Monday, August 13, 2007

The Photo that got me in trouble

This was the photograph that got me in trouble. In trouble with the Washington State Patrol (WSP) no less. And being detained after disembarking from the Washington State Ferry (WSF) Walla Walla. And the story behind it?

It started to be a good day, Sunday August 12, 2007, I drove to the dock for the Bremerton to Seattle ferry which I take once or twice a month. I got there close to the time the vehicles were loading and was directed to park on the starboard side about midship. I got and walked around. I didn't bring the camera out because of a recent incident where I was held by the Captain from disembarking when a tourist reported me taking "suspicious" photos on my usual walkaround on the ferry.

Well, the ferry left the dock, but shortly after that a voice came on the public intercom to announce they were returning to the dock to load some cars. So, this was an opportunity too good to pass up, so I went back to the van and got the camera to photograph this work and do my normal walkaround. I've posted a selection of the photographs.

Well, after that I went up to the public deck with coffee to read the Sunday papers. I returned to the van about halfway through the trip to sit and listen to the radio and watch the trip since I had a view out my window (parked along the outer starboard rail). While there I noticed several workers walking back and forth in the course of their job, but somehow making a "casual" detour to walk by the van and glance inside. Watching them they didn't look any anyone else's vehicle, just mine, so I suspected something was up.

One worker actually tried to disguise his casual trips on the boat, even pausing at the rail to look out, but everytime walked by my van to glance inside. That continued until the ferry docked. As we disembarked I noticed a Washington State Patrol office, Mr. McCulley, slowly walk out into traffic until he was in front of my van. He directed me to a parking spot to "talk" with me. It was clear they thought my photography was suspicious. Again.

The Officer took my drivers license and vehicle tag number to check the information. I gave him my business card too. He asked to see the photos, so I set the camera up so he could scroll through the ~100 images I took. Some time later he returned the camera - none of the images were deleted - along with my drivers license to say it appears to be another case of an overzealous worker, even after all the training the WSP folks provide them.

I don't know what will happen but I suspect there will be a report somewhere. I asked the Officer why would anyone suspect a photographer walking around with $5,000 camera being so obvious taking photos. I said if I was really a terrorist I would be using a camera phone and sending the images to someone else immediately and deleting them, or use a point and shoot with decoy people to make it appear I was simply being a tourist. I told the Officer I've been taking walkaround photos on the ferry and have posted the photo galleries.

What's ironic is several points. First, the WSF encourages photography on board the ferry - check their Website - and asks people to send them the photos to post. Second, there are no signs on the docks or the ships prohibiting photography, nor are there any signs defining what is acceptable to photograph and what isn't. So you can take all the photos you want, but you don't know what will set off some worker who thinks your suspicious.

The problem is that the ferry boats have a lot of video cameras throughout the ship, so you can't get away with anything anyway. I wrote the WSF folks about photography on ferries and if a photographer's indentification card or similar thing was available to show the workers and others I was just another photographer. I haven't heard from them yet.

The problem is that I like taking photos on ferries. They're built with everything clear and obvious so that in the case of an emergency all the workers will know where to find anything and the public will know what to do. The post signs telling everyone about this along with big read markers identifiying all the emergency equipment. It's ok to look at it and maybe take a photograph with a simple camera.

So the lesson? Simply restrict any photos you want to take to the typical tourist ones - meaning on the passenger deck or looking out from the ferry, and not of specific things on the ferry - and not any suspicious one, unless of course you want a nice, friendly chat with a WSP officer after you disembark. They're good folks doing a tough job, but somehow we can't even do anything ordinary anymore without someone thinking you're doing something wrong.

PS.--The story has been updated.


  1. It was probably the combo van/photog that set them off. Vans are automatically suspicious 'cause who knows what manner of secret surveillance equipment is hidden away in there! An alternative strategy might have been to throw open the back doors, call everyone over for an inspection and hand out your b-cards to one and all.

    Ferrys are the coolest things. I've only been on a few. My favorite thus far: the Gifford ferry in Inland Washington.

  2. I would have refused to let the cop see my camera without a search warrant or court order.

    Recently, a warves cop in Galveston TX confiscated a photographer's memory card after he was seen photographing a train. The photog was using a pro camera. This is a tourist town, and no one is ever stopped from shooting with a P&S or camera phone.

    These cops are really stupid and need to be told so. I have made up a PRESS photo ID which I wear. They leave me alone.

  3. Thanks for the comments. I like the idea of a "press" pass, maybe a "Freelance photographer pass" or similar might work. I've e-mailed the WA Ferry folks again for answers to why.

