Snap judgements: Architectural photographers find themselves under watch

August 22, 2012

The above video interested me.

Shot a year ago in London, the video shows six street photographers preparing to take pictures of building exteriors— and getting majorly hassled by the private security personnel from inside those buildings. 

The video shines light on a peculiar cold war between photographers and security personnel in the years following the 9/11 terrorism attacks and the July 7, 2005 London bombings that killed 52 and injured 700: Amateurs and professional photographers standing in the public way to take photographs of a building are sometimes stopped and questioned by security personnel or run off entirely under the rubric of anti-terrorism.

Now building owners can, of course, prohibit photography on their own property. That's understandable. I can't expect to waltz into the lobby of, say, the Aon Building or the Willis Tower on a whim and snap away. But the video shows the other side of the coin, which is photographers standing on public streets, photographing publicly-seen buildings and being challenged by private cops enforcing not a law, but the wishes of the buildings' corporate owners. (However in one instance, it appeared the sidewalk was privately owned, which gave the security the right to ask the photographer to move.)

Generally speaking, if you're standing in the public way, anything that can be seen from that vantage point can be photographed — even if its privately owned — without breaking the law. But apparently word hasn't gotten around.

Now I admit, I don't yet have a dog in this fight. I've photographed hundreds of buildings and bridges over the past eight years and I've only been stopped twice, but not on public property. So I put the call out to other photographers to see what their experiences have been.

"I was [recently] photographing houses [in Detroit] that may be demolished to make way for a new bridge when I was surrounded by private security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Detroit Police officers," a Chicago photographer we'll call "David S." told me. "All of the officers started at a high tension level, challenging my proximity to major industrial sites and arguing I was threatening national security. After numerous threats of lengthy detention and then jail — not to mention demands to see my camera — they abruptly left, apparently satisfied that I was on the up and up." 

A self-described amateur photographer said security personnel from the Boeing HQ, 100 N. Riverside Plaza, tried to stop him from photographing the building — even though he was standing on a public sidewalk across the street from the skyscraper. "That overreached a little bit," he said. "I let them know."

Steve Dahlman, who runs the fantastic Marina City Online website, has championed the cause of those taking photographs of buildings in picturesque River North. "Whenever I hear of a professional photographer getting hassled in River North, I generally contact the building [management] and remind them of the law," he said. "It can get my blood boiling. I wish I could understand why there are still people out there who think you need permission to photograph a building from a public space."

And these encounters do have the occasional upside. Photographer David S., said an Indiana sheriff spotted him photographing a theater and ended up giving him and his girlfriend a tour of the place, "including a visit to the projection room and swatch of the original screen."

So what's the takeaway from all this — that people with cameras should be a protected class? No. But the instances show we should be more mindful of how public space is policed--and by whose authority.

What do you think? Leave your comments below.