This article was written by the New York Institute of Photography, America’s oldest and largest photography school. NYI provides professional-level training via home study for photographers who want to give their images a professional look, and perhaps earn extra income with their camera.
A Cautionary Tale: The Investigator Calls.by NYI Dean Chuck DeLaney
If you make photographs outdoors, you have to read this.
We interrupt our look at Nikon and its products to bring you a story that should be of interest to every serious photographer who ventures out of doors with a camera.
Some years I saw a Broadway revival of a drama from the 1940s by British playwright J.B. Priestly entitled "An Inspector Calls." It was dark, enigmatic, and very interesting. A persistent and mysterious inspector makes frequent visits to a family to ask questions about the death of a young girl, despite the fact that any contact that members of this family may have had with the victim seemed minimal. There is a brooding, foreboding feeling to the entire evening.
Just the other day, we had an investigator appear at NYI, uninvited and unannounced. His name, along with those of the other characters in this story, is not important. What is important are the lessons we can all learn from this tale. If you have comments, ideas, or suggestions that we can share with the photographic community to help address this serious issue, please e-mail me at email@example.com.
He arrived early in the morning, dressed in civilian clothes rather than a police uniform.
He introduced himself to our staff, presented his card, badge, and official identification. He had traveled some distance to visit NYI, and he had a reason. It appears that one of our students had been observed taking photographs along a highway one evening. He was crouched low, alongside some bushes. Witnesses who saw what the photographer was doing became concerned, and one of them approached the student, who answered that individual's questions and even presented his NYI Student Identification Card.
Despite the fact that the student had been fully cooperative and had explained that he was working on his first Photo Project, and had even shown his questioner his student ID card, the people on the scene were not satisfied.
And so a complaint was filed. In fact, the complaint was filed with the New York State Counter Terrorism Task Force. That complaint was referred to the Investigator, and hence, one clear, blue sky morning in New York City, the Investigator called.
At NYI, it's rare that we get inquiries about our students from law enforcement officials. Occasionally an employer or family member will inquire about a student's progress. Our policy in those matters is clear - we don't give out any information about a student, his or her progress, grades, or any other information, unless and until we receive permission from the student. This happens quite a bit. Students and graduates often have banks and potential employers check with us to confirm their attendance. Sometimes a former student is up for a security clearance of some sort and every aspect of their background needs to be checked. That's all well and good.
In all those instances a signed release from the student/graduate comes along with the request for information.
But not in this case: The Investigator explained that he was conducting an investigation into an incident that had resulted in the complaint lodged against our student. Would we please supply him with some information?
As it happens, I was not in the office the morning that the Investigator called. Members of the NYI staff made the same decision I would have made under the circumstances - if the Investigator could supply the name and address of the individual, we would confirm the student's status and provide any questions the Investigator had about NYI.
My guess is about now you're wondering something that was in my mind as I listened to the staff fill me in on the visit - what had the student been photographing?
Was it a potential terrorist target - a military installation, an airport, or a reservoir?
Was it a subject of some other security concern? Perhaps an oil refinery?
No, the answer came back, the Investigator hadn't fully explained to the staff, but it seemed that the student was taking pictures along a highway, and the subject appeared to be the cars on that highway.
That didn't make complete sense, but there was more. The Investigator had seemed satisfied that the staff confirmed that we did have a student by that name at that address, and that the student was making satisfactory progress. He asked for some information about the Photo Project assignments we give to students. He also asked that some documentation about the NYI program be sent to him. He explained that he was going to close the case, given the fact that the story the student had told him had been confirmed by the staff. He just needed some paperwork.
Naturally, I was sorry I had missed the Investigator. I wanted to know more about what had actually happened, and what the student was photographing. If there had been a misunderstanding of some sort, I wondered what other students could do to prevent this sort of situation from occurring.
So, I called the Investigator.
Here's what I learned.
Upon having the complaint referred to him, the Investigator reviewed the file and decided that in all likelihood the student was not a terrorist. Rather than expend time and money in a covert surveillance operation, he took the direct approach. He marched up to the student's front door and knocked.
The student received the Investigator and explained in detail exactly what he was doing. He had been using a digital camera when he was photographing, and he showed the Investigator the images that he had taken that evening. They were for the very first Photo Project that students receive in Unit One of NYI's Complete Course in Professional Photography. That assignment asks the student to make a photograph that shows a moving object in a way that conveys a strong sense of the motion. He had decided to use a slow shutter speed to show the blurring of headlights and tail lights on automobiles. This naturally required him to photograph when cars have their lights on, and so he had picked a busy parkway and started to take pictures at twilight.
