Monday, August 15, 2011

Straight Outta Suburbia

Who are you taking pictures for?
You can't be taking pictures on the property.
Are you working security for the mall?
I'm chief of security.
Well, then I'm gone.
Appreciate it.

Thus went my recent conversation with a suburban police officer at a local mall.

I had been driving the access road that rings an upscale outdoor mall, camera on the passenger seat and left elbow (aka camera sandbag) on my windowsill. The mall buildings sit at the property’s periphery and face toward its center, so my vista was loading docks and steel entry doors. The photographic pickings were slim even for someone like myself, strangely obsessed with banal suburbia. At this tony mall, even the dumpster areas are tidily free of consumerism’s interesting detritus.

As I paused to chimp my meager photographic haul, I sensed movement in my left peripheral vision. I looked up as a police car moved smartly toward me from somewhere between my six- and my nine-o’clock. It pulled alongside and then angled into my lane as if to block my “escape”. It was a controlled but aggressive move, designed to intimidate. It got my attention.

The trim, immaculately-uniformed and -mustachioed officer walked briskly around the rear of the car towards my opened window, and we had our polite exchange of words. Given that he was armed, and I was technically trespassing on private property, I had no standing on which to refuse cooperation. I have no doubt that, had I chosen to be obstreperous, he would have arrested me on the spot. And there were no witnesses in sight to back me, had he also chosen to embellish the story to my disadvantage en route to jail.

Only as I drove away replaying the encounter did the oddness of several things strike me. This was the first time I’ve been accosted by a uniformed police officer while photographing on public-space private property. One wonders, is it the policy of his department to allow its officers to wear their uniforms and sidearms, and drive taxpayer-provided patrol cars, on moonlighting jobs? And was he actually off-duty from his day job? Yeah, I'm cynical.

But most strange was his question. Who are you taking pictures for? Not the usual question, what are you taking pictures of? or, why are you taking pictures? His working assumption seemed to be that I was photographing at someone else's behest, for nefarious purposes.

I freely admit that photographing mall loading docks from a car window must seem pretty odd to the average non-photographer. Why would anyone do this for amusement or other innocent reason? Terrorist plotting mayhem? Maybe, but Google Earth and the mall website have better information for terrorist-planning purposes than I could gather with my camera. Thief plotting a burglary? The cop surely knows that the vast majority of business theft is perpetrated by employees, and shoplifting is relatively risk-free. Business owners mostly fear embarrassment and litigation, so I suspect that was his main concern.

Anyone who photographs publicly has similar stories of the suspicion or even hostility our innocent, perfectly-legal activity sometimes arouses. Child-kidnapping mass hysteria is impervious to comprehension of its actual minute rarity; but stoking this fear sure fills airtime. And people out in public increasingly believe they're entitled to some zone of privacy that the law doesn't grant them --- often the same people whose kids run wild in complete disregard of the space of others.

Some of this public wariness is no doubt post-9/11 "security" paranoia. That's at least understandable, if vastly overblown. But there also seems to have been some kind of shift in public perception over the years since I started photographing. Public photography with "professional" cameras seems to raise people's hackles in a way I don't recall in years past. I'm not sure what to make of this.


  1. I encountered a similar situation with a real police officer who approached my car in a parking lot with his hand on his gun. Large storage tanks were the subject and his explanation was as expected . . . "every since those towers came down, we watch everything" . . . even in the midwest.

  2. I had a funny experience three years ago -

  3. Or... trespassing (quote/unquote), shooting in certain NYC parks... or... cemeteries... or... sigh.
    Racking up the citations... hoping for sympathetic judges... so far... pretty good track record.
    Hang in there, all.

  4. I too have been confronted, in downtown Denver, on a public sidewalk, while photographing a skyscraper. A private security officer informed me that he needs to see my ID. I replied that I am on a public sidewalk, and that I have every right to be there, taking photographs. He insisted again that he needs my ID to put into his computer. While I do not consider myself to be politically radical, I did not feel I had any obligation to show him my ID for "his computer". I walked away from him down the street. He did not follow.

    I think this issue raises a larger, more political question. We now have government cameras at almost every intersection, every building, and every public area. The government can photograph citizens, at will, anytime, anywhere, for any reason, but the general public cannot photograph in public? While I understand the security concerns after 911, I fear this scenario, and the precedent that it sets for our future.

    Here's a similar, amusing video:

  5. I get busted regularly. Funniest was the boardwalk supervisor in Wildwood NJ. I was photographing a couple with my 4x5 (and their permission.) He shows up asking if I had a permit. For what? He did not know. Next comes six cops with guns. Needless to say, Mr. Polite here.