A friend, John Edinburgh, sent me a link to a video on street photography in London so I thought I would drag this out once more.
A couple of years ago I wanted to go downtown for some night shots and posted to the NWHPC site inviting others to join me. Surprisingly ten or twelve members showed up. We were shooting photographs on the corner of Main Street and Preston when a patrol car came swinging around the corner lights flashing. I am sure no one in the group even considered that we would be the reason for the display. A female cop screeched to a stop beside up, got out fingering her sidearm and asked to see our permit to photograph around Metrorail (better known in Houston as the toy train.)
When we said that we did not have a permit, she said that we would have to go to the Metro office and get a permit along with the boast that in the past they confiscated cameras for shooting Metro without a permit. I could not help myself—it’s an aversion to authority thing. I merely said that she had no authority to confiscate cameras, and they don’t unless they arrest you—I didn’t mention the last part. She let me know that I needed to show some respect—how do you respect a cop that threatens to perform an activity that we both know is illegal? My disrespect required calling in reinforcements. A dozen elderly photographers were now tying up three light flashing patrol units and four cops. In the end, after thirty minutes of wasted time we learned that what we were doing was in no way illegal but we would have to get a permit next time. According to the cops the permit was free, you just had to go to the Metro office to get one. Well, for a half hour or so we kept them safe from anyone that might shoot back anyway so I guess we did our civic duty for the evening.
If you know Woodard, you know that the next time I was downtown, just a few days later, I trotted over to the Metro office and asked the girl behind the counter who I needed to see about getting a permit to photograph Metro. She had never heard of a permit so she called over another lady who also had not heard of a permit. They made five phone calls and finally got someone that told them that I had to go to the security desk upstairs—which I did. There were two people working the desk but neither had ever heard of a permit to photograph Metro. For something that requires a permit to photograph it, Metro is obviously not a very popular photographic subject.
The lady, Darby, working the security desk made seven phone calls and finally reached someone named Karen Marshall who instructed her what to do since I showed no interest in leaving without my permit. Darby followed Karen’s instructions and I got my permit to photograph metro. That was around two years ago but I still carry it in my wallet and have yet to be asked for it even though I was part of a group of about forty photographers, ten or so dogs and about fifteen models who spent almost four hours shooting around the Metro rail without incident from the Metro police.
When I got the post from John I decided to scan my permit so that everyone will know what a permit to photograph Metro looks like.
Yes, it’s a handwritten note on a yellow Post-it. There is really no such thing as a permit to photograph Metro except in the mind of one short fat Houston Metro Cop that was having a slow night or hemroids or something.
A few months later I had to return a rental car downtown. Since the rental agency is near the Metro office, I once again went to get a permit. Still could not find anyone that had ever heard of a permit to photograph Metrorail. This time I couldn’t persuade anyone to even give me a handwritten note. But I did get the phone number for Rachael Roberts. Now when I want to photograph downtown I just call Rachael. I always get voice mail but I figure that is good enough—I made an effort. Rachael supposedly notifies Metro dispatch that I am photographing Metrorail with her blessing. I forgot to do that the day I was photographing with the models meetup group.
There is considerable misinformation—not only with cops and security guards but with photographers as well. There is nothing in the Patriot Act that prohibits photography. I know, I read it. The only mention of photography or of camera equipment is in regards to purchasing equipment for the use of the agents. There is nothing about photographing federal buildings, nothing about photographing bridges—even though it seems many people seem to think there is. There is no law against either. As long as you a photographing from public property, no one has the authority to confiscate your camera or to even insist that you delete any of your images unless they arrest you. Sure you can run up against a hard case that might even do that but I prefer to take that chance rather than to give up what is a legal pursuit of my time. It’s simply a matter of standing up or rolling over. I’m just not good at rolling over.