The Investigator told me that the student was very friendly and polite, explained himself clearly, and did not resent the Investigator's visit. He added that he hoped the student would not get into any trouble with us as a result of this investigation.
I assured the Investigator that this would not be the case. I confirmed what he had already learned from the staff. I did ask why he chose to visit us in light of the student's explanation.
The Investigator explained that he had decided to visit us to confirm that we were a real school, that the student was in fact enrolled, and that the first Photo Project did exist as it was described by the student. He had been satisfied by what he learned in his visit.
I confirmed that I would send him a letter memorializing that which he had already learned along with some documentation that he had requested.
It was my turn to ask the Investigator a few questions. What, I wondered, would he suggest students do in order to minimize problems when taking photographs?
Bear in mind, I know a bit about how to take pictures without attracting attention to myself. I have a few clients who hire me to take pictures of projects undertaken by their competitors. If I showed up wearing a photo vest and carrying an SLR, I might attract questions. But if I photograph the same scenes using a point-and-shoot with a friend posing as a tourist, I can take pictures of darn near anything.
Years ago, I read a study that showed if New Yorkers were asked directions by a man dressed in business attire, say how to get from Grand Central Station to Rockefeller Center, they would give brief, cursory instructions. However, dress that same individual in a bright flower pattern shirt, put a straw hat on his head and a New York City guidebook in his hand and have him ask the same question and there's a different result. Kind and caring New Yorkers will give much more detailed information, under the assumption the man is a tourist visiting from out of town and that a greater degree of assistance is required.
So too, if we see people who look like tourists posing in front of this or that location, we write it off as inconsequential. But in the scenario that was referred to the Investigator, the NYI student was making serious photographs but it wasn't clear to the people observing him from a distance what he was doing. That's what started the sequence of events.
Obviously it's a waste of time to have counter terrorism resources being devoted to investigating photography students or professionals doing what they do. In all likelihood, a real terrorist would be more likely to behave more like a tourist and be less likely to arouse suspicion.
But, as we all know, the serious photographer will go to steps to get the picture that no amateur would take the time to consider. A serious photographer might lie on the ground, or climb a tree if necessary to get the right angle. A serious photographer might conceal himself while waiting for birds to alight at a feeder.
Hence, just by doing what we love to do as photographers, we act in a way that might appear suspicious to the casual observer. And, as the entire U.S. waivers between yellow, yellow plus, and orange alert, all individuals are encouraged to report anything suspicious.
What then, is a photographer to do?
The Investigator offered some suggestions that he agreed would not eliminate the possibility of getting reported but that might reduce it.
First, the Investigator suggested telling people in the vicinity what you are going to do before you do it.
In the case of our student, the people who saw him taking pictures were the employees and customers at a gas station some yards from the highway. The Investigator suggested that the student might have pulled in to the station and told the people there what he intended to do.
Perhaps that might have worked in this instance, although I have found myself in gas stations where the staff is less than talkative.
If you're going to be taking pictures in a rural area, the Investigator suggested that it might even make sense to make a preemptive visit to the local police station and explain what you're going to do and why. He pointed out that a year ago there had been a rash of very sophisticated burglaries in his area pulled off by a gang that entered empty homes by cutting a hole in the roof. A photographer had been seen in the area and was pulled in for questioning although he had nothing to do with the robbers.
In addition, the Investigator suggested that all photographers make certain that they have proper identification with them.
On that point, I mentioned to the Investigator that I don't know that I would have shown any identification to a stranger who wasn't a law enforcement officer. The Investigator agreed. He told me that the person who had approached our student at the scene was in fact an off-duty policeman but that he had not identified himself as one.
Beyond these limited steps, the Investigator agreed that there was little a photographer could do to avoid coming under suspicion in these troubled times.
My final step was to call our student. He told me that the Investigator had been very polite when he called, and confirmed the rest of the story. The only discrepancy was that he said the person who approached him at the scene had identified himself as an off-duty law enforcement officer and had flashed a badge before questioning him.
So, it appears that we live in a time when heightened security concerns will expose us as photographers to greater scrutiny. Obviously we can't always tell people around us what we're photographing and why, but it does make sense to carry identification, and to be prepared to explain yourself should the situation arise.
And, if you find yourself questioned about your activities, I recommend that you answer questions fully, politely, and maintain a calm and level-headed attitude. I had once been photographing at a resort for over a month, working with the full knowledge and encouragement of the owners, when the chief of security came upon me and demanded to know who I was and what I thought I was doing. In hindsight, I was a little too flip and casual in my response.
We have to bear in mind that while the anxiety level in society today makes our work harder, it presents a tremendous demand on the Investigator and his comrades as well.
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