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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."

The chief says his officers pay no attention to looks: "It doesn't matter if you're white, black, Asian -- if you take several pictures, people get nervous. I'm an African American and grew up in the city, so I don't make any distinctions by how people look."

As reasonable as DeLeaver sounds, the fact is that the patchwork of security rules imposed on Americans since Sept. 11 is utterly inconsistent and often represents more hysteria than rational strategy.

Second only to the bizarre fixation we have with the meaningless ritual of checking ID cards at building entrances (You have a card with your photo on it! You must be a good guy!), the effort to halt people from taking pictures of building exteriors is surpassingly silly.

Although police try to stop tourists from taking snaps of prominent Washington buildings, every feature of those buildings is documented in detail in art, journalism and official photography available to anyone. Heck, on the Web sites of many transit systems, including Metro, you can find extensive collections of photographs of their facilities.

MARC enforces one standard for photographers. Metro has another: It does not restrict photography at trains or stations. "Law enforcement officers nationwide do contact people who are taking photos to determine if this is a suspicious activity," Richard White, Metro's then-chief, said in an online chat with riders last year. "Bottom line is that visitors/tourists who want to take some snapshots in our system are welcome to do so."

Gadhoke's teacher suggests that students carry their class registration ticket to show to police who question their presence. "Look, these days, frankly, I have no problem to anybody questioning me," Rosen said. "I'm hardly the picture of an Arab terrorist. But the main thing is that everybody be treated the same."

That's Gadhoke's concern, too. "The threat is real, and the officer was just doing his job," she said. "But the question about my nationality really humiliated me. I never felt like I was being watched for what I look like before. This has really stifled the inspiration I have about photography right now. You really don't know where you can go and take pictures. This wasn't a federal building; this was a small town."

(On Thursday, three weeks after the incident, Gadhoke got a call from a Maryland transit police sergeant saying his suspicious-person investigation was complete and she had nothing to worry about.)

For the class assignment, Gadhoke ended up taking pictures in her house -- apples, furniture, shadows. But there was no Joy of Photography. "We have to live not in fear," she said, "but live in pride that we are a strong country. We have to be clear about who we are and not turn on our own but focus instead on those who are attacking us."

The last thing I need is a stack of train photos, but after talking to Gadhoke, I felt compelled to head out to the Odenton station with a camera. One morning last week, I stood on the platform for 20 minutes, shooting the lampposts, the station house, the tracks. Nobody said a word. Maybe it was the way I look.

For more on trains and photography, check out the blog, Raw Fisher, at http://blog.washingtonpost.com/rawfisher.

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