At MARC, a Snapshot of Post-9/11 Excess

By Marc Fisher
Sunday, February 26, 2006

From the start, trains soared beyond their practical purpose. They were transportation but also inspiration. In 1877, novelist Emile Zola saw Claude Monet's paintings of the Gare Saint-Lazare, the Paris train station, and wrote: "You can hear the trains rumbling in, see the smoke billow up under the huge roofs. . . . That is where painting is today. . . . Our artists have to find the poetry in train stations, the way their fathers found the poetry in forests and rivers."

Maybe today's artists need to find their poetry in surveillance cameras, concrete barriers and security bollards.

Preety Gadhoke isn't a famous artist. She's a graduate student in environmental health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. But she sees the world in ways she wants to express, and she's trying to do that through photography.

That's how she ran into the MARC police.

Gadhoke, 32, is taking the "Joy of Photography" course at the Smithsonian Resident Associate Program. One morning this month, after her teacher, Falls Church photographer Olive Rosen, assigned students to document a day in their lives, Gadhoke took her Nikon F10 to the Odenton MARC station near her home in Anne Arundel County. She took pictures of the starkly beautiful curved iron lampposts along the platform.

Ten minutes into her exercise, a police officer approached Gadhoke and asked what she was doing. She explained her assignment. The officer replied that three commuters and a train conductor had reported her for "suspicious activity." No one had said a word to Gadhoke.

The officer asked Gadhoke for identification and her roll of film. She complied. He took her driver's license and the film and had her stand in the parking lot for 40 minutes. While he ran a check on her, Gadhoke's commuter train rolled past, passersby stared at her and the station agent came outside to ask what was going on.

The officer returned to tell Gadhoke she was no terrorist. (Whew!) He gave the film back. But the officer said he'd have to file a suspicious-person report. As he took down her information, she says, he inquired about Gadhoke's nationality.

"I'm American," she told him, and that she is. Born in India, she has lived in the United States since she was 13. It is home.

"He read my name to the police operator, and as soon as he spelled it out -- it's an unusual name, obviously -- I began to wonder if someone who looked 'all-American' would have been considered a threat to national security," Gadhoke told me. She thought about her dark skin, her South Asian looks, and wondered what this was really all about.

Douglas DeLeaver, chief of the Maryland Transit Administration Police, one of two agencies that patrol MARC trains, told me he had no report about a stop at Odenton that day, but he said his officers have the discretion to question people who take pictures of trains.

"Because of 9/11 and the London bombing, you have to make a request to take pictures," he said. "We normally don't let people take a lot of pictures of the trains and tracks. If you have a valid reason, a tourist taking a casual picture on the platform, that's okay. But if you want to look underneath the train, no."

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