I’m not a Terrorist, I’m an Architect

I present the preceding image (hereafter to be referred to as “Item 1”) as evidence pertaining to the specific crime involved.  On May 17th of this year, I did knowingly and willfully walk through one outdoor mall known as the Domain (hereafter referred to as “the victim”) gratuitously and without consent, taking photographs of the assembled buildings.  It was immediately after taking this image that I was stopped by a bicycle mounted agent of the victim (hereafter referred to as the “rent-a-cop”) who informed me that I was in violation of management’s security policy which prevents photography of their properties.  I proceeded then, to explain that I was an architect who was actually in the process of designing two new phases of the Domain, and that I was simply taking photos of the existing properties for contextual reference.  The rent-a-cop said that I could only proceed with my photography with written authorization from the management.  At this point, I departed from the scene, but immediately out of sight of the rent-a-cop did proceed to photograph with reckless abandon.

Has this happened to you?  Since September 11th, I’ve been surprised how often I get stopped like this. I’m walking down what (I think) is a public street, camera out, snapping shots and some shmo comes up to me and wants to know what I’m up to.  Now, there are perfectly good reasons to prevent someone from taking certain photos, especially if they involve intrusions into one’s privacy.  However, in a public place, on a public street, with dozens, and sometimes hundreds of people around, companies would dare try to restrict photography?

I shot this several years ago in an elevated plaza above a parking garage in Los Angeles, across the street from my hotel.  At the time, I was working on a project where we were contemplating a roof-top terrace on the top of a garage, and thought the imagery might help.  Here I was confronted by a burly security guard in a suit and told to immediately stop taking pictures and vacate the premises.

This is a huge issue to me for two reasons

1] I’m a fraking architect! We study buildings and designs! It’s what we fraking do! Imagine telling a botanist they can’t take pictures of daisies, or an entomologist they can’t photograph lady bugs? That’s just crazy, man!

2] I’m in charge of the image library at our firm.  When we present designs to clients, we often include image boards with photography of projects that are similar in design, use similar materials, etc.  We have over 8,000 images in our library and are constantly expanding it to help our designs evolve.

Well, suffice it to say that not being able to take pictures of buildings is a bit of  a damper on the whole process.  Ultimately, I wonder what the real effect is? Far be it from me to suspect that property owners would exploit the looming specter of international terrorism to further their own agenda…ahem…but I have a lot of trouble believing that preventing people from taking pictures of buildings is a legitimate step towards a greater security.

Well, as I was driving home in a huff, complaining about this to my wife, she very nicely looked up the issue online and and found this document.  It’s a quick summary (in general) of the legal rights you have to take photographs in this country:

Many thanks to Bert P. Krages II Attorney at Law for this little document.  I encourage anyone who has experienced this issue to read it and make sure they are aware of their rights.  While there are still ways photography can be prevented, we can at least know when property owners have overstepped their bounds.

We will not be contained.

Fight the power.


06 2011
  • http://twitter.com/kiffbackhouse Kiff Backhouse

    Yes, this is also a very common problem ober here in Europe too.  there was a very interesting article in the Uk edition of Profession Photographer with very similar conclusions to the article you have linked to.

    I often get stopped and asked to leave, particularly when I’m clutching a large tripod as well.  I can understand that using a tipod in a busy street or mall might be a safety risk but I tend to walk round the corner, looking as if I’m folding up my tripod and then start again.

    It’s particularly annoying as there are so many facinating modern developments around here in the South of France that I LOVE photographing (like this one http://bit.ly/El-Centre-del-Mon).  And the time and effort to get written approval, kind of, takes away from the impulsiveness of Photography.

    Great article – thanks!

  • http://twitter.com/mondo_tiki_man Jonathan Brown

     I appreciate the comment.  It definitely frustrates me because if bad guys were casing the place, they’ve a whole range of possibilities on how to photograph it that a security guard can’t hope to stop.  It’s just an annoyance. 

    Now, were I walking about the interior of a bank taking shots, or in the customs at the airport, I’ll defer to their authority, but if I’m just shooting an office building…come on…

  • Kristin Ebbinger Albert

    Yes! I was yelled at by three security guards at the Chanin Building. Their hyper- alarmed state scared the crap out of me. Thanks for addressing this issue.

  • http://proto-architecture.com/blog/ Jonathan Brown

    Certainly. It’s a silly thing, and just a nuisance really, with very little substance to substantiate that it helps anything. But we have rights, and people need to know them. Kinda sad we have to fight to reclaim our rights to photograph.

  • Bomephus

    This is one of my pet peeves as well. If actual terrorists want to case a potential attack site, they don’t make themselves conspicous doing it. As tiny and concealable as cameras are these days it’s as idiotic as putting a “no guns allowed” sign up at the shopping mall thinking it will prevent mass shootings or robberies.

  • James Dunbar

    I used to get a lot of questions – why are you photographing these buildings? – and my answer that I’m an architect and traveling (which I say even in my home city) usually does the trick. There are several projects (one in San Jose, CA, and a representative ‘new urban’ type project) in which the seemingly public streets are actually private and photography is not allowed whatsoever. The public/private domain is the grey area in these United States. With cameras so ubiquitous these days (phones, tablets, small point and shoots, DSLR’s, google glass…) it seems pointless for security guards to stop photography. I was at a couple european museums which forbade photographs years ago and now allow both photo and video as long as there’s no flash. That everyone can take an image/video has overwhelmed the few people trying to control it.

  • Gabby

    I’ve had problems with this on my college campus when I wanted to take pictures inside buildings for projects. It’s really annoying. Like you said, if someone really wanted to something harmful they wouldn’t have to take out a conspicuous camera to do it.

  • JK

    I am an architect and an artist and this has happened to me. Most recently when I started painting, in watercolor, a street scene in a local multi-use shopping and residential area.

  • Nicholas Deitch

    Thanks Dave. An underlying issue here is the gradual privatization of the public realm. Places that feel public, behave public, pretend to be public and profit from public presence have the ‘right to refuse service’, refuse passage, and tell you not to take pictures. This is not a positive trend for our society, in my humble opinion.

  • http://proto-architecture.com/blog/ Jonathan Brown

    I agree. The intention is clearly misplaced. It would be one thing to have a security guard just come up to me and ask me what I was doing. I could explain, even give him a card. Either way, it’s an impediment to normal people enjoying their liberties, with no clear benefit toward security.

  • http://proto-architecture.com/blog/ Jonathan Brown

    That’s a real shame. I realize learning environments have been sensitive to this for years, but i completely disagree that limiting liberties provides some sense of extra security.

  • http://proto-architecture.com/blog/ Jonathan Brown

    I hadn’t even thought about that. Are they preventing you from painting a scene? Image the architect not being able to sketch a building or an urban place…wow.

  • http://proto-architecture.com/blog/ Jonathan Brown

    You make an excellent point. It almost feels like this is a petty excuse for private property owners to impose their will on you, even as you say, they are the ones who benefit from their property behaving like a public space.

  • http://proto-architecture.com/blog/ Jonathan Brown

    I’ve noticed that as well. It seems an irony now, once we were able to photograph the building but not the art, increasingly we are allowed to photograph the art, but not the building.

  • Kishy

    smh…happens in my campus too. One has to present a letter signed by our department chairman. So much work!!!

  • http://proto-architecture.com/blog/ Jonathan Brown

    So, theoretically, anyone with a camera phone who wants to take a shot of their friends in front of the hall has to get a signed letter? Wow…that enforceable. It’s really just SLRs that bear the brunt of the persecution.