Caught with a camera
Ten local incidents where photographers were asked to stop taking pictures
By Annys Shin
A Union Station security guard interrupts the taping of a 2008 Fox 5 news segment with an Amtrak official. The official was trying to explain that photography is allowed at Union Station. The incident illustrates the problems photographers encounter at the station, which is controlled by multiple entities. Amtrak controls only the ticketing area and waiting area. A parking management firm has jurisdiction over the parking garage. The guard who interrupted the interview worked for Jones Lang LaSalle, a real estate firm that oversees the retail and dining areas. (Photographs inside a store or restaurant require permission from its proprietor.) All three entities say they allow photography in public areas, but photographers are often told inconsistent information.
Sonny Jobe of Reston tried to take pictures inside Union Station two years ago and a restaurant manager asked if he had a permit. (He didn't need one.) Jobe then asked an Amtrak security officer for guidance about where he can shoot and was told he could not photograph the ticket counters - contrary to Amtrak policy. The security officer suggested that Jobe try the view from the parking garage. Jobe got a few shots of trains from an upper level before being chased off by a security guard on a bicycle, in apparent violation of the garage management's policy.
Jerome Vorus, a 19-year-old college student from Alexandria, was detained by police twice in the past four months for taking pictures. The first incident took place on a public concourse inside Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport while he took pictures for a project entitled "Airline in Motion" that he created for his aviation blog. The second took place after he took pictures of a traffic stop in Georgetown. He said it is "understandable, but misguided" for police to view photography in public spaces as a potential precursor to terrorism. "I believe there is a good case to be made that having lots of cameras in the hands of citizens makes us more, rather than less, safe," he said.
In February 2009, a Metro police officer talking into a radio on his shoulder at 7th and G Streets NW, just outside the Gallery Place Metro station, caught the eye of professional freelance photographer Joe Tresh, who was among hundreds of people in Chinatown that day for the Chinese New Year celebration. Tresh says he stayed about 20 feet away while the officer, along with several others, questioned a man. Tresh says one of the officers spotted him and said he could not take pictures of someone under investigation. Afterwards, Tresh posted one of the photos on the D.C. Photo Rights pool on Flickr. "Had they never said anything, I probably would not have published it," Tresh said. "But because they decided to assert authority they do not have, I was basically compelled to share the story."
This is one of several pictures Matt Urick of Alexandria took of the headquarters of the Department of Housing and Urban Development a few weeks ago, while on his way to work at the Federal Communications Commission. A guard emerged from a hut, stopped him. Urick said he wanted to tell the guard that there are pictures of the building on HUD's website, that every angle of the building is visible using Google Maps street views, and that he was not a threat. But he stayed quiet. "A lot of these guys have guns and are enforcing laws they obviously don't understand, and they are not to be reasoned with," he said.
Erin McCann took this photo outside the Department of Transportation headquarters in September 2009 to see what would happen. A female security officer questioned her, but otherwise left her alone. She found that to be a welcome improvement over the many times photographers had been told that taking pictures outside the building was illegal - contrary to official guidance put out by the Federal Protective Service, which guards DOT as well as thousands of other government buildings across the country. Issued in 2004, the guidance explicitly says that photography is not prohibited outside the DOT building. McCann, an organizer of the D.C. Photo Rights pool on Flickr, blames continuing harassment of photographers on inconsistent enforcement by individual officers, which, she said, makes trying to stop it a bit "like playing whack-a-mole."
Wayan Vota, who lives in the Petworth section of northwest Washington, was thrilled to see D.C. police pulling over speeders on New Hampshire Avenue NW, just south of Grant Circle. He says he wanted to "celebrate" the police by taking a photo of two officers standing nearby on the sidewalk. One officer smiled and told him he was not allowed to take their picture. Vota argued that they were public officials acting in a public capacity and was told to put his camera away and leave the area. Courts have ruled - and MPD officials concur - that police on a public street have no expectation of privacy.
Earlier this month, after Jerome Vorus, a 19-year-old college student from Alexandria, took photos of a traffic stop in Georgetown, District police detained him, ran his name through a database, and then released him. Courts have ruled that police have no expectation of privacy when performing their duties in public. The officers said Vorus was taking photos of the inside of the squad car, where personal information is sometimes visible on a computer monitor -- a claim Vorus denies. Second District Commander Matt Klein said while there is no official prohibition against taking pictures of the inside of squad cars, the officers acted appropriately because they felt Vorus was escalating the situation. Vorus said he was merely asserting his rights.
In January, Jenn Francis of Frederick was driving in Reston and pulled over to take a photo of an American flag set off against a reflection of the sky in the windows of an office building. She did not realize that the building housed federal offices. After Francis snapped a few photos, a Fairfax County police officer pulled in behind her, blocking in her vehicle so she could not leave, and asked her for identification. After running her name through a police database, he wrote up a report and released her. Outside most federal buildings, security officers can stop and question photographers, but they may not prohibit anyone from taking pictures from a public location, such as a sidewalk or the side of a road.
Two years ago, Carl Weaver of Arlington was driving by the Chinese Embassy on Connecticut Avenue NW when he saw a Tibetan freedom protest. Weaver, who photographs and writes for WeLoveDC.com, parked and walked over. He noticed that someone had thrown some red paint on the building. He crossed over to the same side of the street as the embassy to get a better shot and an officer stopped him, telling him he was not allowed to take pictures of the embassy. He argued that the building was in public view and he was on a public sidewalk. Police told him he was not even permitted to cross the street. Once he produced media credentials, they left him alone. "That I needed the credential to cross the street, that bothered me," he said.