    My van is a basic 4WD early 90's VW van with no curtains in the windows to hide anything, so it's easy to see everything. The workers were sooo obvious trying to disguise their walks by and glances in because they didn't look in any other vehicles.

    And the WA State Patrol folks were cool and apologized. I don't have a problem letting them see the photos. The guy knew it was a $5K camera/lens so was careful. I just wonder what they would do in the days of film? Conviscate something they can't prove that isn't illegal?

  4. Hmmm...have you read anything about the FBI investigating some alleged terrorists who they thought seemed a little too interested in the Ferries in Washington State? (

    I hope you're not the one they've got their eyes on!

  5. Personally I would have refused to give up my camera or show them any of the photos, he had no right to ask to see them or to take your camera.

    This is becoming a big problem in most big cities, I was just on the ferry to Seattle on Tuesday and I was taking all kinds of photos. Thankfully I was not stopped, stared at or bothered in anyway. I have had problems in my own town though, St. Louis, so much so that I made up a t-shirt through cafepress to wear while walking around the city taking photos, it simply says "I am a photographer, not a terrorist"

  6. Laura, thanks for the links. I heard about the incident shortly afterward. WA State Patrol officer was professional in asking questions, explaining the situation as an overzealous Ferry employee.

    And as noted in the comments on the linked Web page, it's the accumulation of "suspicious" activity that really counts, but it's clear to me from the media people who appear ot be of Middle Eastern decent have one strike against them - as written about in the recent NYPD report on radicalization.

    What's curious is that with all the video cameras on a ferry, they didn't need to request help from the community, unless the two men weren't readily known or their identities in law enforcement or immigration databases. For all anyone knew they could have been maritime engineers. After all everything on a ferry boat is clearly labelled for everyone to see.

    As for showing the images to the officer, I don't have a problem if they are professional, and both times I've been asked (once by the Captain and the recent incident) they have apologized, as one said, "just another dumb professional photographer." I'll take that all the way off the boat, thank you.

    As for your photos, I'm curious what you were photographing. Any galleries on-line? The problem isn't people taking a lot of photos, but ones of the infrastructure of the boat that creates the interest in you.

    As for their "right" to ask for the camera, I sure wouldn't want to test it in court. The Captain has the authority on board the ferry and the State Patrol has it on the docks. Saying no is not an option unless you want to be detained, which they can do if you refuse.

  7. I will have the photos I shot online soon, just got back from that trip and have almost 3000 photos to go through and edit. :)

    A lot of my work is artistic nudes/fetish work, so I won't post a link to my gallery here, but like I said I will have a section up for just my latest trip. I am on Flickr if you want to look up Insomniac Studios.

    Where you still on the boat when he asked to see them? I have just had bad experiences with things of that nature in my area (St. Louis) but we are not known for being kind and helpful in our neck of the woods either. I am sure if they were polite about it, I would have no issue either, but I would not let the camera out of my site. In some places how I look either gets me to much attention or I am left alone big time or so I have been noticing.

  8. Thanks for the response. The first time the Captain held me from disembarking (his authority) until I explained and showed him the images. The second time the WSP (authority on docks) flagged me to park and the officer came up to the window.

    After taking my license, he returned where he wanted to see the images. I set the camera up where he could scroll through them in my sight so I saw the camera the whole time. I wasn't about to hand a $4K camera to someone to walk away.

    I haven't decide if I'll photograph on the ferry on my the trip next week. I hate touristy images and like photographing the people and real stuff of the ferry. But with the tension over the recent incident, I don't know.

    I'm tempted to photograph again if only to make an issue of the contradiction with WSF's public and private policy about photographers, but the last thing I want is to be sitting in an office being asked questions and wondering where my camera went. But the worst case is the format card or delete all button.

    I like your images, but sometimes the images don't show on some pages, only when you go to the individual post.

  9. I am working on the site and some of them contain nudity so I have them hidden unless you click on the subject or the link.

    Thank You though, I am glad you enjoyed them. Let us know if you have anymore issues with them.

    (if you still have issues with my site, let me know what browser you are using please, thanks.)

  10. Very interesting. I just got finished reading my Photographer's Legal Guide that I bought at The police can not compel you to give up the camera and memory card or search you unless they have a warrant and only the police can detain you without having witnessed an actual crime, so it would hold up in court.

    I'm going to get that tee-shirt, though. I've never been stopped, but I have been leered at! :-)

  11. Paul, thanks for the comment. I'm trying to find the book locally, and may end up ordering it on-line. After doing some research I'm working on an update essay to the first one. After two e-mail to the State Ferry folks I finally wrote their security office with a cc to the Governor's office for answers. I'll keep ya'll posted, probably on the newest essay.

  12. I wonder if they would have bothered you if you sat there and painted a picture? haha