Photographer Takes Pictures at the Port of Los Angeles and Has Two FBI Agents Show Up at His House Asking Questions

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File this under more irrational reactionary police action against photographers. One of my Flickr friends, Hal Bergman, emailed me today to tell me about a recent run in he had with the FBI after photographing the Port of Los Angeles.

According to Bergman, he and a buddy were taking photos at the Port of Los Angeles when they were confronted by a security guard who told them that they could not take photographs of a Valero plant even from the public street. You can see some of the shots that they got that day on Flickr here.

Bergman didn’t push the issue at the time and left his shoot. After leaving his shoot he was followed by a man in a pick up truck for a while.

Fast forward to this morning when Bergman says two men with badges show up at his door:

“So, I go to talk to them. The first one informs me he needs to ask me some questions about what I was doing in the port complex two weeks ago. The other one demands to see my driver’s license. I politely decline, and he informs me that he already has all the information on it (I look, and sure enough, there is a photo of me on his clipboard along with god knows what else). He makes a crack about “wow, you’re younger than you look in this photo” when he comments on my birthdate (gee, thanks). I decide to give him my ID.

We exchange cards. I give him my business card that says “Photographer” as well as my iStock card (for legitimacy), and he gives me his card that says “Detective, FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force”. Yikes.”

Personally it troubles me that the FBI would think that their best use of time would be to harass photographers out shooting industrial stuff. It would also seem that at a minimum the FBI used DMV records to track down Bergman and pulled his personal information for the crime of photography. Stuff like this worries me and makes me wonder if the FBI now isn’t keeping some sort of file on Bergman that could impact him in other ways down the road.

I had a similar run in a few years back when Sheriffs in Oakland stopped me and a few friends while we were shooting in an industrial area of Oakland and demanded our drivers licenses and ran what I felt were illegal background checks on us.

Photographers who are documenting the American landscape should not be subjected to this kind of harassment.

Photography is not a crime.

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  1. Siebbi says:

    Paranoid! The terrorists did a great job. At least 9/11 was the initial starter for what I would call auto-terrorism. They just sit at home, smile and enjoy watching you spreading fear and terror yourself in your own country to your own people. Here in Germany I see the same tendencies. Authorities say “Who has nothing to hide has nothing to fear”.

  2. jcpiercy says:

    passing this along

    * Superintendent Dave Pickford, Windsor Police Service
    “I am unaware of any laws that prohibit the taking of pictures of anything that is viewable in a public venue. The only restriction that I would see if a person was to take photographs of the interior of a private dwelling or business while on the public right of way. There is nothing to prohibit the taking of photos of buildings, public transit vehicles or even accidents. Although some people may find it distasteful in having their picture taken in public, I am unaware of anything that would prohibit it. The exception would be of course if someone is physically accosted or obstructed so that a picture can be taken.

    There may be restrictions on persons taking pictures where the public is welcome but the property is private, such as a mall or a sporting complex. Although the public is welcome, there may be restrictions on the taking of pictures…. it is best to check with the administrative staff that owns or controls the property.

    With that said, there is nothing to prohibit a person from taking civil action against a person for taking a picture especially if the picture is subsequently published in a less than favourable light. Whether or not the person succeeds is dependent on the courts.

    Bottom line……… if it is viewable to the public, I see nothing wrong with taking a picture of it.”

  3. oh man i we are losing our freedomes so fast that its scary.
    i work at those ports and i take pictures all the time of ships and various giant equipment. if everyone is so paranoid about terrorists attacking the ports why is there a show on cable called americas ports ? couldnt that be potentually a pamplet to terrorists showing them the inner workings of the ports ?
    im glad thinks went smoothly for you tho. cheers !

  4. Anonymous says:

    “Photographers who are documenting the American landscape should not be subjected to this kind of harassment. “

    Hmm. If a guy was taking photographs of something like a refinery I’d be upset if nobody checked out who he was. Blandly saying “He must be a photographer so it’s OK” isn’t going to cut it.

