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.