The War on Photography

What is it with photographers these days? Are they really all terrorists, or does everyone just think they are?

Since 9/11, there has been an increasing war on photography. Photographers have been harassed, questioned, detained, arrested or worse, and declared to be unwelcome. We’ve been repeatedly told to watch out for photographers, especially suspicious ones. Clearly any terrorist is going to first photograph his target, so vigilance is required.

Except that it’s nonsense. The 9/11 terrorists didn’t photograph anything. Nor did the London transport bombers, the Madrid subway bombers, or the liquid bombers arrested in 2006. Timothy McVeigh didn’t photograph the Oklahoma City Federal Building. The Unabomber didn’t photograph anything; neither did shoe-bomber Richard Reid. Photographs aren’t being found amongst the papers of Palestinian suicide bombers. The IRA wasn’t known for its photography. Even those manufactured terrorist plots that the US government likes to talk about—the Ft. Dix terrorists, the JFK airport bombers, the Miami 7, the Lackawanna 6—no photography.

Given that real terrorists, and even wannabe terrorists, don’t seem to photograph anything, why is it such pervasive conventional wisdom that terrorists photograph their targets? Why are our fears so great that we have no choice but to be suspicious of any photographer?

Because it’s a movie-plot threat.

A movie-plot threat is a specific threat, vivid in our minds like the plot of a movie. You remember them from the months after the 9/11 attacks: anthrax spread from crop dusters, a contaminated milk supply, terrorist scuba divers armed with almanacs. Our imaginations run wild with detailed and specific threats, from the news, and from actual movies and television shows. These movie plots resonate in our minds and in the minds of others we talk to. And many of us get scared.

Terrorists taking pictures is a quintessential detail in any good movie. Of course it makes sense that terrorists will take pictures of their targets. They have to do reconnaissance, don’t they? We need 45 minutes of television action before the actual terrorist attack—90 minutes if it’s a movie—and a photography scene is just perfect. It’s our movie-plot terrorists that are photographers, even if the real-world ones are not.

The problem with movie-plot security is it only works if we guess the plot correctly. If we spend a zillion dollars defending Wimbledon and terrorists blow up a different sporting event, that’s money wasted. If we post guards all over the Underground and terrorists bomb a crowded shopping area, that’s also a waste. If we teach everyone to be alert for photographers, and terrorists don’t take photographs, we’ve wasted money and effort, and taught people to fear something they shouldn’t.

And even if terrorists did photograph their targets, the math doesn’t make sense. Billions of photographs are taken by honest people every year, 50 billion by amateurs alone in the US. And the national monuments you imagine terrorists taking photographs of are the same ones tourists like to take pictures of. If you see someone taking one of those photographs, the odds are infinitesimal that he’s a terrorist.

Of course, it’s far easier to explain the problem than it is to fix it. Because we’re a species of storytellers, we find movie-plot threats uniquely compelling. A single vivid scenario will do more to convince people that photographers might be terrorists than all the data I can muster to demonstrate that they’re not.

Fear aside, there aren’t many legal restrictions on what you can photograph from a public place that’s already in public view. If you’re harassed, it’s almost certainly a law enforcement official, public or private, acting way beyond his authority. There’s nothing in any post-9/11 law that restricts your right to photograph.

This is worth fighting. Search “photographer rights” on Google and download one of the several wallet documents that can help you if you get harassed; I found one for the UK, US, and Australia. Don’t cede your right to photograph in public. Don’t propagate the terrorist photographer story. Remind them that prohibiting photography was something we used to ridicule about the USSR. Eventually sanity will be restored, but it may take a while.

This essay originally appeared in The Guardian.

EDITED TO ADD (6/6): Interesting comment by someone who trains security guards.

EDITED TO ADD (6/13): More on photographers’ rights in the U.S.

Posted on June 5, 2008 at 6:44 AM146 Comments


Sejanus June 5, 2008 6:52 AM

The problem lies in politics. Government wants to create the feeling of security (as opposed to real security). It’s much better considering elections. People vote for those who make them feel safe.

Thank you for the links, Bruce. As an amateur photographer, I will need them sooner or later. Or so it seems 🙁

Clive Robinson June 5, 2008 6:53 AM

@ Bruce,

“If we spend a zillion dollars defending Wimbledon and terrorists blow up a different sporting event, that’s money wasted. If we post guards all over the Underground and terrorists bomb a crowded shopping area, that’s also a waste.”

I use the underground at Wimbledon very frequently, is there something you are trying to tell us 8)

Peter Galbavy June 5, 2008 7:09 AM

I see two cause for the War on Photographers (speaking as a occasional semi-pro).

1) The greed for power by the jumped up uniformed rent-a-guards. These people have nothing better, literally, to do than find ways of harassing people knowing that they are protected from on-high as this harassment is part of their jobs and contributes to the greed-for-power of those above them. Keeping us sheeple in line is the primary over-arching objective, after all.

2) Photographers (and videographers) are particularly dangerous in that they can, by accident or intentionally, gather evidence independently of the establishment. Imagine a world where those suffering abuse by the authorities could point to documentary evidence and say “look!”. Remember that the whole Abu-Ghrab (sp?) thing only became a sensation when pictures were published. Remember the CCTV that didn’t exist at Stockwell ?

In the UK, DPA and all that not withstanding, it is common for victims of crime – especially where the allegation are against the establishment (police etc.) to be refused access to CCTV footage to help their claims. “It’s missing.” or “The tape has been over-written.” or simply “You can’t see that.” is quite common. If the police do not want to use CCTV or other evidence to help you, you cannot help yourself without independent material.

Ed T. June 5, 2008 7:09 AM

Actually, this isn’t totally a movie-plot threat. In various books on the Pearl Harbor attack, there are accounts of Japanese “spies” who posed as tourists, and took lots of photos of the naval base, several months prior to the attack.

Maybe the problem is that, instead of fighting the most recent last war, we are fighting our (grand)parents last war.


Michael DeHaan June 5, 2008 7:21 AM

I’ve been told to put away a camera taking pictures of Traffic Cones (yes, seriously) at a Ferry station. I’m not sure why Traffic Cones are such a huge threat to national security — though if you want to queue that up for your next Movie Threat contest, I’m sure we could think of some things.

I’m tired of the paranoia and fear-mongering by the Bush administration and am very looking forward to the next election. What is going on in the UK is incredibly scary WRT constant surveillance and we are drifting in that direction.

Clive Robinson June 5, 2008 7:24 AM

@ Peter Galbavy,

I was looking for the link of the US Prof that wired himself up with CCTV etc and recorded his whole “life experiance”.

This was prior to 9/11 and even then he had store gaurds saying he could not come in. His conclusion was that it was either of the points you mentioned

So perhaps it is a smidgen of proof that it has nothing to do with terrorists but an allready entrenched abuse of power by those who belive they have they are above others (like their customers).

Clive Robinson June 5, 2008 7:34 AM

@ Ed T.,

“In various books on the Pearl Harbor attack, there are accounts of Japanese “spies” who posed as tourists, and took lots of photos of the naval base, several months prior to the attack.

There is of course a simple explanation for this.

1) Until very recently pictures of military bases unlike national monuments where not available to the “masses” (thanks Google Earth 8).

2) The non precision of a terorist attack usually does not require detailed “intel” of a target a simple walk through with the mark one eyeball is sufficient.

3) Further from point 2, terorists unlike the military can usually quite easily visit their targets without raising any suspicion. Imagine how suspicious several thousand military pilots who cannot speak the language would be on turning up at a forign military base and asking to be shown around…

Mike Gilday June 5, 2008 7:44 AM

Having been arrested ( for photographing a hospital – excuse me, “making terroristic threats”, I’m of the opinion that most of the issue is power-mongering by security guards and others with inflated senses of self-importance in positions of authority. Another part, obviously, is plain ignorance – an over-willingness to rely on (faulty) “common knowledge” and “received information”; you’d be amazed (well, perhaps not) how many security officers and even law enforcement officers thing the PATRIOT Act explicitly prohibits photography of this, that, or some other thing, when such is demonstrably not the case…

Anonymous June 5, 2008 7:47 AM

@Clive Robinson

‘I was looking for the link of the US Prof that wired himself up with CCTV etc and recorded his whole “life experiance”.’

Mann is now at the University of Toronto.

Terrorpeut June 5, 2008 7:52 AM

Great essay you’ve done. Short and to the point. I’m realy scared already making some fotos in special places.
Sad mad world.

