how you would perceive the threat. It's just all less obvious.

ROSE: As a result, Mopsik says today there are some photographs he simply would not try to take. For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose in Philadelphia.

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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