Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Photographer ≠ Peeping Tom

This dead-boring picture almost got me arrested today.

Sometimes I take shots like this more or less as "warmups." I know it's boring, I didn't expect to make anything of it, but I just need to overcome the inertia (or that voice in my head that tells me every picture I take is a waste of time) and start shooting something. I don't know how many other people do it, but I actually read about this strategy on some other photography blog (can't remember which). It works for me, more or less. Sometimes. That said, I kinda liked the balcony design here, but I couldn't get a good angle on it or a good view with the ultra-wide zoom. This was broad daylight, slow car traffic on the street, with a busy park across the street, and foot traffic on the sidewalks. Not some back alley or hiding in the bushes.

Anyway, I took 2 such pictures and moved on, only to find a few steps down a police officer crossing the street and stopping me. OK, it's Fort Lee, it's a small town environment (I've never been stopped in NYC), and the officer is polite and courteous and no big deal. I assure him I have a wide angle lens, I'm just an amateur looking for interesting things to photograph yadayada. He asks for ID, I give it to him, I show him the live view with the lens so he knows it's not a tele, he asks to see the photos I took, no problem.

Then he asks me to wait for a minute as he goes across the street to his car with my ID. Now I'm getting pissed. I clearly have broken no laws.  I have not done something that's only technically legal but somehow creepy or unwise, and yet he's continuing his investigation. Now a second police vehicle appears with lights flashing and a second officer gets out of his vehicle and walks a few feet down from me and stands there looking menacing like I'm going to run for it or something. WTF?

Lucky for me I have a clean record, never been arrested, don't even have a moving violation (like speeding or running red lights, etc). I don't have any outstanding parking tickets in Ft. Lee or anywhere, actually. He still asks me if I've ever been arrested (didn't you just check my ID?).

I stress again that the officer was courteous about the whole thing and thanked me for my cooperation when it was finally over, and made small talk about photographing the GWB at sunrise. But I really felt violated - I had that sickly feeling that I had done something wrong even though I hadn't. I couldn't really stand up for myself without risking an escalation that could result in being taken in ("Oh, you wanna do this the hard way, eh?") or ticketed for jay-walking or something. I really had to resist the impulse to challenge the validity of the investigation (beyond verifying that there was nothing wrong with my pictures, which is understandable).

And now what? What other innocuous picture can I not take without being stopped and investigated by a police officer? What if this happens again - will I be able to maintain my composure? Certainly sucked the life out of this evening's efforts, and I don't know if I'll be returning to Fort Lee any time soon. Blech.


  1. Very strange the reactions of the police on photography these days in your country. Still its a great architectural composition. I have now also seen all the pictures I missed and they are all very good in my eyes. Strong compositions with often minimal elements and colors. For me one of the better photoblogs of my list.

  2. Thanks s.c., I appreciate the comments and encouragement. There's a website devoted to the topic, http://photographyisnotacrime.com/.

    Some of the videos posted here are just kids (young adults, college kids, etc.) with the right idea but not-well-thought-out implementation, which makes them come across as "gits" to use the British expression.

    Still, the paranoia around photography and law enforcement's ignorance or contempt regarding photographers' rights is appalling. And ironic considering the level of video surveillance used by police and security agencies everywhere.

  3. In Uk we have been feeling guilty for having such a hobby as photography for years. It got a lot worse after the whole terrorist threat scenario a few years ago. Add that to the paranoia about photographers and children... blah blah.

    But... it's getting easier. I think as cameras and phones have become far more popular, the pressure is lifting. I have been approached by a few security guards over the years as I have aimed my lens at their buildings; but I am generally not upset if they get awkward. I just move on. There's always something to shoot around the net corner.

    I am not sure how I would feel about being approached by a real police officer. Probably similar to you, I think.