NY Visitor June 5, 2008 8:01 AM

I visited the Statue of Liberty in New York recently, and was forced to stand in a very lengthy “security” line for over an hour so that I & my family could get on a ferry to the island hosting the Statue. Just before the entrance to the “security screening” area was a sign indicating that photography is prohibited. I am quite puzzled why nobody is allowed to take photos of a security screening checkpoint. Is there something about these screening checkpoints that might show up in a photograph? Thousands of people go through these checkpoints every day–what’s the problem with photographing them? Someone please tell me . . . Also, what’s to stop a “terrorist” from surreptitiously taking a photo with a cell phone while pretending to talk on it? Should we be afraid of people talking on cell phones, too?

Cal June 5, 2008 8:08 AM

Excellent article, as always.

Pragmatically, do the specific laws always matter? Who bothers to research them thoroughly? Our policies in the US are currently convoluted, counterintuitive, and frequently misunderstood or misapplied by both authorities and citizens. Furthermore, the “War on Terror” has intrinsically challenged our assumptions on US law, making the most bizarre restrictions plausible — and even palatable — to a misinformed populace. Previously, our assumption on the law was extremely simple:

“Hey, it’s a free country!”

Once this statement was commonly used (and occasionally misused) to generalize our laws, though now it’s impossible to declare without an ironic context. Obviously, the American culture of fear, coupled with the complexity of new policy, has dramatically changed our collective perception of the law. This introduces an extreme risk of abuse.

I’ve been registering voters on MARTA (the Metro Atlanta Rail Transit Authority) for the past few weeks, until recently, when a MARTA employee insisted that I leave. This employee alluded to the suspicious amount of time I spent on the platform. Then I was informed that taking any photos of the MARTA station would violate the Patriot Act.

Gareth June 5, 2008 8:11 AM

Reason #3:

So-called authorities in the realm of security (e.g. DHS) have no effing idea what they’re doing. They’re under pressure to do something, they’ve been appointed because they’re experienced bureaucrats or because they have political friends, and something – anything – better be done so they can report on it.

Most of the people I have met at the DHS wouldn’t know science or reason if it bit them on the ass. They just need three good bullets for their next power point presentation to their boss, who knows even less. “Prevented Photography at Station” is a super good bullet.

iowahawk June 5, 2008 8:14 AM

A few months ago I was re-entering the US on the Juarez-El Paso bridge, and took some pictures while waiting in the inspection lanes. At the booth stop the US Customs Agent asked to see my digital camera and the pictures, which were of the big “Welcome to the United States” sign. He instructed me to erase the pics “for security reasons.”

I had to laugh at the irony. Also, because I was totally drunk.

Eponymous June 5, 2008 8:17 AM

Yeah I’ve only ever seen the banal photo thing signalling intent of a later crime in the movies. Dub in a characteristic “kachink” camera sound, freeze frame the video for a second, and malice is afoot. Funny thing is, spy cams are much much more discreet than this anyway. If someone wanted to case a target, there are so many fantastic ways to hide cameras here in 2008 that the use of a visible camera would have to be part of a diversion.

BTW I travel through Union Station daily. It has much bigger security issues than photography. If someone decides to “hate our way of life” again, it’s a prime target.

Eponymous June 5, 2008 8:17 AM

Yeah I’ve only ever seen the banal photo thing signalling intent of a later crime in the movies. Dub in a characteristic “kachink” camera sound, freeze frame the video for a second, and malice is afoot. Funny thing is, spy cams are much much more discreet than this anyway. If someone wanted to case a target, there are so many fantastic ways to hide cameras here in 2008 that the use of a visible camera would have to be part of a diversion.

BTW I travel through Union Station daily. It has much bigger security issues than photography. If someone decides to “hate our way of life” again, it’s a prime target.

oscar June 5, 2008 8:28 AM

You seem to have forgotten the terrorist training camp hard drive from Afghanistan back in 2002. The space needle was one in one of the photos, and you would not believe the (media) hysteria in Seattle over the theoretical notion that Al Qaeda was planning on attacking it. Here’s a link so you don’t think I’m making all this up:

Here’s the paranoid local angle from back then:

LC June 5, 2008 8:33 AM

Think about it, people have more common sense than this. Perhaps these type of events that seem random are part of a larger scheme of security theatre. The premise: Lets make it widely known that security is so tight that even pictures of guns on tshirts will get you added scrutiny.

So the perception is, imagine how tight security must be at this or that particular airport, a terrorist might be inclined to be sucked into this perception, and think, “how would we ever be able to carry out this plot, even a picture of a gun on a tshirt will get you caught.”

askme23 June 5, 2008 8:38 AM

Ok, To take this a little off topic…

Does anyone else mind the ridiculous “no cellphones” rule going through US immigration customs?

They love the fact that there are no actual rights or laws applicable at that point and they can pretty much do that they please.

I keep planning (while waiting in line, of course) to learn a bit about the real rules, and their limits, and then shove them up the @$$ of the next guard that takes my cellphone and threatens me with arrest.

Sorry, rant a long time coming.

Also@ Bruce: nice up tic in quality recently.

Milan June 5, 2008 8:50 AM

There are two important responses to this trend. The first is to stress that it is useless for security purposes. If there is a situation in which taking a photo would help a terrorist to achieve their objectives, no enforceable anti-photo policy will deter them. Anyone willing to plan or undertake a terrorist attack will be able to tolerate any punishment that could conceivably be imposed for taking photos. They are also likely to be able to take photos in a way that will not be noticed: either with sneaky hidden cameras or with a simple camera phone or by developing an awareness of when the authorities are watching. Banning photography in places like vehicles and bridges punishes photography enthusiasts and serves no security purpose.

Secondly, the ability to take photographs is an important check against the abuse of authority. Without the infamous videotape, it is likely that the Rodney King beating would never have received public attention and that the officers involved would have been able to lie their way out of the situation. Similar abuses, such as the inappropriate use of tasers, have been appropriately documented because people present had the capability and initiative to make a recording. Photos, videos, and other recordings can provide a vital record of interactions with authority: both allowing people whose rights are abused to provide evidence and allowing frivolous claims to be dismissed. A security force that is serious about good conduct and oversight has nothing to fear and much to gain from a bit of public surveillance.

Kevin June 5, 2008 8:56 AM

Often terrorism is just the convenient excuse for “we want to make sure we profit off of any commercial use of these photos”, mostly evidenced when myself of friends get hassled for photographing using large pro-looking SLRs while a few feet away people are shooting of tiny point-and-shoots without being stopped. Businesses want their cut, and it’s easier to stop any photographer that looks like they could sell their images than it is to try and track down violations of copyright/whatever (which exists on newer architecture and some landmark buildings) and sue for damages later.

Either that or they’re assuming terrorists would use the most heavy and obvious equipment they possibly could.

D0R June 5, 2008 9:00 AM

Israel is building a 30-foot high wall in the West Bank to stop Palestinian terrorists. In the War on Photography, maybe the US Government should think about building a wall around Japan to stop tourists.

Big Blue Room Organization June 5, 2008 9:04 AM

Back about 2000 I became interested in panoramic photography. Being a former resident of NY’s capitol district one place I wanted to ‘capture’ in this medium was the seat of NY government, the Empire State Plaza at night. I’d visit friends in the area on weekends and then stop there on the way home to shoot, if the weather was right, the skys were clear, the floodlamps didn’t turn off in the middle of the capture, etc. Then there were refinements in equipment and software until I got the full spherical QTVR. It took a couple weeks of Sundays spread out over a few years.

Sometime late in 2001 or early 2002, an officer guarding the area requested that I leave and not photograph it, so I did. Then I went to the state of NY tourism agency gave them links to my work such as the Charlie’s Diner panorama and told them the story, requesting access to photograph it. A short time later I received a phone call from the captain of the Capitol’s state police unit whom somewhat apologized saying that staff had been moved about between various departments after Sept. 2001 and they had corrections personnel and parks police filling in for their normal capitol staff. He invited me to return and said if I gave notice they’d make sure I had access. I never again was asked to leave, nor, I think even approached by Capitol police staff, this work was captured in June 2003:

Though the experience lead me to produce this work, applying a four-colour tone to a panoramic view of the plaza captured in October 2001:

Historically when flying I would photograph Airport operations – the movement of people, plans, take-offs and landings while confied to those glass walled waiting areas and passing through these mangificant vistas crafted to give the traveller insight to the enormity of airport operations. In 20 years, until 2002 or 2003 no person in any airport I’d been through (US, Europe, AU, NZ, ZA) said anything to me, then National Guards in camo BDUs with M16s harrassed me in somewhere in the mid-west. As it happens the one photographs I’ve sold to a magazine was one of a United Airlines plane being de-iced in Denver taken many years ago (Scientific Amerian used it as a two page spread opening an article on weather and travel.)

