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News & Insight

A Major Lawsuit Is On To Defend The Right To Take Pictures In Public

By Kishore Sawh on July 13th 2014

It seems more and more that in the eyes of the government, the difference between ‘terrorist’ and ‘tourist’ stop at the spelling. Taking a photograph of some sort of landmark seems enough to land you on government ‘Suspicious Activity Reports’ (SARs). Over and over again, at both a federal and local level, there are countless instances of people taking photographs of all manners of things in public, and then being questioned for their actions, and some even landing on SARs reports, which would have them in the same company as some really sordid folk, and affect their lives beyond the questioning.

86 year old James Prigoff took a moment to photograph a rather unusually colorful, rainbow painted natural gas storage tank in Boston about a decade ago. This was an action that would have federal agents turn up at his house months later to question him, and have his name added to a government database for suspicious activity. Very similar occurrences are affecting four other people, and now the group is suing the federal government over these reports and actions against them.

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All were involved in some seemingly innocent activity, photographing locations of some aesthetic appeal; viewing a site about video games, another attempted to buy computers at Best Buy, and another apparently was thought suspicious when waiting outside the ladies restroom for his mother. These actions, it seems, are enough to land you on counterterrorism databases, and put you subject to interrogation.

[REWIND: Viral Photos Gets World Cup Fan Modeling Contract, Now Revoked ]

The suit was filed this past week at the District Court for the Northern District of California by the American Civil Liberties of Northern California, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus, and the ACLU. Prigoff, the photographer, is an accomplished photographer with published books to his name and a former executive with Sara Lee and Levi Strauss. He claims security told him he could not take photos of the landmark tank as it was on private property, even though he himself was not, and law states he was doing nothing wrong. Yet, it led to FBI interrogation.

All I was doing was taking pictures in a public place, and now I’m apparently in a government terrorism database for decades. This is supposed to be a free country, where the government isn’t supposed to be tracking you if you’re not doing anything wrong. I lived through the McCarthy era, and I know how false accusations, surveillance, and keeping files on innocent people can destroy careers and lives. I am deeply troubled that the SAR program may be recreating that same climate of false accusation and fear today.

The issues largely seem to arise from the nebulous definition of ‘suspicious activity,’ and the amount of authority the government allows security forces not only to have, but to enforce, based largely on individual feelings of the officers. This suit seems to aim to seriously curtail the practice or possibly reform or stop it altogether.

Thoughts

All of this hits rather close to home for me. I’m of Indian descent, I love photography, and obsessed with aviation. That, it seems, paints a rather sizable target on my back. In fact, one of the other people in the suit was looking to purchase a flight simulator and that it seemed, along with his religious/cultural background, was what warranted the interrogation.

I will be following the outcome of this, though it may take a while, as I feel as the ACLU stated in a blog post of this program, “It encourages a culture of fear and distrust, undermining our freedom with no known benefit to our safety.” What are your thoughts on the matter? Have you been questioned by the Feds about photographing something as unusual as a national landmark?

Source: Wired, ACLU
 Image credit: WikiCommons by Lazart75

About

A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Arnold Ziffel

    On the other hand, how many lives have been saved? Maybe I shouldn’t mind answering a few questions about my photography.

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    • Jim Johnson

      That is an easy question to answer. None.

      There has not been a single instance where a questioned photographer turned out to be involved with any sort of nefarious activity— not even after the fact.

      Paranoia breads paranoia, not safety.

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    • Jim Johnson

      *breeds

      Damn auto correct.

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    • Steven Pellegrino

      The problem with the post 9/11 attitude is that common sense goes out the window. If someone were intent on doing some sort of damage to what is considered “terrorist targets”, they wouldn’t be standing there with DSLRs being obvious about taking photos. They also wouldn’t admit to it when questioned by an authority figure.

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  2. James Matthews

    I must admit to sometimes feeling like I’m a criminal because I wander around with my beige colored lens. A few times I’ve left my camera at home because it’s just not worth the hassle.

