Monday, December 31, 2007

FBI's Security Risk List and Photographers

Somehow I never thought that my friend E, a wonderful photographer, could ever be on any FBI list but now she is. Here is her story:

Today D and I drove to Galveston--just to get out of the city and also I wanted to photograph the shrimp fleet. Photographing the shrimp boats was cut short because we were threatened with a group of men who wanted to know "the time", but my guess is that they had their eye on my camera and anything else we might have they could take. We got in the car and left, to go drive up the Texas city dyke--a long road jutting out into Galveston Bay. We left there at sunset and as I drove through the Texas City area towards the highway back to Houston, we passed the Texas City Chemical refineries....the setting sun turned all the the smoke golden and all the metal from the tanks and other stuff, reflected in the low sun---kind of an eerie but interesting naturally I thought....why not take some photos of all this, which I did, stopping the car and leaning out my window taking high res snap after snap. Then out of nowhere, security appeared. (this is a huge refinery area)... They held us until Texas City Police arrived.....they ran all the usual checks on us. Then they held us until the FBI got there...our car sat amidst flashing lights from security/police, etc. We must have sat there at least an hour. Finally FBI arrived and looked at all my digital files, having me magnify them so he could see how much detail there was. He was very friendly and very nice, but made me erase them all, explaining that if these got into the wrong hands, there are people who could enhance the detail and learn how to get by all the security fences, etc. that are in place to protect the refinery. While he explained that D and I are veeeryyy low risk folks, we still will be in the FBI "data base" and if I go around taking questionable photographs of questionable places, the FBI can do a check on me and find me in their records. First thing I thought of was, what about stuff like my downtown Houston Series? some would consider a security breach too if I continued with that project. I pulled up my website on my iPhone and showed the police and FBI the kind of things I photograph---including the downtown series. the FBI man just said not go go around photographing stuff that would be suspicious. not a good afternoon.

Go take a look at E's work. Does this look like a terrorist? And now every time she takes her camera out she will wonder if this is going to trigger another interrogation.

I'm seeing more and more of these situations pop up on Blogs. Just a few weeks ago Howard Grill wrote about his encounters with Security in Pittsburgh. See here and here.

I guess it is true, if we publish this type of pictures on the web, they could be viewed and downloaded by someone else with intentions of doing harm to the USA but it sure is shrinking our world photographically. Censorship is a terrible thing for artists. What is next for my friends D and E? Another encounter and then they move up to medium risk.....maybe the no fly list. I find this whole episode very troubling for all of us.


Babs said...

Good grief! Has the US and FBI gone mad????? Ridiculous........

wayne said...

I guess you should feel lucky that you didn't get packed off to Guantanamo or something. I understand REAL terrorist threats but, really, this has all got to just stop. And why can't people take a bottle of shampoo on a plane anymore? Ok, better stop now because this whole thing is one of my sore spots. Have a great new year, Billie.

Charles Hall said...

I wrote some comments, but then decided to erase tham for fear of getting myself and you into trouble. They weren't even that strong, but...

I don't know about the rest of you, but I've been self censored by fear.

Anonymous said...

Amiga - Time to get out of Dodge - come home to Mexico where there still is some sanity!


La Gringa said...

Wow! I am so out of touch! I can't imagine what you must have felt like going through that.

I have read on various blogs that in many Central American countries, people won't allow you to take photos of the inside of their store or restaurant. I always assumed that was because of crime, but it seemed kind of silly since anyone could go in the store and see the layout for themselves.

I haven't had that experience in La Ceiba yet but I suppose it is just a matter of time.

Billie said...

Hey, this wasn't ME who had this experience. It was my friend E. But it is very upsetting to me as a photographer and as an American Citizen. Under what law did they have a right to tell her to erase the images or what right to put her on a "Risk List." Someone who is in their 60's and has always been a good upright citizen. At first I was shaken but I'm getting angrier and angrier about this.

Heather said...

This makes me angry too. It's very frustrating that we always seem to be looking at things as a "security threat" than enjoying the talents that we have.

BTW, my DH isn't on the "no fly" list, but someone with his name is. It's also a very common name, almost like Charlie Brown it's so common. Anyway, everytime we fly somewhere, he always allots extra time to get through the check in process.

Jim said...

It's horrible! One should never give in when their rights are being violated - please check out this legal bit:

If you don't excersize your rights you will lose them.

Howard Grill said...

I find this very concerning, particularly since it seems to me there was nothing illegal about taking pictures of the site. If there was nothing illegal done, how can they justify making her delete the pictures, let alone having her put on a watch list?

Anonymous said...

Not only was your friend's treatment wrong, but the Police's tactics are just plain stupid. If there's something so sensitive that's easily visible from a public road, it seems to me that they should be spending their resources putting up an opaque fence, planting trees, re-routing the road, or doing something else that would actually improve security. Calling out a dozen pompous "security" guards, police, and FBI to delete some photographs gives the impression of actually doing something, but it achieves nothing aside from proving their near-total stupidity.

Real security is not some kind of game. It's actually taking action to make facilities less vulnerable. And if merely being visible is vulnerable, then they need to address the visibility issue.

Any terrorist who wanted good, high-res pictures of that site could easily just drive by on a sunny day and snap pictures from a moving vehicle, and "security" would never be the wiser.

No, there's nothing about security in such heavy-handed police-state tactics. It's fascism, pure and simple and an attempt to intimidate the public.

If something's in public view, we have the right to photograph it. If the owner doesn't want it photographed, he should put up a fence, plant trees, or whatever.

This is just disgusting. I feel sorry for your friend, who now will likely never be able to fly hassle-free again due to the stupidity running amok in this country.

Kim G
Boston, MA

Anonymous said...


Happened to me too - twice!! You know the old saying - "fool me once" etc. I was photographing from a moving car near Boston (strike 1) and was in plain view on a public street photographing an electrical sub-station of no great size (strike 2). I just happen to like industrial imagery. I got a visit to my home from Homeland Security for strike 1 and a full pat down from the police for strike 2. I'm probably on a watch list too. I used to joke about it but not any more.