We are all suspects now and it doesn’t take much to raise attention. In October 2002 I was travelling down I-84 in CT, driving an old Land Rover wearing a bandana over my nose and mouth so as to keep out allergins and road dirt. Some old couple passed me and then slowed down and I passed them and minutes later there were no less than four state police cars on my tail. As it happens I’d pulled over to re-fasten the canvas top when the first one pulled up, and he was polite enough and inquired as to my bandana, I politely told him it was allergy season for me and the less I inhaled the better, by then three other cars pulled up behind him. It does leave you to wonder how under the current administrations ‘lock up terrorists and ask questions many years later’ how close an ordinary US Citizen can come to being jailed without recourse.

One step further June 5, 2008 9:07 AM

It would seem, by this argument, prudent to track users of the Google “Street view” feature. Surely all who access this are doing so with bad intent.

Why does Google hate America so much?

Question Everything June 5, 2008 9:09 AM

“Think about it, people have more common sense than this.”

We should be so damn lucky. If people had more commonsense than this, we wouldn’t even need to have this discussion, and we’d all be a hell of a lot safer and less fearful than we are now.

For example, the whole liquid explosives thing is a movie-plot threat, utterly unfeasible, yet we just meekly accept the new rules anyway, because enough people believe it could happen and don’t bother to form their own opinion by questioning what they’re told and looking into it themselves.

I no longer feel safe at all, because not only are my chances of being harassed/detained/whatever that much greater because I happen to like taking photos, but while I’m being screwed over by the authorities, the people they should be looking for will be busy NOT taking photos and being left alone.

Every time we decide not to take a photo, or not wear a certain t-shirt to catch a flight, or any of the other things we’re being trained to fear and avoid, terrorism scores another small victory over us.

We keep being told something along the lines of “terrorists hate us because of our freedom”. Well if things keep on in the current direction, they’re going to be sending us love letters and birthday cards and telling us how wonderful we are before much longer.

Ken Hirsch June 5, 2008 9:20 AM

There are definitely cases where terrorists have photographed terrorists. For example, the U.S. embassy bombings in Africa

In October 2000, Mohamed told Judge Leonard Sand of the U.S. District Court in Manhattan that at the request of bin Laden, he had conducted surveillance of U.S., British, and French targets in Nairobi, including the U.S. embassy. He then delivered pictures, diagrams, and a report to bin Laden in Khartoum, Sudan. He said that bin Laden looked at a photograph of the U.S. embassy and pointed to the place where a bomb truck could be driven through.”

Still, since every teenager has a spy camera that would make James Bond envious, it seems stupid to harass people taking photos openly.

Brian June 5, 2008 9:23 AM

Oddly enough, when I searched for “photographer rights ireland” (though I’ve never had any trouble here), Google gave me a 403 error – “your query looks similar to automated requests from a computer virus or spyware application”.

A conspiracy? 🙂

jdw242b June 5, 2008 9:23 AM

one cannot erase a photographic memory;

The probability that the terrorists are being trained to recall a sites’ details, instead of storing photographic evidence, is greater than that of them being photographers.

Fear mongering; get some from the Bush administration! (and Republicans)

Adam Ansels June 5, 2008 9:30 AM

Thanks — one of your better essays.

I’m yet another avid photographer and haven’t been stopped yet, but have heard all the stories. I even get weekly security bulletin stats on “acts of photography.”

Public spaces: I just shoot away. Private spaces, or where I’m unsure: I just ask first. Courtesy goes a long way. Most of these folks are just doing what they’ve been told to do, and they’re trained not to question directives.

Edward June 5, 2008 9:47 AM

My theory is that photographers are being harassed because it discourages public documentation of police brutality and misbehaviour.

It’s basically a feature of a police state to disable the ability of the public to record police actions so that they can be publicised.

Rob June 5, 2008 9:48 AM

Many quasi-public places like shopping malls have tried to ban photography long before terrorism was a concern. (It’s just a convenient excuse they can now use and get away with.)

Their concern is control over their image.

Andrew June 5, 2008 9:54 AM

Peter says “The greed for power by the jumped up uniformed rent-a-guards. These people have nothing better, literally, to do than find ways of harassing people knowing that they are protected from on-high as this harassment is part of their jobs and contributes to the greed-for-power of those above them.”

Mike says: “I’m of the opinion that most of the issue is power-mongering by security guards and others with inflated senses of self-importance in positions of authority”

I train security guards. The law on photography is clear. As long as you are not photographing a U.S. government installation, you have every right to take photographs from public property, of that which is in public view. I’ve even used the photographer’s rights materials for guard training.

Peter, security guards have an awful lot to do. Post orders often exceed thirty pages of single-spaced instructions. It is not typical of the industry that guards are backed up by their management, rather the reverse. The guards are blamed for systemic issues created by the client and/or cost cutting. Answer: hire a replacement guard. Repeat until contract lost for poor performance.

Mike, you are correct that some organizations (amusingly enough, public transit agencies are among the worst) and private companies choose to throw their weight around on this issue. Please cast some of the blame at security managers, many of whom are former law enforcement or former military. Sadly enough, this is sometimes for a reason. They are the ones who tell their guards “Do this” and “do that.” With the decline in public education, many guards don’t KNOW what Constitutional rights are, they only know that they need the job to feed their kids so they’d better do what the boss says.

As for whether this (typical) system of underpaid, undertrained guards overseen by penny-pinching simplistic bureaucrats is effective at preventing terrorism, I ask you to consider security screening at airports. Also underpaid, in many cases poorly managed, with little attention to consequences. Then, 11 September. Now, TSA.

The issue with photographer’s rights is a symptom of a larger issue. People are simply more and more unaware of their basic rights in confrontation with authority. Even the authorities themselves don’t know where their boundaries are. My hats off to those who complain, critique and criticize. You are doing the rest of us an important service.

Anonymous_007 June 5, 2008 9:59 AM

I read somewhere years ago that video was going to be the urban ‘weapon of choice’ in the ’90s. So crazy, but here we are. Rodney King’s thing was a catalyst.

I video’d an irate neighbor cursing me out, and when he realized I was filming it all he suddenly lost all his energy – this was actually a good defensive tactic.

Shame, it’s so easy to shoot under-cover video, and stills. Were this an actual threat, you’d think some MegaBucks would be spent on anti-camera technology. I go with the movie-plot/theatre thinking.

Anonymous_007 June 5, 2008 10:10 AM

Thanks for the .pdf on Photog’s Rights.

Reading the first few lines “… The general rule in the United States is that anyone may take photographs of whatever they want when they are in a public place or places where they have permission to take photographs. …”

This brought back a memory of getting arrested in Saudi Arabia during the ’90’s Gulf War. We were just GI’s, and there was this huge oil refinery nearby. At night it had such a huge fire from a stack that it would literally make the shadows dance in our complex.
I grabbed a buddy and we drove straight into the place, and started snapping closer-up photos than we could at the complex. After 5-10 minutes guys w/guns speaking lingo we didn’t understand appeared. We got the idea …
Hours later, a translater told us the law of the land there was you could not just start shooting photos, blah blah. Still weird – had we been terrorists we could have wreaked havoc and been gone.
End of the story, they took that roll of film away and we were released. No charges, just a good scolding.
I dunno – are we going this way, of without specific permissions, it’s an automatic no-go? Sounds almost like Linux is taking over a Windows world – ?

Michael jay June 5, 2008 10:13 AM

My biggest pet peeve are the drones. Mono-ton security guards and law enforcement personnel who are trained not to think but follow orders.

I remember seeing a 90 year old fragile white man in a wheel chair being searched over from head to underfoot at an airport recently… WTF!

God gave us logic and reasoning capabilities, for the sake of your community use them!

bob June 5, 2008 10:23 AM

@Clive Robinson: “Imagine how suspicious several thousand military pilots who cannot speak the language would be on turning up at a forign military base and asking to be shown around…”

They’re pilots on both sides of the fence – as long as they they have beer with them they’ll be invited in…

jimf June 5, 2008 10:26 AM

Excellent column Bruce! The danger of photographs is greatly exaggerated…and impossible to prevent given the prevalence of camera phones. Time would be better spent on more productive activities.

Roy June 5, 2008 10:26 AM

Sanity will eventually be restored?

