Camera Lens Incites Paranoia

The lens incites paranoia.

In the past 40 years or so, I have experienced other people’s paranoia because I shoot lots of photos–innocent and not intrusive or pornographic, mind you.This paranoia seems to be growing with the ubiquity of cameras for everyone, via their mobile phones.

In 2011 when I read about a man who was stopped by Maryland Transit Administration officers for taking photos of the Baltimore light rail, I was upset. This is the United States and it alarms me when I see things like this happen. It reminded me of a friend who traveled to the then USSR and was told that photos of transportation systems were illegal. And then there was another friend who traveled to her native country, Iran, and took a photo of an ornate gold gate, the entrance to a police station. She was hauled inside and questioned for hours because she took a photo of a pretty gate.

Past encounters

Many years ago, I was stopped at Baltimore’s Harbor Place by a zealous guard who told me I could not take photos there. After writing down the name of the guard, I wrote to the Rouse Company and received a reply saying that the guard had over-reacted and that I was free to take photos there.

Also, many years ago, I was on the street outside Mercy Hospital and was taking photos of the pattern formed by a lighted staircase that I could see through the glass windows. A guard came out of the hospital to tell my friend and me that we could not take photos of the hospital from the street. Needless to say, we told him that we had a right to do this on public property.

Sometimes, although I don’t agree, I can understand an objection. A few years ago, I was at an annual Robot Fest in Linthicum, Maryland. As a favor, I was taking photos of the event for one of the organizers, a friend. I took a photo of a child interacting with one of the special exhibits and immediately encountered a father who questioned my motives and demanded that I delete the photo of his daughter. Although I believe he over-reacted, I obliged. If it upset him, then I would certainly help alleviate his concern.

Pictures in the park?

Recently, during a low-key afternoon weekday photography session at my local Downs Park with a fellow camera club photographer and two modeling friends, we were approached by a park ranger and informed of “procedures for professional photographers” requiring pre-approval by the superintendent “for each occurrence.” We were told officials were concerned that professionals are making money by using the park setting.

Although I really do not understand why they would be concerned because everyone has to pay park entrance fees, we told the ranger that we were not paying our model friends nor were they paying us.

Having taken photographs at this park two miles from my home for more than 30 years, and supported it through county property taxes and the purchase of county parks passes–annually at first, and in more recent years holding a lifetime senior pass–I was disturbed at the implication that we were doing something requiring special permission.

Need to get permission to photograph in a park?

Photography is one of the most popular pastimes in America, and these days people can take high-quality images with tiny cameras, mobile phones and iPads–or, as we preferred in taking people pictures, with Nikon equipment and hand-held light reflectors.

This activity on a hot weekday afternoon, with relatively few visitors in the park, took place in a public area and did not restrict access to any area of the park by anyone.

I was handed a slip of paper listing “procedures for professional photographers”–although the ranger had no way of determining whether we were professional or amateur photographers–except, perhaps, making an assumption based on the use of a hand-held light reflector and our expensive cameras.

The concerns that were listed noted that activity cannot restrict public access–and, in fact, we did not limit access for anyone. If further stated that “the Park Superintendent and/or ranking staff in his/her absence has authority to deny or halt any activity they deem inappropriate or a hinder to the general public at anytime with no explanation.”

I would like to know what was inappropriate about two female photographers–or, for that matter, any photographer–taking tasteful photos in a public park. Was the use of a light reflector inappropriate? Or was it, as one of our model friends wondered, the fact that they are African-American in a county park where diversity is rather minimal?

The “procedures” also stated that the photographer and “clients” have to purchase permits or an entry fee to enter the park. Well, I have that. It covers the entry for my car and its passengers.

I often take my video camera and tripod to photograph nature in the park. Would this video camera with an external microphone and the use of a tripod (off the path) create suspicion? Would I need to notify the park every time I do this? I often do this on the spur of the moment, depending on weather and my schedule. Would I not be allowed to do this if the office were closed because it would be impossible to receive “pre-approval?”

While the ranger was polite and stated that the activity under way could continue on this particular visit, I object vociferously to the suggestion that this should ever require advance approval from the park superintendent. 

I could see a concern should a movie crew turn up with a truckload of equipment — but four people with two cameras and a light reflector?  After my experience, I met another woman in this county who had had a similar encounter. She was photographing her grandson with her expensive camera and was told that it was illegal and she had to leave. She left. Where has common sense gone?

Public parks are for our enjoyment, not harrassment.
The county parks system should be encouraging photography and all art, not interfering with it. What about an artist who might set up an easel and later sell those paintings of the park? Will this artist also have to jump through the bureaucratic hoops? If indeed I were ever to make some money from photos taken in the park, that would benefit the county—by increasing my local income tax.

I believe that Downs Park in Pasadena, Maryland is a treasure. In the past I have taken hundreds, if not thousands, of images  of and at Downs Park. Before my retirement as a county teacher, I conducted student photography outings there. One book that I found on Amazon.com mentions Downs Park as influencing successful projects of my students. I have participated in park photo contests. When talking with friends, I have often credited Downs Park for helping me maintain balance while teaching middle school during the day, walking two miles on trails in the park and then going to graduate school at night. Obviously, that day there was no balance for me at Downs Park.

Increasingly, I have seen growing government and business intrusion in ordinary and reasonable activity, and find that disturbing. The Downs Park incident made me wonder whether county officials know who they work for. Answer: The public.
By the way, I wrote to the Anne Arundel County Executive and the director of parks who wrote back that the ranger had been overly zealous. But the park system appears not to have changed its policy on photography, judging by what happened to the woman with her grandchild. If you hear of any other cases like this in Maryland, please send let me know.
A terrorist?
Today, a photographer friend sent me a link to a disturbing story about James Prigoff, an 86-year-old photographer who was tracked down by an FBI counterterrorism agent because Prigoff had taken some photos of public art near Boston while he was standing on public property. This story is outrageous and the ACLU has filed a lawsuit which challenges the government’s Suspicious Acitivity Reporting program :


A photographer’s rights
Here is a helpful PDF link on an attorney’s Web site about a photographer’s rights, what you should know when you are stopped or confronted for taking photos.
We photographers–in fact, everyone– need to be informed and to insist on our rights.

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About Bonnie Schupp

Photographer and Renaissance woman.
This entry was posted in Baltimore, legal, light rail, Maryland, parks, photographer's rights, photographers, photography, rights. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Camera Lens Incites Paranoia

  1. Arrived here via Quora, and glad I did. I had not thought about this issue from this particular angle. I'm glad to have this comprehensive (and cited, linked) discussion of the issue.

  2. Thank you for reading my blog.

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