Why “Big Cameras” Aren’t A Threat To Security

It recently happened to me again, just as it has before … and just as it has happened to many other photographers before.  I was stopped while shooting photos with my “pro gear” while people stood around me snapping photos with point and shoot cameras and their mobile phones without anyone giving them a second glance.

 

Last week I was photographing an Amtrak train nearing the station, from a public area, as I do from time to time, and was approached by an Amtrak Police Officer who stood between myself and the train I was seeking to shoot.  Why was I approached?  My two cameras, two Canon EOS 5D bodies, with BG-E4 grips, a Canon 16-35f2.8L and 35-350f3.5-5.6L, they “looked suspicions” and “warranted a conversation.”   Behind me, on the platform I watched 3 or 4 other people shooting photos of the train with their mobile phones while I was being spoken to. My interaction with the Amtrak Police Officer was courteous, lasted less than a minute and nothing came of it. This situation is far from my worst interaction with law enforcement or security while shooting photos, but this is merely my latest interaction where my cameras were called into question in relation to security.

 

Two of the oddest included …

 

1) Photographing a fuel storage farm from a public area, that is seen by hundreds of thousands of people daily driving along Interstate 95 in New Haven, Connecticut, where my car ended up surrounded by New Haven Police, State Troopers and the Department of Defense Police, with a US Coast Guard Zodiac hovering at the end of the dock, while I was shooting a business story. The approaching officer had his weapon out and was shouting at me asking me why I was trying to hide my activities of shooting photographs.  It is hard to accuse someone of hiding when they are out shooting in a public space wearing a Hawaiian shirt with a big lens (70-200f2.8) and very big lens (400f2.8) wrapped in brightly colored tape, after having placed a courtesy call to the New Haven Police Department’s public affairs officer to let them know I’d be loitering on the end of the dock with long lenses shooting a business story on the sale of one of the oil companies.

 

2) Entering Terminal 5 at New York’s JFK International Airport from the AirTrain, last year, with a camera on each shoulder, again, two Canon EOS 5D bodies, with a 16-35f2.8L and 70-200f2.8L, to shoot some photos accompanying a story on JetBlue I was met by two New York-New Jersey Port Authority Police Officers who stopped me and told me multiple people in the terminal thought I looked suspicious with my cameras out.  At the time they stopped me I was just at the bottom of the escalator, on the phone with JetBlue’s corporate communications, and no virtually one in the main part of the terminal could have seen me, unless they were watching surveillance cameras. Secondly, Jetblue’s corporate security was waiting for me at the terminal to escort me as I shot my photos.   The rationale from the Port Authority Police was that big cameras scare people and required the police to find out my intentions.

 

So, what is it about ‘big cameras,’ or ‘professional looking cameras,’ that pose a security threat?

 

Realistically, a threat to transportation security, or a person casing out a building or location to carry out an attack, is not going to want to stand out.  If you’re planning an act of terrorism the last thing you want is to be on law enforcement’s radar. You’d never want to draw attention to yourself.

 

If a person is shooting photos to build a model of a criminal act they plan to execute they’ll use their mobile phone or a “tourist” looking camera. They will want to blend in, not stand in one place to long to draw attention to their surveillance.  Loitering, especially with ‘big cameras’ is something someone does when they don’t care if they are spotted or draw someone’s attention.

 

For security to think ‘big cameras’ are a better tool for gathering data for an illegal action, at least out in the open, they should take a look at the capabilities of some of the current ultra compact point and shoot cameras … and they even come in blue, red, yellow, pink and green.

 

Yes, photographers, pro and amateur, with “big cameras” are easy targets to interview and follow up on as they look for their photos. Photographers tend to have a spaced out glaze on their face as they intently seek out their photos and keep an eye on the moment they are waiting for, but somewhere along the way logic needs to take hold as credible threats are sought out and investigated.

 

Chances are the person standing in plain sight, cameras out in the open, a scanner in their pocket, is not the credible threat.

 

Happy Flying!

 

@flyingwithfish

Comments

  1. I agree with this post for the most part. But I also see the point-of-view of the security officers as well. If I work in airport security and somebody comes up to me and says “that guy with the cameras is acting suspiciously,” unfortunately I’m going to have to go ask you some questions, even if I am sure everything is fine. It’s just part of the job, just like if somebody calls 911 for a headache, they still have to send somebody over.

  2. Dave,

    I understand that. However, in the case of JFK T5, if you have been in that terminal you’d know there is almost no way anyone could have seen me until I got the escalators. That would have meant someone say me, thought I was suspicious, notified the cops and the cops met me in about 30 seconds. They saw me on the security cameras with the cameras.

    Literally I was on the phone with the airline’s corporate communications just walking to escalator to meet their security folks. PAPD has a habit of stop-and-greet photogs.

    Happy Flying!

    -Fish

  3. Totally agree. My 40d and 7d with 70-200 and other lenses get a lot of attention from authority figures when I travel, but as you said, I stand out and have nothing to hide. The pocket sized and smart phone cameras are the ones they should be looking for!!

  4. Not a biggie. When in banking years ago we sent our bank photographer, Mustafa, out with all his pro gear to shoot branch signage as we were doing a logo redesign. He was hassled then with all his equipment and that was in the early 80s way before 911.

  5. This can be just a nuisance, but can easily escalate up quickly. Sadly, when it comes to security guys, logic goes out the window most of the time. I really wish more law enforcement agencies trained their officers better on this. The “suspicion” usually comes from watching too many movies showing bad guys taking pictures with big cameras, and nothing else. There is no real incident that I know of that was later found to have been executed using pictures previously taken with a big camera.

    Anyway, here’s a guy’s blog who has seen this happen too many times and even got arrested for taking pictures: http://photographyisnotacrime.com/

  6. Just another example of how security in the US is all about showing vigilance but rarely about actually preventing or stopping a terrorist act. They will stop and question you for having cameras with large lenses, but they won’t question a suspected terrorist who just spent 6 months in Chechnya.

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