No, it won’t. The point of authoritarian excess is to make the subjects increasingly fearful. The more fearful they get, the more excessive the treatment will be. The goal is to turn all the citizens into obedient prisoners and all the authorities into sadistic guards, using the model of the privileged minority lording it over the unprivileged majority. It is a vicious cycle that has no end, at least no nonviolent end. The last time the cycle was broken hereabouts was in 1776.

Tim June 5, 2008 10:29 AM

I whole heartedly agree with the concepts covered in the essay. We are losing our fundamental rights little by little. But what I question is the basis for the assertions that none of the terrorists mentioned took pictures of their targets? Very difficult to prove a negative, but simply not having seen any of said photos does not mean they weren’t taken. I, personally, have never seen any photos of the Combat Information Center on the USS Ronald Regan. Does that mean they have never been taken? No. So unless Bruce has more inside access than any of us is aware of, I would guess that the statements are made simply to make a point. And we are all well advised to get that point.

Anonymous June 5, 2008 10:36 AM


Reads like uninformed babble.

Consider his little rant on the SOIA, and compare it to the actual text of the law:

I can’t even find the words “disposal of the photo at the direction of a lawful authority” anywhere in the text of the law, or the internet as a whole (except the above website). I’m going to guess he pulled it out of his ass.

Reading the SOIA, I don’t even get the impression standing outside an airbase taking pictures is illegal under that act. I think that you would have to have written instructions from Osama himself to take the photographs in order to find yourself afoul of this legislative ditty. That is to say, photo-taking, or even photo-publishing, is a necessary, but insufficient condition: external evidence is required. That a number of chunks of section 4 of this act have been ruled unconstitutional in Canada suggests even a court would ultimately agree:

Further, his claim that the Ontario Privacy Act does not protect the use of your image for commercial purpose is true, but irrelevant. The issue is not your privacy, but the latent value of your face or, in general, ‘personality’. This is common law stuff, and like almost all jurisdictions, has a history in Ontario:

In short, if you are publishing photographs of people in Ontario, without the usual model releases in hand … well, hell, why not just stick your pee-pee into a blender instead? Probably faster and less painful!

Nick P June 5, 2008 10:51 AM

Spot on.

The thing I find funny is that from personal experience and that of friends, if you’ve got a huge big “obvious” SLR camera you’ll probably be stopped. Add a tripod and you can almost guarantee the police will wander by and question you.

But even if terrorists did take photos, surely they’d be sensible enough to just use a mobile phone camera or a discreet compact. Phone cameras are up to 5 mega-pixels now and provide excellent quality shots. You can even record video. All whilst pretending to be on the phone.

So even if the governments, councils and police could justify their harassment of genuine photographers they are targeting the wrong people.

Happy Tinfoil Cat June 5, 2008 10:54 AM

The most frightening part is that these people actually think this is the answer to terrorism. How can they be so delusional to think this kind of harassment will help things one iota? The only logical explanation is they’ve rationalized their actions to indulge in the joy of pushing people around; after all, that’s why they spent their lives in these careers.

alan June 5, 2008 11:03 AM

The real problem is that our leaders believe in black magic. They believe that by taking a photograph you are somehow able to alter or control the essence of an object. This is what happens when you allow superstitious morons and control-freaks to be put into positions of power.

The entire world has gone mad.

shadowfirebird June 5, 2008 11:09 AM

Unfortunately the UK “rights” PDF just shows how few rights photographers have nowadays:

The Act makes it an offence to take or possess a photograph containing information likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism. In the present climate, the police appear to be taking a fairly broad view of “information likely to be useful”.

JMR June 5, 2008 11:16 AM

I was on a cub scout trip to a fire station with my son and was asked not to photograph a vintage 1920’s engine. I could take all of the pictures I wanted of the new equipment. It seems that their PR people didn’t want pictures of the old engine that they didn’t control, despite the fact that the thing was rolled out for every parade in the region.

derf June 5, 2008 11:36 AM

On the one hand government wants to hook up a camera and watch everything and everyone. OTOH, government doesn’t want cameras in the hands of private citizens.

New movie plot threat:
A terrorist needing intel these days can just use a Freedom of Information Act (Data Protection Act in Britain) query and get the government camera footage of whatever location they wish to blow themselves up near. Kind of like these guys:

Robert Anderson, NY,NY June 5, 2008 11:39 AM

The reason police and “rent-a-cops” prefer to hassle and bully people with large cameras (especially large format bellows camera on tripods) is that it is so easy and safe!!

They know – KNOW – that the photog under the hood is not a terorist and the likely hood of him injuring them is “zero”.

Ask yourself….who would you hassle? A real terrorist or Joe Six-Pak taking some “happy-snappies”.

btezra June 5, 2008 12:06 PM

“Schneier…all you do is bitch. Until the next 911 happens…then you’ll bitch again.”

I can actually understand the anxiety, we’ve been forced into this “fear everything” society we’ve become since 09.11 and we’ve been trained to be suspect of everything and react no matter what the circumstance may be. IMO we should do what we do best, enjoy life, and if that means snapping the shutter then do just that but we also need to do what’s right and resist the urge to provoke authority, in this case with a camera, simply because we feel violated and impeded in some fashion.

Nomen Publicus June 5, 2008 12:17 PM

I suddenly got an insight 🙂

This is nothing more than a DRM on seeing. As usual there is the analog hole which makes all DRM ineffective.

Can’t be long before some paranoid government creates internal shutters to fit behind the eye lenses of every newborn. Then when someone dares to look at an inappropriate direction, the shutters close and you have to visit the local cop shop to get your vision back…

Andy Dabydeen June 5, 2008 12:35 PM

Excellent post! Sometimes when I travel to the US, I’m afraid to take pictures. Recently, I was in China, I had the same fear … but no one stopped me there.

Watching From the Sidelines and LaughingD June 5, 2008 12:54 PM

All the war on phtographers will do is help the “bad huys”. They aren’t stupid – they probably haave access to better “hidden” cameras than the photographers who are being harrassed. And they now know what behaviour will draw the guards’ attention and what to avoid doing.

And don;t forget all those webcams and other internet connected systems — they do;t even have to go to the physical location.

So next time a guar stops you from taking picture, maybe turn the tables and advise them that THEIR attempt to stop you is actually aiding the bad guys…

300baud June 5, 2008 1:08 PM

Last Friday morning, I was wandering around Toronto’s Union Station, doing the tourist thing and taking photos of anything that would hold still long enough in the dim light, including security guards. A couple asked if I would take their photo for them, but otherwise I was unbovvered. Just another data point.

Cooksey-Talbott June 5, 2008 1:15 PM

This has been going on a long time…

I am a professional photographer and always seek to monitize my images.

I used to take pictures in cities and have been severly hassled for using pro (4×5-120) cameras and tripods even when I had written permissions as far back as the late 70’s.

Bank of America terminated a shoot, despite written permission, their security actors couldn’t believe the permission was real so I got kicked and, not just once but several times!

I believe that it is even worse now but as I steer clear of populated areas I don’t experience the problem so directly as I used to…

Shawn June 5, 2008 1:19 PM

Just one note:
Although I agree with this for the most part when talking about what the majority of people consider terrorism, homegrown or wannabe activity is also a valid threat. And just like there is movie-plot security…. there is movie-plot terrorism.

Carlo Graziani June 5, 2008 2:01 PM

I wonder where the line is. Can you get busted for, say, setting up an easel in front of the Pentagon and painting a watercolor? How about a charcoal sketch of the Federal Reserve building? Voice recording of impressions while standing in line at the Washington Monument?
Staring fiercely at the White House while muttering spells? What about a vigorous rain dance in front of the Hoover Dam?

Tamas June 5, 2008 2:24 PM

“Don’t cede your right to photograph in public.”

That all sounds very nice, but I have heard about someone being detained in the US because they refused to cede their right to photography in public. The person involved was a foreigner, who, ironically, was a researcher at the federal institution at the time of the incident. He was let go after a few hours of questioning.

Realistically, if you are a tourist, maybe you don’t want to ruin your holiday just to because you want to uphold your rights.

Law enforcement personnel and security guards who overstep their authority in this respect get nothing more than a slap on the wrist in most cases – the real solution would require more severe sanctions against them that would discourage this kind of behavior. Not likely to happen in the current paranoid climate, they are commended and encouraged instead (“sure, but he could have been a terrorist”).

Anonymous June 5, 2008 3:09 PM

As a beginner photographer, I have read all the articles and wondered as a petite female- how many times would I have to say “There’s no way in Hades I’m leaving or deleting my pictures” before they’d taser me or the police would arrive. So I printed out a “Photographer’s Rights” sheet and keep it in my camera bag whenever I shoot now. Isn’t it wrong that I be more informed than someone making money from being on a security force? Thanks for the article!

nikolai June 5, 2008 3:44 PM

“Also, what’s to stop a “terrorist” from surreptitiously taking a photo with a cell phone while pretending to talk on it? Should we be afraid of people talking on cell phones, too”?