  5. Anonymous says:

    What harm is it in answering a few questions if you are not doing anything improper? give the police a break, their job is hard enough ;-)

    get over your “privacy”…it’s a myth anyway…as your friend found out

  6. Ryan says:

    My friend and I shot there a couple years ago (very near/almost under the Vincent-Thomas Bridge) and we were threatened by a security guard. G-men didn’t show up but the guard did demand we remove our film and give it to him (they were digital cameras). When we informed him of this he demanded we give him our memory cards. After telling him no he demanded our IDs. We said we would not furnish our IDs. He then demanded we follow him to some office so he could call the police. We asked what laws we were violating and I don’t recall what his response was. After refusing to be detained he demanded to know where our cars were and what the license plate numbers were. My friend informed him that he was free to write them down when we drove away.

    If we had been more prepared (I had never even heard of/imagined such things taking place at the time) we may have met a more amicable ending… perhaps the experience described in Thomas’ post would suggest otherwise?

  7. Anonymous says:

    And the day that something bad happens you’ll be one of those that says it’s Bush’s fault.

  8. JeffH says:

    Thomas, after reading your story here, I went and read the full story on Hal Bergman’s web site. It appears that in fact the FBI has little interest in chasing photographers and fully agreed with Hal that what he was doing was totally legal. This whole incident was once again, the result of an uniformed and over zealous private security guard, filing an unfounded complaint with the FBI. The agent’s who showed up at Hal’s door were just doing their job investigating the complaint, and it was quite clear based on Hal’s account of the conversation, that they had no interest in him once they found out he was just a guy shooting photos. It was good to hear that the FBI, or at least these two agents, are aware of the gross level of misinformation and ignorance that exists with the public and with private security guards regarding the rights to photograph from public spaces. I hope they step up their campaign to educate people on what the law really is, and that anyone with a camera bigger than a deck of cards should not be considered suspicious.

  9. John Walker says:

    Thomas,

    I always agree with you regarding these issues. It’s your right to take photographs.

    In this particular case, I agree he shouldn’t have been asked to not take the photos. That said, I also think it’s absolutely the responsibility of law enforcement to follow-up on things they find suspicious. I’m sure you’ll disagree, but it’s a well-known fact that terrorists have been observed casing potential target locations.

    In this particular case, the FBI followed up by interviewing the photographer. They didn’t arrest him. They didn’t take him in for questioning. They simply followed-up by interviewing him.

    I, for one, am glad to hear they did.

  10. Shawn Oster says:

    It’s a tricky balance.

    On one hand your friend shouldn’t have been chased off, if it’s in the public view then he should be allowed to take pictures of it. On the other you have a cop pulling the most boring duty on the planet, airport security, and he’s been sensitized to anything that breaks his normal routine in the slightest so he over-reacts and escalates the issues up his chain of command because he doesn’t want to be the douche that “Let Them Get Away”. That mentality is pretty much on everyone’s mind so they keep passing the buck up until someone has to make a real decision and so they send out the suits.

    Seems what you and other photographers should do is try to be preventative by:

    1. Consult local laws to see just what your rights are.

    2. Get a judge or local cop to help you draft those rights into a form that can be handed to a cop.

    3. Print it up to hand to cops when they question you.

    4. Print business cards, even if they just have your name, flickr.com account, phone # and email address.

    5. Get the cop’s badge number and name and precinct. After politely respecting their request to leave call the station and speak to someone higher up that actually knows the laws and report the incident. If the cop was a real dick then lodge a formal compliant, that stuff does end up in their record.

    6. Make sure to return to that same spot the next day or week, it’s important to follow through.

    7. If you really want to steam an asshole cop print the best picture of the batch and send him a copy :)

    I think #4 is very important. Handing the cop your information shows you have nothing to hide, that you are cooperating and most importantly it takes away one of their tools of intimidation, much like your friend saw with the FBI. Knowledge truly is power so handing over your info takes that edge away. Anyway, getting your DMV information is a parlour trick, any state or federal agency can get it and just knowing your name most people can get a copy of your license with some social & tech hacking.

