Photographers: terrorists?

A good read from The Guardian:

Since 9/11, there has been an increasing war on photography. Photographers have been harrassed, questioned, detained, arrested or worse, and declared to be unwelcome. We’ve been repeatedly told to watch out for photographers, especially suspicious ones. Clearly any terrorist is going to first photograph his target, so vigilance is required.

Except that it’s nonsense. The 9/11 terrorists didn’t photograph anything. Nor did the London transport bombers, the Madrid subway bombers, or the liquid bombers arrested in 2006. Timothy McVeigh didn’t photograph the Oklahoma City Federal Building. The Unabomber didn’t photograph anything; neither did shoe-bomber Richard Reid. Photographs aren’t being found amongst the papers of Palestinian suicide bombers. The IRA wasn’t known for its photography. Even those manufactured terrorist plots that the US government likes to talk about — the Ft. Dix terrorists, the JFK airport bombers, the Miami 7, the Lackawanna 6 — no photography.

Given that real terrorists, and even wannabe terrorists, don’t seem to photograph anything, why is it such pervasive conventional wisdom that terrorists photograph their targets? Why are our fears so great that we have no choice but to be suspicious of any photographer?

Because it’s a movie-plot threat.

I’ve definitely experienced this paranoia; since 9/11 I’ve been told not to take photos numerous times, in situations that wouldn’t have been an issue before. The thing is, if you wanted to take pictures for dastardly purposes, it would be quite easy to do it surreptitiously–why would you walk around with a big ol’ SLR when you could use a hidden video camera, or use your camera phone while you pretend to text someone. I can understand that people feel jumpy and there are very real threats out there, but freaking out about someone photographing a building just seems silly.

And another thing. Once at a Whole Foods store I spied a swell looking stack of oranges that I decided to take a snapshot of with my little point and shoot. Mere seconds elapsed before a staff member told me I couldn’t take photos in the store. In this case, I’m guessing the fear is not of terrorism, but probably more a corporate competitive issue. It seems that all chains have that policy.

One thought on “Photographers: terrorists?

  1. In the mid 60s the late great photographer Clarence John Laughlin and I were chased away from the Elks Monument in the Lincoln Park area (and had the police called on us) when we tried to photograph some of the sculpture..

    At about the same time, photo students at the Institute of Design (of which I was one) were asked to make photographs documenting the banality of the urban scene. To me nothing was (and is) more painfully banal than the interior of a supermarket so I went into one belonging to one of the chains and started shooting. A manager immediately descended, told me to stop, and asked me why I was “taking the pictures.” I replied, with an unidentifiable accent, “Ohaa, ey make peechers to sen hoam to shoo American SUPER-markET — Aeeees wanderfoal!” The manager smiled and told me to go ahead. Was I unethical?

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