Davi Ottenheimer June 5, 2008 4:45 PM

Nicely written, although I don’t understand the Google plug.

Is it less clear to say “search…on the Internet”?

BTW, is it true that more “suspected terrorists” in the war on photography use Nikon than any other brand? 😉

Bob June 5, 2008 4:59 PM

great article and great points! I never understood why anyone would photograph something when they would have a mental picture to place a bomb or anything.

Roxanne June 5, 2008 5:01 PM

A reason to discourage casual photography is that a lot of sinister stuff has shown up in the background of otherwise innocuous photographs. If the officials didn’t discourage this sort of thing, who knows what would show up on YouTube. You might get an enterprising photojournalist parked outside of Congress instead of Britney’s house. Someone would systematically record the license plates of every car going past the Capitol – I mean, someone other than the Capitol police, who might notice that one of those cars belongs to Joe DopeDealer, and take a picture of it. Then where would we be?

What if Bob Woodward had had a cellphone camera?

What if we deployed all of the camera-phone wielding adolescents in America to take photos of whatever they were doing, all the time? OMG, indeed. What would turn up in the background, then?

I have to think folks in DC are a lot more circumspect than they used to be, but still, you gotta discourage those cameras.

pengo June 5, 2008 6:10 PM

Please name some of these movies. It would help a lot in strengthening your argument. that “terrorists taking pictures is a quintessential detail in any good movie”.

Adrian June 5, 2008 7:00 PM

Here in Australia it is all quite simple.

If I photograph a building, I’m a terrorist.

If I photograph people, I’m a sexual deviant.

Anderer Gregor June 5, 2008 7:33 PM

“If you see someone taking one of those photographs, the odds are infinitesimal that he’s a terrorist.” (Bruce)

-> And even in this case, why on earth should keeping him from taking photos also keep him from blowing up the building in question at all?

Anonymous June 5, 2008 8:16 PM

A couple of comments:

Re: Roxanne’s posting at 5:01 PM today (which time zone?) – Google is already running afoul of the law in the EU for StreetView. See for one report.

Re: the various posters mentioning photogs with big cameras (4×5, 120, SLR, tripod mounted, etc.), some sports venues have prohibited “professional” cameras for some time know as a part of their efforts to monetize as much imagery coming out of their facilities as possible. Also, there are reports that “professional cameras” are prohibited in the audience at tonight’s presentation by Obama at Nissan Pavilion outside Washington. The definition of a “professional camera?” One that lets you take the lens off. Oh for the days when you just had to take a picture at the security checkpoint to “prove” your camera was safe.

Who is behind these conflicting procedures? DC area radio says the Secret Service is driving today’s rules at Nissan. In the olden days (82) the Secret Service told you to take a picture at the checkpoint (from personal experience, I still have a frame of the tarmac at Andrews somewhere).

Dwatney June 5, 2008 8:16 PM

Photography magazines and interest groups should organize a day for millions to take their cameras to the nearest “target” and start taking pictures. A massive exercise of individual liberty.

Anthony June 5, 2008 8:55 PM

Dwatney, A similar event occured in Melbourne a few years back. Crown Casino installed “No Photography” signs in a large public area along the river, in complete contradiction of the law.

Photography clubs all met on the riverfront a few days later and took photos for a few hours of CCTV cameras, guards, locks, etc.

The casino took the signs down the next day.

coffeelover June 5, 2008 9:30 PM

What an incredibly shallow piece! After reading this I can only surmise that it’s designed to shock rather than inform. Do you even know what the definition of harassment is? Being a published author on security, I am totally surprised by your apparent lack of knowledge in this area.

“If you’re harassed, it’s almost certainly a law enforcement official, public or private, acting way beyond his authority.” Statements like this betray your ignorance of this subject.
As a full time police officer and an established wedding photographer in the Seattle area, I have experienced both sides of this issue. As a photographer I know better than to just walk up to a navy base and start snapping away. I would expect to be contacted by law enforcement. Common sense dictates that you let someone know what you are doing (how hard is that?). It is common knowledge in law enforcement that terrorists scout their targets. This has been well documented (and you know it). Law enforcement would be remiss not to contact individuals behaving suspiciously. I have never once been dispatched to call where the situation was simply described as “someone taking photographs.” There’s always much more to it than that. Even then, it is a social contact and not a stop or arrest (or harassment as you put it).

Let me put in another way. If someone pulled up to the front of your home and sat in their car taking photographs of you through your living room window for hours at a time, wouldn’t you want an officer to see what they were up to? The activity I just described isn’t necessarily illegal, but it certainly suspicious and warrants a police contact.
After reading your editorial, I am fairly certain that arguing facts with you would be fruitless. You clearly have no idea what you are talking about. I am more concerned by your attempt to scare photographers into thinking that government agents in black uniforms are going to swoop in and arrest you for taking photographs of the Space Needle.

SEX June 5, 2008 9:46 PM

@ coffelover

If you just casually peruse any of the photography boards, you will see that there is great concern about the loss of freedom in this area. A new thread on the issue pops up every few weeks on all of the boards. Some things that routinely come up are people being harassed, told to stop, being questioned, and even being arrested. A new twist, especially in Texas, is people being arrested for voyeuristic photography.

In Texas, if law enforcement think you look “unnatural” in any way when taking pictures, they’ll ask to examine your pictures to see if you’re taking an unnatural interest in certain body parts, clothed or not. And since they have no experience with photography, naturally they almost always get it wrong and eventually admit their mistakes. But not before the photographer is publicly humiliated.

I think you’re out of touch with what photographers actually think, probably because you’re looking at things through your law enforcement lenses. Hang out with photographers for a while and see what they think.

Frances June 5, 2008 10:48 PM

If someone was taking photos of the inside of your house through a window, that would be illegal. That has been said several times in this discussion. I expect the same could be said about a naval base. And you say that terrorists scout their targets but does that include photos? What proof can you give us for that statement.

Fat Ed June 6, 2008 1:47 AM

We keep being told something along the lines of “terrorists hate us because of our freedom”.

So Dumbya had a cunning plan………….

If we no longer have freedoms, they will no longer hate us.

Alex Urbanowicz June 6, 2008 3:39 AM

My five eurocents: a guard will make you stop doing anything that can be blamed on him, and the authorites aren’t obviously happy with anything that could be used as an evidence of a misconduct. I’ve never been harrassed for shooting photos, but an acquitance of mine was (up to a point of lawsuit about unlawful use of violence by private guards).

Basically it is about control. Terror laws or copyright laws are just used to take power away. If there is no photo, it is citizen’s word against law enforcement officer’s word. Guess whose word will reach the judge.

Me, for casual shooting I just bought myself a very nice 5mpix camphone to avoid having carrying a camera with me all the time. The phone can post photos directly to which I though would be useless, but it isn’t. Yes officer, surely I could delete the pics from the phone, no problem, they are posted to the Internet already, thankyou.

SEX June 6, 2008 4:40 AM


Here is a link to one forum where you’ll find plenty of discussions.

I can provide links to many more forums if you want, but I think this is sufficient to illustrate my point. You can go to this forum now, 1 month from now, or 1 year from now. There’ll always be at least one thread going on this issue, usually more. And it’ll be the same on any forum with photography related issues.

Colossal Squid June 6, 2008 5:19 AM

@300 baud
“Just another data point.”
The singular of data is not anecdote.

Mark June 6, 2008 6:16 AM

On the one hand government wants to hook up a camera and watch everything and everyone. OTOH, government doesn’t want cameras in the hands of private citizens.

It appears to be about control and creating a “patrician/plebean” divide in society. Official cameras often appear to be out of order or pointing the wrong way when there’s issues of official wrongdoing.

There are even cases where people have photographed/videoed police misbehaviour from their own property. If they want to complain about this instead of investigating the police concerned instead attempts are made to find a law to charge the people who filmed with.

Kevan, UK June 6, 2008 6:34 AM

“Realistically, if you are a tourist, maybe you don’t want to ruin your holiday just to because you want to uphold your rights.” – Posted by: Tamas

Maybe my holiday will be ruined because I cannot take photographs? Tourists like memories and they fade in time. Photographs allow us to show our family and friends what we’ve seen and enjoyed. If I can’t use my camera somewhere, I’ll not go as I don’t think a fleeting experience is worht persuing.