    What’s sad in all of this is that a real terrorist can easily get any shots they want of an airport using smaller hidden cameras, by not being so obvious or just borrowing a family and playing the silly tourist family role. Also the more false positives that get created by over-reacting, bored and scared people the less effective we are at finding real terrorists as we fill our tracking databases with noise.

  11. Poagao says:

    Some of these comments are even scarier than the original article.

  12. Anonymous says:

    god bless america. don’t people know that it is better to have the police check up on everything than it is to have Saddam Hussein attack you with weapons of mass destruction? i’d invite the FBI in to have tea and offer to massage their feet with scented oils.

  13. YACSC says:

    Hey Anonymous.. (If indeed that is your real name…)
    What everyone seems to forget is that a) if someone wanted to take pictures for nefarious acts, all they have to do is be covert… it’s not as if cameras haven’t become small enough to do that you know – standing on a public sidewalk with a fat DSLR is hardly covert…
    b)the people who bemoan the police state are usually quite comfortable with the fact that having freedom comes with a little danger. it’s been 7 years since 9/11 and more people have been killed by murderers accidents and natural disasters.

    What I blame bush for is fearmongering so the populace can be more compliant to his whims, (PATRIOT act), waging an illegal war on the basis of 9/11 and outsourcing public safety concerns to the lowest bidder giving us the fallout from katrina.
    Bush has given every 2 cent badge holder the ultimate excuse for everything: Because of 9/11. which becomes an argument killer.

    I hope you’re happy in your gilded cage anonymous…

  14. Arjan says:

    I know of only a couple of things overhere (netherlands) that can’t be photographed. Some houses of the royalties and military installations.

    I agree about the stories of the overenthousiastic security guard..but the FBI wasn’t that wrong to check up (after the complaint that is).

    I also agree with Yacsc that 1: anonymous..if you aren’t scared of showing your identity..why are you doing it here
    2 Taking secretive pics is dead-easy.

    Here people take privacy faaar to lightly.

  15. Adam Maas says:

    The security guard was an idiot and shouldn’t have hassled them, the FBI agents however were just doing their job, and investigating them is a valid act.

    Note that an attack on the Port of LA would cause worldwide economic effects as most of China’s commerce to Europe passes through there, along with a very large part of Asian commerce with the US and Canada, the port is arguably the most important port in the world. Unlike most of the hysteria surrounding a lot of transport infrastructure, a port is difficult to adequately protect, easy to attack and this port in particular is extremely important to the world economy.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Hi:

    John Walker said…

    “I’m sure you’ll disagree, but it’s a well-known fact that terrorists have been observed casing potential target locations.” Totally accurate that I disagree!

    This is a well-known falsehood. I’ll bet you can’t come up with an single actual successful prosecution for carrying out any kind of “terriorist attack” of anyone who was first “observed casing potential target locations.”

    Further, casing potential targets doesn’t take a camera under any circumstances, let alone in a world where Google Earth and similar systems exist.

    This is the knee-jerk reaction to a situation that boils down to harassment, pure and simple. I take a camera around lots of places, and have never been hassled so far.

    Once when I was rock collecting at a road cut on a public highway through Fort Knox in Kentucky, post-911, we were visited by heavily armed and very polite troops who asked us who we were and what we were doing. After we very politely told them (I’m always polite to someone with an automatic weapon and grenade launcher!) they helpfully told us of other places on public parts of the Base where we could collect.

    That’s how it’s supposed to be!

  17. Anonymous says:

    photograph your questioner… their id… their vehicle.. their license plate… everything… then you can publish it all as to who, what, when and where… details all recored on film!!!
    it’s the best way to fight back with your camera…
    Timothy

  18. John Walker says:

    @Anonymous

    During the prosecution of the first World Trade Center, the post investigation revealed numerous photos and videos taken by the bombers in the months leading up to the attack.

