Photographers Versus Security Guards in Washington, DC
I recently wrote about photography being banned in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland, where a formerly public street has been turned over to a private company. Yesterday I was on my way to a photographers' gathering in Washington, DC at the Warehouse Gallery, organized by DCist. You're never too far away from irony, it appears, because on my way to this meeting of photographers I stopped to photograph a building. Almost immediately two security guards emerged and told me that photography of this building is forbidden. One guard asked, "What are you doing?"
I responded that I was taking photographs. The dialog then went this way:
Guard: "You can't take photographs of this building."
Me: "Yes, I can. There's no law against it."
Guard: "This is a Federal building and no photography is allowed."
Me: "What Federal building is this?"
Guard: "It's a Federal building."
He didn't want to say what building it was. Meanwhile, I continued to snap photographs. After another minute, the first guard, the one you see in this photograph and the one who was doing the talking, went inside. He came back out and spoke to me again.
Guard: "You're not allowed to take photos of this building."
Me: "Show me the no photography policy in writing."
Guard: "Why are you taking photographs?"
Me: "This is my hobby. I like to take photographs. And I'm actually on my way to a meeting with other photographers."
Guard: "You need to stop taking photographs."
Me: "I am allowed to take photographs of any building from any public street. Why don't you call your supervisor?"
Guard: "I just did. He said you can't take photographs of this building."
Me: "Then you should call the agency's chief council's office. The Constitution of the United States guarantees me the right to take photographs in public places."
During this entire confrontation, I had the viewfinder to my eye and took more photographs. I could tell that the security guard, who worked for a private company, Jenkins, wasn't going to physically stop me, take my camera or call the police. It was apparent that the limit to what he was going to do was argue with me, hoping to intimidate me away. This was a troubling, blood-pressure increasing few minutes. Being harassed --and that's what it was-- for doing something that everyone in America has the Constitutional right do to is wrong.
I took a few more photographs and left for the DCist photographers' gathering. A couple of hours later I walked back to the Chinatown Metro with some of my fellow photographers, whom I had told about the incident. Of course, they wanted to take photos of this forbidden building, too. Once again, it didn't take more than a few seconds for security guards to appear and insist that photography of this building is forbidden.
And it seems from the conversation the guard said he had with his supervisor that there's some official or quasi-official policy against photography of this building. And this isn't an isolated incident: Security guards --both private and US Government-- try to stop photographers. Sometimes the guards ask the photographers for identification, and record that information. Years ago, I visited Russia when it was still the Soviet Union, where photography of anything deemed sensitive was forbidden. I felt like I took a trip through space and time last night and was back in the Soviet Union.
If you've ever wondered what it feels like to be told, in essence, that the First Amendment doesn't apply, try taking a photograph of this building. The building is located at on 7th Street, NW between Eye and K Streets on the north side of the street. It's easy to recognize through the surveillance camera on the outside and the garage entrance with the metal barrier that says STOP.
Sometimes you hear the arguments that "the world's changed since 9/11" and "better safe than sorry." Security is a complex subject, but I want to make three quick points about these arguments. First, it's a simple matter to take high-quality photographs using a cell phone camera that nobody notices, and the bad guys are almost certainly going to take photos surreptitiously . Second, photos of the outside of buildings, and even the inside of other structures, aren't a very useful tool for potential terrorists, at least not when you can get very useful information via online satellite imagery and elsewhere. Third, if potential terrorists know that they can create a diversion by taking photographs, drawing away security guards, then "no photography" rules actually diminish our security.
There is no ambiguity about the law and our rights: People have the right to take photographs of public buildings while standing on a public street. You don't have to explain yourself, answer questions or show identification for doing something that's legal. The law, the principle, the right doesn't get any clearer than that.
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