Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Photography Under Surveillance

"I-90 Bridge Over the Flats"

“I can see him walking down the West steps. Yes, he’s the guy with the beard and camera. He’s taking pictures of the railroad tracks right now…..”

I could overhear the young security guard as he spoke into his walkie talkie. He was obviously reporting my step by step movements to somebody in the building’s command center. Was that a laser dot I imagined on the back of my neck? Or was I just being paranoid?

"West of the Federal Courthouse"

Fortunately I’d made the guard’s friendly acquaintance a few minutes earlier. I had even given him a business card. “My specialty is weddings,” I cheerily said “If you know anybody getting married I’d be glad to provide a free quote. I also do other social events.”

"On the Detroit Superior Bridge"

This was a recent encounter I had on my way to work. I’d stopped at a downtown street corner with camera in hand to take advantage of the Fall morning light as it spread across downtown Cleveland.

The sun is quickly getting lower in the sky. The shadows are growing longer. This creates an intriguing pastel interplay over the bridges and tracks that crisscross the Flats. It’s a photographer’s dream and my favorite shooting venue. Unfortunately I was capturing these scenes from the plaza of the Federal Courthouse. My actions attracted a security guard who seemed to appear from nowhere.

"Ore Freighter Alcoway on the Cuyahoga"

Our “introduction” went well since I made it a point to be pleasant and cooperative in response to his questions. I even referred him to my website where he could view my work. I have no doubt that he and a variety of cameras kept a close watch on me. But I made sure to direct my camera and attention away from the Federal building. They don't like people taking closeup photos of the building.

"A Rainy View from the Superior Viaduct"

I respect law enforcement. Police, the Feds and security guards have a tougher job today since 911. Anything perceived as suspicious behavior becomes suspect. Mundane activities can really be hidden threats. In partial defense of the Establishment I can understand this attitude.

"Guardian of Transportation - Hope Memorial Bridge"

The urban photographer can easily fall into the category of suspicion as he walks around the city, loitering with camera in hand, studying the shadows and detail, looking for the next “great shot”. Will photographing a bridge attract unwanted attention? Does aiming a camera at a freighter look suspicious? If you seem too interested in a Federal building does that imply an ulterior motive?

I know what I am doing when I photograph a cityscape. But how does that appear to law enforcement? Extra effort must be made to act responsibly and with common sense these days. Now more than ever you have to be aware of your surroundings.

"Near the Oxbow Area"

On the way back to my car I cut through a parking lot. The attendant spotted me and quickly approached. "What are you doing here with that camera?" Again, I explained my photographic interest in the Flats and gave him a business card. We chatted a little. Eventually he seemed convinced that I was harmless.

"The reason I stopped you is because last week there was another guy going through the lot with a camera. He was taking pictures of all the cars. We think maybe he was a car thief making up some inventory photos for interested buyers." Now that's something I never would have thought of myself.

Click on photo to see full panoramic image