    So, I guess you’re right, the prosecution of those terrorists wasn’t the result of observing them in the process of photographing. The prosecution occurred after the actual bombing. But that really just proves my point, doesn’t it.

  19. TranceMist says:

    Harassing photographers should be a crime. Lest you want to live in a closed dictatorship.

  20. T.W. says:

    @bedlamite

    Thank you!

  21. Flyingcloud says:

    In August of 2005, I was stopped while photographing near a refinery at the port of LA. An off-duty LAPD officer detained me until the LA Port Police arrived. They questioned me, then let me go. A few days later, I got a call from an LAPD detective that informed me an investigation was conducted. He told me no law was violated, but that they had to investigate anyone photographing in the area. He also asked me to show him the pictures I took. Thankfully no FBI showed up at my door, that would have freaked me out!

  22. Joseph says:

    There seems to be a misconception that the United States remains a free nation. This shows a lack of historical perspective. If you examine the events in Germany during the Thirties after Hitler was made chancellor, and compare them to the Bush regime, then you will know where we are being led. Hitler used the fire at the Reichstag to impose martial law and crackdown on “enemies of the state.” Bush used the Trade Center bombings to impose Homeland Security on enemies of the state, foreign and domestic. Under the Patriot Act, anyone he pronounces to be a terrorist can be imprisoned and tortured for any length of time without any constitutional protection. Two FBI agents showing up at his house with dossier demanding interrogation because an insignificant twit was given a badge and hired at the airport demonstrates how ignorant Americans have become of the freedoms that were once ours. The police state is only one aspect of the tyranny we are entering. It seems many would prefer the feudal dark ages proposed at the United States to being responsible for Freedom. Validate all I say at http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-6495462761605341661&q;=alex+jones+law

  23. CyricPL says:

    @John Walker
    I would be interested to see a link pointing to the photos/videos the 9/11 plotters allegedly took, or, if not the materials themselves, links to the coverage of the investigation that denotes these findings?

    Bruce Schneier recently had an interesting post on terrorist photography here:
    http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2008/06/the_war_on_phot.html

    But if you can provide a link that points to hard and fast information about the connection between terror attacks and photography, I would be legitimately interested in reading that.

  24. equalopbigot says:

    Gotta love the fearless Anonymice who presumably have nothing to hide, but won’t provide their identity while posting. Lets have the government implant electrodes in all our brains since those who think no evil (or at least anti-government) thoughts have nothing to fear. The Anonymice will no doubt volunteer to be the first implantees. As to the FBI showing up. Some rent-a-cop phones in to the FBI about you and they are all over you like a bad rash? And if they know so much about you before they even talk to you, how come they have to talk to you to determine if you’re the real terrorist deal? The real terrorists are laughing all the way to their next attack. I fear getting run over by some idiot driver much much more than being blown up by Bin Laden or his ilk, but then again, that’s just me.

  25. Angel Heart says:

    I think that after 9/11 and all of that bull shit that we have given up too many of our rights. including letting them detain you. obviously they didn’t detain you in that instance, but if they really felt you were a terrorist , you’d think that they would atleast find everything about you that they could muster. and that isn’t very hard for the FBI. personally this government is a crock of bull shit and we’ve forgotten how to govern ourselves. We are sucked in by so many toys and gadgets that we don’t care what they do to us anymore. we just shut up and go along with all of this crap and say gimme gimme gimme more toys.

    bull shit.

  26. Anonymous says:

    It amazes me that people can actually believe we had “more freedom” back in some fictitious time in history. Read about the Japanese and German internment camps for US CITIZENS in WWII. Read about the Alien and Sedition Acts passed in the infancy of our nation. READ HISTORY and you will find your precious ‘freedoms’ have always been subject to government constraint. Whether this is right or wrong, you need to educate yourself. With a book.