GordonS June 6, 2008 6:50 AM

“This is worth fighting”

All very well, but if I was snapping away in the USA and was told to stop, or even arrested, I think I would immediately comply.

Don’t get me wrong, I think this is ridiculous fear-mongering, but with Gitmo, rendition flights, over-zealous agencies, stories of people being tasered for no real reason etc, it’s somewhat safer to just stop.

A very sad state of affairs.

For a country that drones on about “freedom” so much, it doesn’t seem to provde much.

I see things in America slowly getting worse, and unfortuanately the UK is going the same way :o(

Robert Anderson, NY,NY June 6, 2008 7:21 AM

coffeelover …

Spoken like a cop…and I still say cops only harass those they know they can intimidate…they NEVER go after the “gansta-drug dealers” who have automatic weapons. Too dangerous.

Get off your “holier than thous” rocking-horse and develop some common sense.

Cynicor June 6, 2008 8:42 AM

They actually do have a “no photography” rule in NYC on Port Authority bridges (like the Verrazano). It’s really pointless, too. I went up to Boston a couple of years ago and photographed the new Zakim bridge. I asked permission from a nearby guard, who basically said “Why would not not be allowed to photograph the bridge?”

I got a REALLY hard time in 2005 when photographing around central LA at night. Guards chased me off the sidewalk in front of their buildings, even when I wasn’t taking photos of their structure. One guard particularly hostile. So I asked her exactly where her property line ended, and she said at the street. So I put my tripod in the street and set up my shot. She kept telling me I wasn’t allowed to take photos, so I said to her something like “I’m not on your property, and you have no legal recourse now.” She kept demanding that I leave, then told me she was going to go get her supervisor and disappeared. Byeeeee!

All because I wanted to take a fisheye semi-abstract of some buildings.

I Am Dali June 6, 2008 10:08 AM

Photophobia isn’t the only post 9-11 insanity that originates completely in fictional movies.

We’ve all heard the “What if there’s a ticking time bomb!!!!!!!!!!!” ‘argument’ for cherishing torture. But ticking time bombs are a staple of movie fiction. They guarantee the chance for a hair-raising intervention. Which doesn’t happen in real life.

I wrote a short blog post about it here:

The influence of movies in the public imagination is incredible. The news media like to hype bogeymen too, but they just don’t have the same production values.

Zorro June 6, 2008 10:39 AM

Doughnutlover, er, Coffeelover:

Have you read a recent (May 21st, 2008) 5th Circuit Court of Appeals case called “Whitt v. Stephens County,” set in Texas? The Fifth Circuit renders an interesting opinion about “qualified immunity” which means that CURRENTLY law enforcement can get away with quite a bit.

In the facts of this case, a six foot tall man who weighed over 290 lb. committed “suicide” with a size 32 belt. (That’s a belt he clearly could NOT have worn into the cell he occupied alone.)

The Fifth Circuit found “disturbing” the fact that extensive “greenouts” existed in the jailhouse video footage. No evidence remains of what REALLY happened.

No criminal charges, not even “destruction of evidence,” were filed against the jailers, and civil charges have now been dismissed. No chance of the Jailers being held accountable, unless the matter is appealed and the U.S. Supreme Court grants “cert”….

Peter Galbavy et al are correct. We NEED the slender reed of protection that our rights to photography can sometimes provide to PROTECT us from violent and corrupt officials.

And, Schneier is right: characterizing photography as being “terrorist” is reprehensible, at best.

travelgirl June 6, 2008 10:42 AM


take a look at this website, as an example of the overexuberance of police in seattle:

i myself have been harrassed at the cedar river outflow for attempting to photograph a rare bird near the renton airport (which houses boeing), and i know of others who have been similarly-harrassed for doing nothing more than their hobby.

don’t think because you are good and kind and have common sense that all who wear the badge (or are hired to pretend they have authority) are good and kind and use common sense.

i’m here to tell you it ain’t so.

JoeV June 6, 2008 10:44 AM

Perhaps we need to make tee shirts with the logo “Terrorist With Photographic Memory” imprinted; then we can walk around in public, especially near well-known landmarks, just minding our own business, and wait for the responders to arrive on scene.

They can then charge us with Thoughtcrime.

I believe the State/Media conglomerate desires the ownership of all images, and image-making apparatus. The cry of ‘terrorist photographer’ is merely a red herring for a desire to achieve ultimate control over the means of creation and distribution of propoganda. They can’t (yet) control the Internet like they desire, but they are trying to control the means of creating independant media points of view that differ from the status quo.

Krista Neher June 6, 2008 11:13 AM

There are a growing number of examples of photographers and videographers being harassed in public.

According to some statistics 58% of photographers face harassment when shooting in public.

In the US this is a clear violation of constitutional rights. I think that one of the main issues is that law enforcement officials need to be made aware of the rights of photographers to photograph in public.

Check out this video with incidents of photographers being harassed. Police actual made a videographer erase some footage, which legally they can’t do without a warrant.

Great post!

Eric A. June 6, 2008 5:04 PM

Bruce, I’d like to think of myself as a ballzy crusader for photographer’s rights. In that, in the eye of security, I laugh in their face. A couple scenarios which I enjoy passing on, if you will.

As background, I partake in photography of railroad subjects, one of which involves critter & industrial sized locomotives at industries. Of course, I always ask permission in advance, but post-9/11 I’m often denied (or they play dumb) at the more sensative facilities.

June 2006
A stop by the Ineos Styrenics chemical styrene plant near Channahon, IL (near Joliet) yields little results. Seeing the number of railcars on their property, I’m curious if they have their own locomotive. A preliminary discussion & ID session with the rent-a-cop yielded nothing but finding out who I was. They themselves knew nothing about any loco, nor were inclined to call anyone within the plant who might. 3 hours later, on my departure from the area, I spotted their loco switching cars across a public road to the south of the facility. I swung a U’ie on I-55, and headed back to click a few shots of it. The engineer called me in, who in turn called the Wills County Sheriff Dept. I was polite about the whole matter, until the plant personally got snippy, at which point I just barked back. The engineer gave commented, “well, you’re not allowed to shoot our engine or our plant” (mind you, this all from a public road). One Sheriff who responded wasn’t bothered with it all, however the one who took the call tore me a new ass. I politely stood up for my right to photograph the loco, and his reply was, “there’s other trains you can shoot around here”. To which I rebutted, “yes sir, but I’m interested in THIS one!”

Later on that same trip, I swung by the BP Amoco refinery on the east side of Toledo, OH. This plant has an antique for moving their railcars, probably in the area of 50+ years old. I politely drove to their guard shack, informed them that I WOULD be shooting the engine from the shoulder of the adjacent highway. The guard said, “he’d have to check on that with his manager.” I waited, and he came back noting that “my manager says he doesn’t like it, but he says there’s nothing he can do about it either.” That put a smile on my face, it’s a shame more companies aren’t so ‘accommodating’. Moreso, the companies who are so insistent about background checks one would think could make an effort to get the occasional visitor in. However, cameras + chemical plants = recipe for confrontation these days. I kind of welcome it.

October 2007
A quickie trip to Robinson, IL didn’t yield a confrontation, but signs abound at a Marathon Oil refinery in this little eastern Illinois village show “no photography permitted”. I took the photos anyway, for some reason I just await the presence of some middle-aged rent-a fart to approach me & tell me “You’re not allowed to do that.”

I hate to sound cocky, or bragworthy, but I think we need more people like this in Amerika. Instead, we have a bunch of crybabies who will trespass by any means possible to shoot their target of affection; or those who “would rather not start a commotion” (non-confrontational). Sometimes, you’ll get a combination of each the above. As reflected in your own passage, I like to refer to them as “sheeple”.

A gent by the name of Bruce Barry had an ugly encounter with Greenwich Twp, NJ police after photographing railroad operations from a public sidewalk at nearby Valero Energy refinery.

Guess it all depends on where you’re shooting. But since alot of my own personal shooting is done in such ‘sensative’ environments, where receiving permission is about as unlikely as a death sentence for shoplifting, I get a rush out of defying big brother and his interpretation of the law. Ever since reading the above story in an issue of Railpace Magazine a few years ago, I find myself to be pushing the legal boundries of the sport / art within the law. I don’t photograph nuclear or military establishments, that is about the only line I draw for myself.

RuralKingCounty June 6, 2008 11:28 PM

Too coffeelover – remember this?
The Seattle cops took a photographer into custody and later released him. He sued the Seattle Police and won. Maybe you should go back and read the rules about detaining photographers. And also remember the Aribic looking guy who was hassled at the Balard Locks?
You really need to go back to your superior at have them go over the “rules” that were provided by the Chief of Police over these instances.

