24 May 2011

"You can't take pictures of federal buildings"


I took these pictures yesterday evening on the way home. I had just read Philip Kennicott's architectural review of the United States Institute of Peace building on Constitution Avenue, where he mentioned that architect Moshe Safdie designed the ATF headquarters at Florida and New York Avenues as well. (Note to Mr. Kennicott and the Washington Post - the building is in Northeast, not Northwest.)

I figured that Mr. Safdie probably didn't intend the space in front of his building to be used as a parking lot for cars from Maryland, with patchy grass and dirt welcoming one to this edifice, and wanted to document the sad state of affairs.

And then something interesting happened right after I finished taking the photograph below. I was standing on the sidewalk in front of the McDonald's on 1st Street NE when the driver of a car exiting the parking lot waved me over. He was a security guard, and said in a stern voice, "You know that taking pictures of federal buildings is illegal."

I've never thought I needed to carry "The Photographer's Right" (PDF) with me before, but perhaps I should. I've read stories in DCist and the Washington Post regarding photography around federal buildings, but I didn't know the details and had to wing it with this gentleman.

I told him, "I'm sorry, you're wrong. I'm standing in public space and these are public buildings. I have the right to take whatever photos I want." Then I told him it's been well documented in the papers lately.

Surprisingly, he got a concerned look on his face, said, "Oh, I'm sorry," and drove away. I felt kind of excited with the result, but I wonder about how security guards are being trained. Clearly, many are still not being told the facts regarding the rights of photographers in public space.

14 comments:

  1. Did you tell him that the Washington Monument is a federal building? The Gateway Arch? The Statue of Liberty?

    People take pictures of federal buildings all the time.

    It should be a crime to tell people it's a crime to take pictures.

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  2. Or, maybe he knew fully well that it was legal, but though he'd intimidate you into stopping. When faced with facts he knew to be true, he backed down.

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  3. Reminds me of last week when I got "commented on" by one of the gate guards near ONI (Office of Naval Intelligence) when all I was doing was taking photos of the goslings that are all over these days.

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  4. So this was a guy in his car coming out of McDonald's? So he wasn't even on the job and possibly wasn't even a security guard. You get a lot of "security" fetishists around here who'll try to claim authority they don't even have.

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  5. Anonymous: He was a security guard, he had on the uniform and was clearly on a lunch break. But yes, he was in his car.

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  6. I'm glad it ended well. I plan on traipsing all over the District this summer with my camera. I hope I don't have to write a similar post

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  7. At the US Institute of Peace no less. Hilarious.

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  8. Anonymous: You misread the story. This took place in front of the ATF headquarters, not the U.S. Institute of Peace.

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  9. Does it mean I have depressingly low expectations that I'm kinda heart-warmed that he apologized and accepted correction?

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  10. Nate: You have depressingly low expectations, but they're certainly justified! :)

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  11. Thanks for the info and links - I've printed my own copy of the Photographer's Rights sheet. However, wanted to let you know that your Washington Post link is incomplete. Enjoyed the DCist one, though!

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  12. Anonymous: Thanks! I fixed the Washington Post link. It should go to the story now.

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  13. The same thing happened to me on the way to work last week. I snapped a picture of the SEC right near Union Station. It was a sunny day and I was just in a pleasant mood and was documenting my "walk to work." A security guard made a bee line for me, I just walked off before he got to me. But I really think many of them know the "public space" rules but are trained to attempt to prompt a conversation and see if the person raises any red flags-- odd behavior, foreign accent, etc-- same as the TSA people at the airport. You know how they sometimes ask you a stupid question when they're checking your id? "Where you headed?" That's a tactic to make you speak and help them assess you.

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You can be curmudgeonly too, but let's try to be civil and constructive here, ok?