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Old 09-16-2007, 03:03 PM   #1
Joe the Photog
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Location: Columbia, SC
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Default LEO tells me train photography is suspicious

At about 5:15 on 9/15/07 I was in Spartanburg, SC trying to shoot the helper unit on a loaded train. I was near Wofford College near where the Clinchfield ended and the helper loco was halfway over the trestle with “Wofford” written on it, a place I’d wanted to get a shot since I first saw it in 1999.

The nose and cab of the unit was still behind a tree, so I made myself be patient and wait it out, standing on the shoulder of a road on the right of way in plain sight on a sunny day with a camera around my neck. A few cars passed as a crew member was on the rear of the train doing whatever has to be done to get the unit to work in tandem with the head end power.

Perhaps five to ten minutes after I stood there, a City of Spartanburg police car drove slowly past. Even though I did not turn back or look over my shoulder, I was aware that my patrol car stopped on the side of the road. Truth be known, I was in a bad mood already due to several things, none of which had to do with trains, photography or LEOs. So I told myself to be calm, answer his questions and not make a scene which I may have done in similar circumstances and moods if my wife and kids weren’t in my car across the road.

The officer came up and spoke to me. He was pleasant and non-confrontational. The words attributed to him and me are to the best of my recollections four hours after the event. He said, “Just taking pictures, are you?”

I said, “Yeah, yeah.”

“Is it a hobby?” he asked.

I said, “Yeah, I just like to do it.”

He said, “You do understand that it looks suspicious, don’t you?”

Going through my head, I thought to say, I can’t help how what is normal to me might look to someone else. But I didn’t.

He went on to tell me that no one called this is, but as he passed, he thought it looked odd to see someone standing near a railroad track with a camera. Again, that seems totally normal to me, but then again, I’m a photographer of trains. He said that since 9/11, we have to be careful because that’s – pointing to the still stopped train – is what they’re going after.

Again, going through my head, but unspoken, I thought, “No, they wouldn’t go after a coal train. They’d go after a hazmat train or an Amtrak train.”

He asked to see my ID, which I fished out for him. If I had thought about it for a moment, and if my wife and children weren’t watching, I may have given thought to telling him I shouldn’t be forced to show him my ID for doing nothing wrong. Of course, he may have said, “Well, you did park on the side of the road.” In any event, I gave him my license.

By now the train had started to creep, so I said, “Do you mind?” gesturing toward the train. He indicated I could go ahead and while I made sure my camera was going to start back up – a three and a half year old 300D does have a bit of a lag time when it’s asleep – he went to his patrol car to radio in my specifics.

By now, there was a general merchandise train creeping up behind the loaded coal train, so at least I had something to do while he waited to hear back from dispatch. In fact, I haven’t looked at the shots since then, but I think I may have overexposed the helper shot because I didn’t have a chance to adjust for a lower sun angle while talking to the officer. So the second train crosses the Wofford bridge and comes to a stop presumably to make a few switching moves as the officer comes back.

He hands me my license and again says I have to understand that taking pictures of trains looks suspicious. Again I wonder why I’m supposed to care what people think of what I’m doing when what I’m doing is perfectly legal and I’m doing it in broad daylight on the side of a road. He then went into a monologue on how terrorists take pictures of things they are going to hit. Now I admit that I have never heard this. I’ve never seen proof that terrorists take pictures of their targets before they bomb them.

But let’s assume this is true. Then shouldn’t people like me actually be encouraged to be out and about is plain sight? I mean, if more of us are out there, then we can keep an eye uot for real, actual terrorists? Why should honest, tax paying innocent civilians be made to feel they shouldn’t enjoy their hobby?

He wasn’t finished yet. He then said, “I’m not going to tell you not to take pictures of trains, but you should go to the office and tell them you’re here. It’s right up the hill there.”

Yeah, right. Because train crews and yard masters have nothing better or more important to do than have railfans come up and bother them.

I said, “Well, I’m not going to do that. I’m not on their property and I wouldn’t be.”

He said, “That’s the advice I gave you. You don’t have to use it. But it might help them out to know you’re down here and what you’re doing.”

What I wanted to say: “I have a camera around my neck. I thought it would be easy to figure out.” What I actually said, “I appreciate the advice. I work as a photographer for a TV station. This is what I do for a living and this is the first time this has happened to me in four years.”

We went our separate ways. I decided to leave his fine city, but did manage to shoot the helper side of the coal train one last time crossing an ACL RR-marked bridge on my way out.

Still not sure exactly what to think of the situation. This happened to me before in Spartanburg and the LEO then was down right rude and obnoxious. This fellow was very cordial and almost nice to me. I think his opinions on things are screwed up, but he’s welcome to them as I am to mine.

My wife said I should have given him a business card with my web site and YahooGroup listed. I don’t think it would be a good idea at all to list my YahooGroup on there. It would probably frighten them to know that we discuss what goes on with the railroads as much as we do. She then said maybe I should have given him my TV station card. But I don’t know. I wasn’t on the job and at the end I did mention my station by name at the end.

The fact that he stopped to see what I was doing didn’t bother me. I don’t like that he asked for my ID or that he called it in. By that point, anyone should have been able to see that I’m a harmless photographer. You know, truth be known, some guy standing in the open shooting a train doesn’t bother me. It would be the ones that ride by in their cars slowly, but don’t stop, that bother me.

Oops. I hope the Cayce PD isn’t reading this.
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