Anonymous June 7, 2008 11:17 AM


“Even then, it is a social contact and not a stop or arrest (or harassment as you put it).”

There is no such thing as a “social contact” with the police.

Jim Goldstein June 7, 2008 5:56 PM

This is a point of frustration for me that is constant. What I find amusing to stay on the movie plot theme is that it used to be reconnaissance was about stealth. James Bond gadgets of mico-cameras is what used to be the center of movie plots. How it transitioned to gigantic every day camera gear is beyond me. Is a terrorist going out to do reconnaissance with a big dSLR, tripod and fretting over composition? As with airport security common sense in this area has gone out the window. It is truly chaos and the talking heads across the US government are too afraid to bring common sense back into the fold. If anything harassing photographers provides government officials with a very visible means of showing most everyone that they’re taking security serious even if they’re harassing innocent people that have nothing to do with terrrorism. In fact the same is true of airport security. Sadly paranoia now runs deep in the US and abroad.

I’ve said it from day one and I’ll say it again. If you’re harassing every day Americans you’ve lost the war. Anti-terrorism should be happening to observe outside elements before they get to the US. The “show” of security at airports, landmarks with photographers, really does nothing but impede US productivity and infringe on civil rights. I look forward to the day someone in US government has a spine to set things straight.

What is completely missed is that the covert nature of those we fear actually have the ability to reference targets via sites like Flickr and as new technology develops like Microsoft’s Photosynth they’ll have the ability to reference and study targets with out ever having to raise a camera… if they even studied photography for these purposes. So does that mean the government is next going to shut down Flickr or impede Microsoft software development? Where does the madness end? At the moment it certainly seems that we’re moving head strong into an Orwellian world.

In the mean time people in the US particularly in California that are interested in knowing your rights check out the following podcast on the Legal Landscape of Street Photography with a panel of legal experts:

natenido June 8, 2008 7:22 PM

A recent Fox News story about photographing Union Station in Washington DC:

Has the priceless moment of a security guard starting to harass their camera team just as an Amtrak representative tells them that yes of course, cameras are allowed here. And congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton saying some words of sanity.


Christophe Thill June 9, 2008 7:37 AM

It’s really silly to treat photographers as potential terrorists, while the real threat is painters. Painters ! Who can trust them ! They spend hours on a single landscape, just to lull the surrounding people into an illusion of harmlessness. And once you get used to their quiet presence… they do something terrible. What ? I don’t know, but they have everything they need at hand. Some of their material is poisons, other are flammable. And don’t get me started about the palette knife.

Glen June 10, 2008 12:21 AM

“And you say that terrorists scout their targets but does that include photos? What proof can you give us for that statement.”

Jemaah Islamiyah has used video cameras to record potential targets. Video from JI scouting targets in Singapore in 2001 has been found.

This makes sense operationally. The in-country JI operatives usually don’t provide the suicide bomber, nor do they wish to expose the bomb-maker to capture. Video is useful to brief these people — the Singapore footage was made to brief the bomb-maker so he could choose the best target and estimate the amount of explosives needed.

In my view Bruce makes the wrong argument. Of course photography can aid terrorists and of course terrorists will take photos of a target if they feel it will aid their cause. But so what — the fight with the terrorists is for the survival of liberal democracy and banning photography hurts liberal democracy itself.

the flying dutchman June 10, 2008 7:38 PM

@ coffeelover

Let me put in another way. If someone pulled up to the front of your home and sat in their car taking photographs of you through your living room window for hours at a time, wouldn’t you want an officer to see what they were up to? The activity I just described isn’t necessarily illegal, but it certainly suspicious and warrants a police contact.

If someone pulls up in front of my home and sits in their car taking photographs of me through my living room window, that someone probably is a cop.

Zeveck June 12, 2008 12:07 PM


“If someone was taking photos of the inside of your house through a window, that would be illegal.”

Uh, not in the US it wouldn’t. If the photo is taken from public property, that is still entirely legal, unless you could demonstrate said person was actively stalking you, etc. You can legally take a photo of anything visible from public view. See Google Street View.

Network Geek June 16, 2008 9:20 AM

@pengo: Movie examples? Off the top of my head the Bruce Willis version of Day of the Jackal. Also, though not quite a “terrorist film” Ronin. I’m sure there are other examples, but those two came to mind immediately.

Art Perlo June 16, 2008 10:22 AM

It’s a shame that almost 7 years later, this idiocy is continuing. I had an interesting experience with forbidden photographs 48 years ago.

You wrote, “…prohibiting photography was something we used to ridicule about the USSR.”

In 1960, as a boy, I traveled to the USSR with my parents, who were doing research for a book. We took many photos, though there were some restrictions — we could take photos in the subways, but not the entrances to the subways.

Flying in a Soviet airplane between cities, my mother took some photos out the window. The stewardess came over and, when we didn’t understand Russian, told us with gestures that photos were forbidden. My mother put the camera away. Nobody confiscated the camera or the film.

This was a month after the U2 spy plane was shot down, near the height of US-Soviet tensions. The Soviets had good reason to fear American spies, yet their response in this case was reasonable.

Peter June 17, 2008 1:31 AM

It is the height of irony that there are attempts to ban photography in USA train stations and other public areas. Less than 2 years ago I travelled to Moscow and St. Petersburg and took several thousand pictures using professional camera gear – camera gear that has attracted many a goon in North America.

The palatial marble metro stations in Moscow are breathtaking works of art crying out for pictures. Nobody now will stop you or even want to stop you taking pictures and the only place I got yelled at was at the Kremlin – not for taking pictures but for standing in the road taking pictures.

Just outside the Kremlin walls with police nearby were two men convincingly dressed up as Stalin and Lenin. For a small sum you could get your picture taken with them.

Welcome to Moscow, bring your camera, oh, and not so welcome to the USA, the New Soviet Union.

c-bert June 17, 2008 10:51 PM

I have been fortunate to have not had any encounters with security while photographing. I did have a recent problem when taking photographs at a free to the public arts fair though. Police were roaming about the fair and saw me taking pictures and passed by me like I didn’t exist (good for them, they understood my rights). The antagonism to me photographing came from one artist and one artist representative at the fair despite me photographing everything from a public space and doing so peacefully and without obstructing anyone else. Ironic.

S. Niteshayde June 19, 2008 3:04 AM

This is just all too sad. The fact that we are even running into issues like these shows how successful the terrorists really are! The goal of a terrorist is to terrorize — to strike fear into the hearts of people and make life less enjoyable for those people. Since 09/11, we’ve come to “enjoy” long lines at airports (and ridiculous searches and rules — come on, explosive breast milk?!! No nail clippers allowed, but give me a dinner knife with my first class meal?!!), and now photographing is an issue.

I agree that most of this irrational fear comes from the majority of the population, which is sadly not educated on the topic. We really need to snap people out of their frantic, panicky state (others from their zombie-like submissive state) and get them thinking! It is NOT ok to be bullied around, and fear for one’s self (eg of being yelled at by a security guard or put into jail for a day) puts the whole in danger — not standing up for yourself sends a signal to the bully that their bullying strategy is working!

Thanks for the good thread, all. I’m new to this site and am liking all this discussion!

LaTrasse June 19, 2008 9:10 PM

Huh, nice thread but based on as silly premise. Photography and videography are common pre-attack tradecraft for every organized group from house robbers to terrorists.

Jihadists like Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman (the “Blind Sheikh”) and his followers had discussed plans for a different prison break. They considered several possible approaches, one of which was a truck bomb attack….The group had even conducted detailed surveillance of the facility.

And for the less informed, it is not illegal to film the inside of a persons’ home or office from a public vantage. If I walk my dog past your house and can see inside, I can film it. If you are in the restroom with the door open, I can film it. If the blinds are down but open, I can film it. You only have an expectation of privacy if you make an effort and close the blinds —

There is always a way to get the shot you want, blocking traffic is rude, using a flash is rude most of the time too. If you’re a pro, book time with the management.

Raymond Rivera July 1, 2008 5:58 PM

I was turned away from entering Moore Square, a public park in downtown Raleigh this weekend. They had “downtown live” going on, rock bands, etc. They had a sign that said, cameras with detchable lenses not allowed. My camera is a Leica V-Lux and has a fixed lens, a point and shoot. I complined to the convention folks and they said they banned cameras because people post pictures on the internet that are “unfavorable”. What kind of crap is that.. Talk about violating my freedom of expression……

bart thielges July 2, 2008 5:15 PM

My subject matter tends to include a lot of stuff that isn’t normally considered photo worthy : the ordinary things around us that are often overlooked. That makes it easier for people to brand me as suspicious. If they can’t understand why I’m shooting a particular subject then the mind runs wild and concludes the worst.

