When Photography Gets You Labeled a Terrorist

Corita Kent's "Rainbow Swash" on a natural gas storage tank in Boston (photo via Ktr101/Wikimedia)
Corita Kent’s “Rainbow Swash” on a natural gas storage tank in Boston (photo via Ktr101/Wikimedia)

It’s not news that taking pictures can get you threatened and arrested, but a lawsuit filed this month by the American Civil Liberties Union sheds further light on just how pervasive the government’s paranoia over photography has become. The suit, Gill v. DoJ, challenges the Department of Justice on a program called the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative, which is run jointly by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security. The plaintiffs are five “U.S. citizens whose information has been entered into counterterrorism databases for engaging in lawful conduct, and who have been subject to unwarranted law enforcement and scrutiny,” in the words of the ACLU. For two, the behavior that landed them with “Suspicious Activity Reports” (SARs) was taking photographs of energy-related structures in public places.

One of the plaintiffs is octogenarian James Prigoff, who published a statement on his experiences in Business Insider yesterday. According to the complaint, Prigoff, a retired corporate executive and professional photographer, attempted to take pictures of a piece of public art, artist Corita Kent’s “Rainbow Swash,” which marks a natural gas storage tank in Boston. Prigoff was standing on public property, but private security guards stopped him and then followed him down the road when he attempted to photograph again from another spot. A few months later, when Prigoff was back home in Sacramento, California, an agent from the Joint Terrorism Task Force left a business card on his door. The complaint explains:

Mr. Prigoff called Mr. Ayaz [the agent], who asked if Mr. Prigoff had been to Boston. Realizing that Mr. Ayaz was referring to his efforts to photograph a piece of public art, Mr. Prigoff explained what had occurred. On information and belief, security guards at the site of the Rainbow Swash had submitted a SAR or SAR precursor report regarding Mr. Prigoff that included his rental car information, after which authorities traced him from Boston, Massachusetts, to his home in Sacramento, California.

The other photographer involved in the suit is an amateur, a graphic design student named Aaron Conklin. Conklin “has a strong aesthetic interest in photographing industrial architecture, including refineries,” the complaint states, but was stopped by private security guards from shooting pictures at night of two different refineries in Northern California. The second instance escalated quickly, according to the complaint:

Despite Mr. Conklin’s complete cooperation with the security guards, they called the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s department, and at least two deputies arrived on the scene. The deputies searched through the pictures on Mr. Conklin’s camera and searched his car. They also took pictures of Mr. Conklin, his camera equipment, and his vehicle. Mr. Conklin was afraid and felt as though he did not have the option to object to the searches without making matters worse for himself.

The deputies concluded by telling Mr. Conklin that he would have to be placed on an “NSA watch list.” Only then was Mr. Conklin allowed to leave. The entire encounter lasted between forty-five minutes and an hour.

Pictures of all the sites that Prigoff and Conklin were attempting to photograph — the “Rainbow Swash” and the Valero and Shell refineries in Benicia and Martinez, California (respectively) — can be easily found online. But, as the complaint explains, “Taking photographs of infrastructure falls under one or more of the behavioral categories identified by Defendant PM-ISE under Functional Standard 1.5 as ‘suspicious,’ and also falls under one or more behavioral categories identified by Defendant DOJ, such as the catch-all behavioral category of ‘acting suspiciously.'”

Just think what a field day the feds would have had with Bernd and Hilla Becher.

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