    This isn’t just restricted to the USA though, unfortunately it’s spreading to all of the ‘brotherly’ countries. I was at Bondi Beach in Australia shooting surfing with my 100-400mm and a lifeguard approached me to say that he’d had complaints that I was capturing someone’s daughter, even though the whole time I was down there I was on rocks and shooting only surfing. He tried to pull my camera from me and didn’t succeed. I told him to call the police and I was just glad that the policeman had common sense at told the lifeguard he was in the wrong.

    Paranoid governments, over-zealous security guards, grumpy coppers…life gets harder for us photographers…

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Thankfully, as of this moment, I’ve not run into a scenario quite like the one you’ve described. However, I am hyper aware of being perceived as some perv or God knows, and sadly that makes me bring the camera to my face less. There have been times around playgrounds where I’ve taken young cousins and have photographed them as they run around frantically, and I can just sense the unease of some of the people who think I may be photographing their children.

      I have to tell you James, if that lifeguard would’ve put his hands on me or my gear I would’ve been the one to call the Police myself.

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  3. Steven Pellegrino

    It’s important for photographers to know their rights and understand this aspect of the law. Photography, in public, is not a crime. Police who are looking to be the next all American hero will try to intimidate you. They will lie to you. If you are in public space, you can photograph. It’s that simple. No consent is needed. Buildings, bridges, national landmarks are not illegal to photograph.

    The police can try and detain you, but if you stand your ground and ask (sometimes repeatedly) “am I free to go?” and “what are you detaining me for?”, eventually they will let you go. You don’t have to present your driver’s license to the police. You don’t have to answer their questions. In fact most lawyers will tell you not to talk to the police. Police departments all over the country are losing lawsuits because they are infringing on our first amendment rights. They are paid to enforce the law, not break it.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      “They are paid to enforce the law, not break it” – if only this was more widely understood.

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  4. Asad Qayyum

    About time too…we need something like this in the UK as well. It is a real pain if you try and take a picture near a bridge (of which there are many) on the Thames in London; it roughly takes 5 minutes for a copper to turn up.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      I may have to test that out soon to see how long it takes to get questioned. I’m in London often and thankfully haven’t had an issue yet. I tend not to walk around with large equipment though. I also just assume I’m being watched all the time…which is a bit horrible really.

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  5. Drew Valadez

    And I was just saying on the TSA article you put up, Kishore, that things will only get worse.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Hey Drew, so I see. I wish you were wrong, but by all accounts, you’re right on the money.

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  6. Brian Stalter

    It is in these instances that I believe terrorists have won – they have made people terrified of them and have caused many to lose freedoms they once enjoyed (despite the risks).

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Brian, I agree, and have thought this for a while. This is where the true terror is. Their real victory, and the very thing we need to fight to overcome.

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  7. Patrick van Os

    Interesting story. Thank you for sharing. I’m not an American but I like visiting the states for vacation with my camera. The last thing souvenir I want to come home with is being on that list. I’m curious what the outcome will be.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Not a problem Patrick. I’m Canadian and currently a resident here in the US, and I get rather nervous at times with this sort of thing just because I’ve seen the way even citizens have been, on occasion, treated. I’m about as harmful as a church mouse, but I fear that something as casual as shooting a natural gas tank could land me on some list, and jeopardize day to day life. So, I share your concern….daily.

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  8. Jim Johnson

    I had an issue photographing a paper mill from private property (owned by someone else, with permission). Both I and the property owner were confronted by local police.

    I filed a formal letter of complaint with the sheriff department, but it never went any further. The deputy handling the case was not at all interested in the investigation, but was just going through the routine for the paperwork. If he hadn’t felt it was such a waste of time though, he might have kicked it up to the FBI.

    I really felt sorry for the property owner. He was quite shaken by the idea of being thought of as a “law breaker”. That, I think, is the worst part of it; it creates a climate of fear that makes people voluntarily give up taking advantage of their rights.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Jim, that’s quite horrible. I can’t say I’m surprised your own complaint didn’t get far, mind you, that seems to be par for the course these days. I would be interested to see what their actual concern was for photographing something so, dare I say, run-of-the-mill?

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    • Jim Johnson

      Paper mills are actually giant chemical plants with nasty thing in them (ammonia, turpentine, etc.) in massive amounts.

      They can be quite nasty, but I’m guessing it was someone just over reacting or who couldn’t mind their own business.

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