A Depot and a Fight to Photograph the City

The search for lost history leads to odd spots sometimes, like Second Avenue, between 126th and 127th Streets, once the site of William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan-International movie studio. It is now home to the 126th Street Bus Depot, and that’s what I was taking a picture of last week — from the sidewalk across the avenue — when a property protection agent with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority approached me.

You can’t take pictures of transit facilities, he told me, politely but firmly.

Trying also to be polite, I begged to disagree, saying I believed I could take pictures of building exteriors from the public walkway, which I was standing on.

No, he said, this is a transit facility and you can’t take pictures.

Ever since Sept. 11, a photographer’s lot in the most photographed city in America has been one of increasing frustration. Police officers, security agents and private guards try to stop journalists and members of the public who are standing in the public way from taking pictures of public events and publicly visible scenes. Almost every time they do so, they are wrong.

“The problem is that lots of law-enforcement people out there — either under a mistaken impression or otherwise — are unlawfully telling people they can’t take pictures when, in fact, they can,” said Christopher Dunn, the associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. He is representing two rail buffs who were arrested in 2010 for taking pictures of subway trains from the platform of the Broad Channel station. They were waiting for the Nostalgia Train to arrive.

As a general rule, Mr. Dunn said, a sidewalk that abuts a city street is a public way. And from the public way, he said, “You’re entitled to take pictures of anything you can see — period.”

That’s what I thought when I was having my discussion with the transportation authority agent last week. But rather than antagonize the situation by photographing against his instructions, I said I’d refer the matter to the press office of the authority. I asked for the agent’s name. He didn’t volunteer it, but he offered no objection to my copying it down from the credentials on his vest: P. Mack, Badge No. 1512.

It seems that Agent Mack erred in two ways. First, the sidewalk is not part of the bus depot. Sidewalks are public. “If you were standing on the sidewalk right on Second Avenue, absent something extraordinary, you were unquestionably on public property,” Mr. Dunn said. Second, the authority doesn’t prohibit photography. The New York City Transit Rules of Conduct are very clear on this point:

Photography, filming or video recording in any facility or conveyance is permitted except that ancillary equipment such as lights, reflectors or tripods may not be used. Members of the press holding valid identification issued by the New York City Police Department are hereby authorized to use necessary ancillary equipment. All photographic activity must be conducted in accordance with the provisions of this part.

Basically, that last sentence means that you can’t take pictures where you’re not allowed anyway.

“Yes, you may take photos from a public sidewalk,” Charles Seaton, a spokesman for the authority, said Tuesday. “The actions of the property protection agent you encountered will be investigated.”

The problem is, however, much larger. Security is inevitably invoked, but the security rationale seems to have been upended by the Web. “Things like Google Earth are making irrelevant, if not ridiculous, objections to people snapping pictures on the sidewalk,” Mr. Dunn said.

Something approaching good sense has broken out in the federal government. In 2009, as part of a settlement with the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Federal Protective Service reminded officers, agents and employees that, “absent reasonable suspicion or probable cause,” they “must allow individuals to photograph the exterior of federally owned or leased facilities from publicly accessible spaces.” Since then, Mr. Dunn said, the federal courthouses in Manhattan and Brooklyn have stricken prohibitory rules. “We haven’t gotten any further complaints about federal officers,” he said.

Most people who are stopped for taking pictures don’t enjoy the privilege a reporter has of reaching responsive agency officials with a single phone call or e-mail. Mr. Dunn offered the following advice: “They should politely but nonetheless firmly tell the officer that they do, in fact, have a right to photograph. They should get the person’s name and the agency they’re from, and file a complaint.”

“And,” he added, only half jokingly, “they should let me know.”

Powered By WizardRSS.com | Full Text RSS Feed | Amazon Store Builder | Android Games | WordPress Tutorials
Go to Source