Shooting At Your Own Risk in NYC

42nd Street subway entertainmentA cameraphone photo I took last Friday at the 42nd Street (Times Square) subway station.

A family of buskers, part of the MTA’s arts project Music Under New York.

I’ve been reading an interesting discussion in the New York Flickr group today about the harrassment photographers get while shooting around New York.

This shot is a threat to the security of the United States

It’s essentially about the security paranoia that the average (and above-average) photographer encounters around New York City. Although, I should add that many of the photogs who have participated in the discussion own conspicuous high-end equipment, not touristy point-and-clickers. It shouldn’t matter, but it seems to invite strong-arming by the Powers That Be, whether they’re security guards or transit police or regular NYPD. It’s getting to the point where you can’t take photos of anything without looking suspect. Somebody even mentioned that tripods require a permit in many places.

It’s been argued that New York City has every right to be paranoid. Others argue that this heavy-handed blanket of security that affects everyone has protected no-one and won’t deter terrorists from subversive activity. I tend to agree with both points, but the second point is actionable.

First of all, these longstanding structures like Grand Central Station and the Empire State Building have been around for DECADES. People have been taking photos of them and in them since they were built, and preventing people from doing so now isn’t going to protect them. The same goes for the New York metro — if a terrorist wanted photos of the underground, they wouldn’t even have to take photos, there are many thousands of these images already in existence. It’s probably not difficult to obtain blueprints, either.

I suppose it begs the other question — do New Yorkers feel safer if they see photographers get stopped from taking pictures?

Secondly, would terrorists be so bold as to carry around expensive camera equipment, set up tripods, and make themselves very visible and vulnerable to a search? It seems to me that ordinary tourists with ordinary digicams don’t attract as much attention, which has been to my advantage, but wouldn’t bode well for me if I started hauling around a DSLR with a giant lens. The past few trips to New York I’ve been shooting with the Asahi Pentax K-1000, which only made a curious older gentleman stop me for a chat on the street about how much he loved his old Asahi that he picked up in Japan in the 60s. I took shots at JFK Airport, in the subway, in museums, but didn’t encounter any nastiness. (One museum guard very politely prohibited me from taking photos of a certain exhibit, but that was for artist’s proprietary rights, not security.) Perhaps being female makes me appear less of a threat.

Maybe I don’t assert myself as much as the others in that discussion. When I see “No Photography”, I generally don’t try and take any photos, surreptitiously or otherwise. When I see police or security guards around, I don’t take out the camera. The last thing I want to do is ruin my day by arguing about my rights. If I want to take a picture badly, I make sure the ‘coast is clear’ first. If it’s not, I move on. Is that the wrong thing to do? Should I be more assertive and try and stop this erosion of civil liberties?

Part of me thinks it’s not worth it, to argue. It depends on the situation, but if I lived in New York and made it a regular practice to shoot such places, I would make more of an effort. After all, it’s my stomping ground, it’s in my best interests to exercise those rights because I’m going to keep running into these same security guards/persons of some authority, in all likelihood, again and again. But while my time in NYC is measured and precious, I’m not going to waste any of it waving a PDF of <a href=”

“Photographer’s Rights” in the face of a confrontational guard when I could be taking photos somewhere else in peace.

[Related post: Apr.26.05 – Metro Photography Concerns]