WARNING! Be very aware of WHERE you are shooting in the United States!
I'm writing this to alert all of you to be very aware WHERE you are shooting while in the United States! Yesterday I was out doing some street shooting and apparently I wandered a little too close to our Federal Building downtown with my camera and I was immediately ran down by four officers, detained and questioned for over an hour.
I currently live in Akron Ohio. A city of about 200,000 people in the northeast United States. During my lunch hour I went out on a beautiful sunny day excited to do some photography. I wandered down main street shooting various subjects for about a half hour and without finding much I wandered a little further down than I normally go which brought by our federal building. I wandered up in front of the building in the courtyard where they have a sculpture. I took several photos of the sculpture (shooting away from the building) I wandered around looking at a memorial they have there and then continued on my way. I crossed the street via the crosswalk and continued down the other side of the street. I took a picture of a woman in a car, a really old TV set in a window and a view of the construction of our new library being built downtown. Soon after I arrived at this spot I heard someone yelling. Being downtown I ignored it. They kept yelling and eventually I looked back and I saw 3 uniformed officers and one plain clothes man running toward me. I was very surprised that they closed in on me and the man asked me to step back over by the officers and he immediately told me to give him my bag and to put my hands above my head. By this time I was surrounded by men with guns and standing on the sidewalk in public view feeling embarrassed and confused without a really good reason since I was clearly out just enjoying the day and minding my own business.
The officer at this point proceeded to quickly go through my bag and he arrogantly asked me "why I was talking pictures of the Federal building and the businesses across the street?" I immediately realized where I was and why they were on me. I was blown away that it did not even cross my mind where I was on the day after September 11th. The officer asked me for my I.D. and proceeded to ask me a few more questions and then told me that I needed to come with him into the federal building so they could check my identification. I was immediately surprised that this had gone on as long as it had because I had a good explanation for what I was doing, I had proper I.D., I don't look like a suspicious person, I am clearly born and raised in the United States, I was being more than cooperative AND I was in a public place minding my own business!
So I was interested to see how far this was going to go so I went with him. Mostly because I was curious and because I am a quiet, non-confrontational person. I'm not sure I really had a choice though and soon I found myself in the bowels of the basement in a grungy hole in the wall office surrounded by mold and security guards. At this point he asked me a few more questions, he asked me if there was anything that I needed to tell him before he started a background check and then he left me with an armed guard for about 15 minutes.
Once he returned he was looking at me funny and acting more and more accusatory. He asked me again if there was anything else I wanted to tell him and then made a phone call. At this point I was getting a little nervous. I have nothing to hide but the way he was acting was very strange. While on the phone he kept asking the person on the other end questions and finally he said "No, it is 298, not 297!" Apparently the person with the 297 Social Security number was wanted for 3 felonies! After this was cleared up he gave them the order to do another background check. This time on the right person! Over the next 15 minutes he continued to go through my wallet and cameras and asked me everything from family information, where I worked, how long I've been doing photography (twice), why I had a tape measure in my bag, he went through every item in my wallet, and then told me that he was going to keep the film that was in my camera so they could develop it. I was told after 30 days I could contact them to get my film back IF everything check out ok. If not they would be contacting me!
During this questioning his tone was fairly accusatory which pissed me off. One of his questions was even "Do you get a new license every time you move? I recently moved and had to get a new license because I lost it. I'm pretty sure this question was uncalled for and from that point on I was starting to get really ticked and annoyed because this had gone on much longer than I thought it would. It really should have ended on the sidewalk in front of the building and I would have admired their job of being observant. As a good upstanding citizen I did not belong in the basement of a government building being interrogated while on my lunch hour! Anyway, this went on for another 10-15 minutes and after a long "talking to" by the agent about never coming close to the Federal building again with my camera and making sure that I always ask business owners IF I can photograph their building before doing so... he let me go with the promise to contact me if something DIDN'T check out.
At this point I was just happy that it was over and I hurried back to work to explain where I had been for the last 2.5 hours. I happen to work for a newspaper and web publishing company so I have contacts there that work or have worked professionally as photographers. I told my story and my friend was immediately outraged and called his photographer friend at the newspaper who was equally outraged at what had happened to me. After speaking to both of them I quickly realized that what happened was a major violation of my rights as a citizen. Not only was I minding my own business in a public place, I pay for that public place with my tax dollars and I have every right to be there doing whatever I want. (Within reason obviously) In addition to that they took my film which can be considered theft without a warrant. They were never concerned about me needing to get back to work, they didn't ask if I needed to call someone, and I was left feeling somewhat violated and ashamed for not being aware of my surroundings in a public place which is completely uncalled for.
One other interesting thing that I realized on the way home that day is that a week earlier I made a quick trip to our local airport. I live in a fairly rural area other than the city I work in and I am always looking for creative opportunities to shoot interesting people and locations. I live about 5 minutes from the airport so I thought I would run up there and see what kind of interesting stuff I could find. Those pictures were exposed and in my back at the time of this event. What if they demanded to develop all my film and found pictures from our local airport! I did have a few images exposed on my camera before I started the day I was interrogated and my first thought was Oh, my god, that roll of film he took has images of the airport on it also!! I'm almost positive that the first 6 images exposed on that roll are of my new born son so I won't have to go through explaining that!! Thank god he didn't take all my film either or I would have had some explaining to do for sure! Regardless though, this falls in the same category! I was in a public place minding my own business! I had every right to be there and I was not causing any problems.
So, at this point I was referred to a reporter at our local newspaper and I have spoken to him at length about my experience. Apparently there was another episode involving a couple high school kids that were hired by the mayor to photograph potholes downtown. They found themselves down by the Federal building and they were put through a similar interrogation. Unlike me thought they were scared to death by the experience! So, they plan to do a story on the events.
Let me say though that I am not complaining about their attention to the possible "threat". I appreciate the fact that they noticed me and they stopped me and checked out my purpose for being there with a camera. The problem I have is the extent of the interrogation, the inconvenience, the fact that they took my film and inspected everything on my person other than my interior cavity, and the way they made me feel even though I was clearly within my rights as a citizen minding my own business in a public place!
I would appreciate some comments on my adventure and some advice on our rights as photographers if possible. Please also share similar experiences if possible. Thanks for your time and hopefully my experience will save some of you from going through the same harassment and trouble.
-- Chris Auman , September 13, 2003; 09:52 A.M. Eastern
The post and discussion can be found here.