So its no surprise that I’ve been detained several times and shooed away countless times. Some of these occasions can definitely be classified as harassment. For example, the Baytown (suburb of Houston, Texas, USA) policeman who told me that if I continued to photograph that I would be followed and cited with any slight infraction. The same officer dumped my water bottle out onto my car’s driver seat during the “search”. Thanks pal.

Aside from that Baytown case, my experience is that most of the grief originates from private security guards. They aren’t familiar with the laws and will detain first, ask questions later. Once the real police arrive they quickly realize that nothing wrong or suspicious has occurred and release you. I figure that after enough of these false alarms, the police are going to pressure the private security guards to stop crying wolf and wasting police time. They could probably care less about photographer time.

I often carry a mini-portfolio to show that I’m serious about aesthetics. It doesn’t always work but has indeed accelerated getting a release in some cases.

Real bad guys would not be so obvious about photo recon. As many have stated here already they would be a lot more stealthy at photography. Besides, these are people willing to die in the act, they won’t be scared by the prospect of arrest.

I hope that the day arrives soon when security agencies realize that photography isn’t a credible threat and even if it was, there is little that can be done to prevent it. If photographing some object presents a security risk, then that thing should be walled in or fenced off. That’s the only realistic defense.

Mike Caprio July 12, 2008 11:25 PM

There’s a great reason to harass people who have cameras: they can capture abuses of power by local and federal government forces. No cop wants to see a guy with a camera taking pictures of him or her beating a protester. No TSA official wants to be on the front page of a story about tasering someone to death. No politician wants his or her words recorded. Terrorism has always been the excuse for these people to exert and overstep their authority, and cameras make them vulnerable to scrutiny.

Jack July 13, 2008 12:27 AM

The best bet is to “always have a plan” – even for surprise confrontations. In that way, you’re (at least) one step ahead.

It’s funny what happens when you hold up a microphone and demand a name. This worked for me even in Egypt.

When confronted in dark areas, set your camera to ISO 100, shut your eyes, and use your flash. You’ll get the brightest flash that way and the freedom to walk quietly away from the night-blinded idiot.

I’ve got some great photos of people trying to stop me from taking photos.

I scored some “babe” points and humiliated an Israel airport security officer when he insisted he shoot a photo with my camera and I requested he shoot his beautiful partner. I got a scowl and a photo of the tile floor instead, but I also got a very pretty smile from the girl. I happily kept the photo knowing that no amount of passenger bullying was ever going to impress that babe.

I have a few other tricks, but I need to keep them proprietary. Use your imagination – and have fun! Remember, the worse “they” behave, the better your stories afterwards.


Justin July 13, 2008 2:03 AM

Next time don’t speak out your ass. Pictures are vital for those with the intention to commit highly thought out and planned crimes.

Bruce Schneier July 13, 2008 3:12 PM

“Pictures are vital for those with the intention to commit highly thought out and planned crimes.”

If they’re so vital, why do so many highly thought and planned crimes do without them?

Shannon July 29, 2008 3:35 AM

I’m pretty sure that terrorists do surveillance and do use photography. I’m pretty sure they don’t use big cameras and hang out in an obvious manner. I have been questioned, usually by rent-acops, but they are also mostly polite about it. The banks really don’t like you taking pictures of their cash machines, I’ve found(stock photos for ecommerce). I had one manager get angry with me, even though it was after-hours and in between customers.
It also makes me kindof jittery to see all the public cameras, one traffic lights and highways, and everywhere.

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Circumspekt April 13, 2009 9:01 AM

Oh, terrorists most certainly do photograph their targets. And they go farther than that – sometimes building scale models from the photographs. If you’re not aware of this, it’s merely because you don’t possess the necessary security clearances.

DPz July 16, 2009 1:06 PM

Read a book called ‘The Shock Doctrine’ and that will explain why governments like to pass all sorts of acts to protect us, under the auspices of anti terrorism. It makes huge profits for private companies. Such as, Lockheed Marlin, Blackmore, Bechtel etc. Not to mention vast salaries for the likes of Mr & Mrs Cheney, & Mr Rumsfeld. And of course all the ex politician, now directors of these companies.

BlueEgpytian August 1, 2009 7:40 PM

I wrote this on Carlos’ blog and he pointed me to you for answers…

“I don’t get this photography thing. There is a new shopping area on the edge of West Hollywood in LA called the WEHO Gateway. It provides a much needed “public space” in that area of the freeway jungle of LA… On the upper area you have a sweeping view of the hills and the Hollywood sign. It is logical, being LA, that people will want to take a photo from there from time to time. Also along the west wall is a beautiful “wall garden” of succulent plants….very unusual and tropical.

Although no signs are posted ANYWHERE prohibiting photography, if you are caught taking photos of the wall, the courtyard, or God forbid the Hollywood Hills from the upper level, a security guard comes around and threatens to confiscate your camera. Could someone please write to me at the address above or comment here as to HOW on earth that is legal? My friend was threatened with arrest for photographing succulents! National security concerns is it? What’s the deal Carlos? Its hard enough to find a peaceful place to relax and hang out here, and when you do…you have to worry about being arrested!!! WTF?”

Just wanted to share my story here. Thanks for the Photographers Right!

Matthew Lane March 1, 2010 8:23 AM

Don’t pass the blame to the “security guards” guys, they have a job to do & its not an easy one considering how stupid the general public is (no offense to those people who make up the general public). They are usually following orders & most try to be pretty friendly about it

However as a photographer i am a little sick of people thinking that anyone with a professional looking camera is a terrorist. If i was a terrorist i wouldn’t bother with high tech equipment, i would just get an iphone. If you walk around taking photos with an Iphone you are fine, no one notices. Its just when you pull out something official looking.

I have found a simple answer. Make up official looking business cards, for your own imprint. People, even people in authority are pretty stupid, if you hand over a business card & act like a professional they’ll pretty much leave you alone.

Also, don’t be an arse when asked for ID & politely answer all questions posed. You act like a criminal you’ll be treated like a criminal. If you can manage techno-babble as part of your answer then do that too, because no one likes appearing stupid.

Ed Station September 30, 2010 2:10 AM

I happen to be a photographer. I also happen to wear a badge. I also see the humor and the tragedy of this issue. If I’m walking down the street and see a guy taking pics of a federal building, he’s probably a tourist. If I’m guarding that building, he’s a potential threat. On the other hand, if a guy walks up and says “How’s it going?” he’s being friendly. If he’s wearing a badge, he’s interrogating me. Examine the psychology and sociology of harassment.

RH December 22, 2010 12:40 AM

Years ago, a photographer named Eric Weill taught me to bring a BIG camera to political demonstrations, since it tended to make the police behave more reasonably. So when I got a call at 4 am one day that police were arresting students at Sproul Hall on the UC Berkeley campus, I put on a suit and a silk blouse — nobody was going to call me a “dirty hippy”, and took myself and my camera to photograph part of the Free Speech Movement, in the autumn of .. what, 1963? I immobilized a lot of police, since they put officers between me and those being arrested, but nobody bothered me, and I’m probably IN a lot of other photos of the event, since I took most of my shots from a ledge 5′ off the ground on the south end of the building. I did hear rumors of people having negatives and prints stolen after the event, but nobody bothered mine. Not sure where they are, but they might surface and I’ll scan them.

JdL September 11, 2011 7:20 PM

RH, I’m envious that you were witness to the original Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley. It was in fall 1964. My older brother was there; I didn’t arrive until fall 1965. I got some interesting shots of the police reaction to the early anti-war rallies. An exciting time!

Sardent January 7, 2013 10:59 AM

coffeelover – …common sense dictates that you notify someone what you’re doing.

Unless specifically against the law – Common sense dictates that I don’t need permission to exercise a Constitutional right.

David Hefner April 13, 2020 9:03 AM

The war on photography began much farther back than 9/11 as this blog suggests. More accurately would be toward the last year of the civil rights movement around 1967. It was then when the Supreme Courts invented “qualified immunity”. This doctrine gave law enforcement and government officials no accountability for their actions unless the law they broke was “clearly established”. With so many laws subject to interpretation there were very few held accountable for violation your rights. Qualified Immunity basically freezes our Constitution and Bill of Rights. We are no longer the America our forefathers have fought and died for. Present day people are beginning to recognize this and it will be surely lay down the basis for civil war.

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