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And You Might See Me Tonight With an Illegal Smile | by Thomas Hawk
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And You Might See Me Tonight With an Illegal Smile

I just got back from shooting for a week in Los Angeles and have to say that the highlight of my trip was shooting industrial stuff down in Long Beach Harbor with Photographer David Sommars. David is an amazing photographer who regularly shoots industrial stuff around L.A. and he shared with me some of the most fantastic vantage points to shoot this sort of photography in Long Beach. David also maintains a photography related blog here.


Unfortunately our photowalk around the Port of Long Beach was not without incident. Three times we were blinted while photographing. I've been stopped plenty of times while legally shooting in the past. Most of the times I've been able to be respectful but insistent on my legal rights to shoot wherever I'm shooting. Every so often though an incident turns into a more serious altercation.


The first two times Sommars and I were stopped we were stopped by private security agents working for Securitas on behalf of BP's Carson Refinery. They asked us not to shoot the refinery and suggested that it was a "double standard" that we'd insist on our constitutional rights to shoot in public while not honoring BP's request that we not shoot their facility from a public sidewalk. I couldn't quite get my arms around the "double standard" argument coming from BP. Ironically one of the shots that I took of their refinery was probably the largest United States flag I've ever shot. Let's hear it for Patriotism.


The hassle from BP's agents though didn't really bother me all that much. We were insistent on our rights to shoot the facility and they seemed to understand that in the end there was nothing that they could do about it. Their security guard snapped photos of both of us with his camera phone (and I returned the favor of course) and then they followed us when we left in my car in order to get my license plate, but they seemed to pretty clearly understand that while they were free to ask us not to shoot the plant, it was clearly within our rights to do so.


The more disturbing incident came later when we were atop a bridge, again on a public sidewalk, shooting another plant and long exposure bridge shots. Here we were stopped by real cops this time, rather than security guards. The cops in question were from the Long Beach Harbor Patrol. Their officer explained to us that it was his job to monitor the side of the bridge that we were on while L.A.P.D. had jurisdiction over the other side of the bridge.


Basically the conversation went something like this.


Long Beach Harbor Patrol Officer: "I'm going to have to ask you guys to leave."


Us: "But, why, were simply taking art photographs."


Long Beach Harbor Patrol Officer: "You're not allowed to photograph these plants."


Us: "But we're on a public sidewalk. What law doesn't allow us to photograph here?"


Long Beach Harbor Patrol Officer: "You'll need to come back tomorrow and get a permit if you want to shoot in the Harbor."


Me: "I'm only down in Long Beach for tonight and won't be able to do that."


2nd Long Beach Harbor Patrol Officer (shrugging her shoulders): Oh, well, you're just going to have to leave. Photography is not allowed here without a permit."


During this altercation both David and I were asked to present identification to the police. They used our IDs to run background checks on both of us.


Now personally I have no problem with the cops stopping to talk to us and check out what we were doing. I also had no problem with Securitas photographing me earlier or following me to get my license plate number. But I think that it went too far when the Long Beach Harbor Patrol ran background checks on us and I think it also went too far when they required us to leave our shoot location. As far as I'm aware there is no law which requires permits in order to shoot the Long Beach Harbor from a public sidewalk. And to kick us off of the bridge that we were legally on was not justified and violated our constitutional rights.


We repeatedly tried to argue for our right to shoot at this location for about a half an hour. The entire time the cops were insistent that we were not allowed to shoot there without a permit. David showed the cops in question photos of his on his iPhone in order to share the type of photography that we were after, but none of this seemed to matter. We were on their turf and they weren't going to stand for that. He just kept repeatedly bringing up 911 over and over telling us that we were going to need to leave.


What bothers me even more is that this is not the first time that David (who shoots in Long Beach Harbor more regularly than I do) has been harassed by the cops there. David has had lots of previous run ins there. David told me that he's been stopped about 10 times in the last six months while shooting in Long Beach Harbor. About half of those stops involved actual police in addition to security guards. On one occasion the cops actually handcuffed him and in another incident 4 police cars and a black SUV converged on him. He's also had FBI agents call on him over his photography. Personally I think it's wrong to handcuff peaceful photographers for the "crime" of photography while questioning and detaining.


I've contacted the media relations department at Long Beach Harbor regarding this incident but have yet to hear back from them. I'll post more from them once/if I do hear back.


What I am tired of though is the harassment that photographers face on a regular basis while out documenting our world. Photography is not a crime. 911 didn't suddenly magically turn photographers into criminals. And as long as photography is not a crime, I think that cops, security guards and other authority figures should be required to live within the legal system as it now stands. Maybe some day they will pass a law that shooting Long Beach Harbor is in fact a crime. Or maybe they'll actually pass a law that permits *are* actually required to shoot there. But until that day happens (and I'd be one vocally opposing any such rule like that) this sort of harassment ought not take place. And it's unfortunate when it does.


Update: Art Wong from the Port of Long Beach's Media Relations Department has contacted me and told me that he's asking their officers for information on this incident. I will post any update from the Port of Long Beach as it becomes available.


Update 2: On Digg here:


Update 3: The Port of Long Beach's Assistant Director of Communications Art Wong, responds to this incident here.

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Taken on December 26, 2008