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Old 11-07-2004, 01:34 PM   #24
dns860's Avatar
Join Date: Jun 2004
Location: Mount Vernon, New York
Posts: 68
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Hello Everyone!

Yesterday afternoon I spent some time taking photographs at Wakefield Station on Metro-North's Harlem Line. It's located in The Bronx near the border of Westchester County.

I have a permit, but even so, the police check me out every time I take photos, and usually within 30 minutes. People who see me report me. Sometimes train crews call 911 about me too. Whenever possible I try to alert the police before I begin taking photos at a location, but it's not always an option to do so. They won't give me an inside line I can call. They say if they get a complaint they are obligated to respond, even if I have a permit.

After I was at Wakefield for about a half hour a cruiser pulled up on the bridge over tracks at the other end of the platform. Two officers got out, staring at me hard. I wasn't worried. They came down the steps and walked towards me and when they got closer I waved hello. I recognized one of them, and he recognized me too. He was friendly, and joked that he'd figured the call he received was probably in reference to me. But his partner seemed, shall we say, somewhat bothered by me, although he was professionally polite.

I showed them my pass. To be honest, Wakefield was not listed as one of the stations where I could take photos. I readily admitted this, explaining that I was walking over the bridge on my way from somewhere else when the sun came out, so I decided to stop and take a few photos. The truth was that I picked all the stations listed on the permit myself. The locations were not assigned to me by the railroad for any particular reason. Other than this discrepancy, my permit was in order, as well as my ID.

Nevertheless, the officer who knew me decided to call the official who issued it. My permit provided that person's phone and pager numbers. No one answered the phone, so the officer went ahead and paged the official. We stood there and waited for the return call.

After a few minutes the officer who'd made the call left to walk down the platform and talk in private with the official, thus leaving me alone with the officer who seemed to see me with a disapproving eye. This officer took the opportunity of being alone with me to ask me a few questions about what I do. That was yesterday, and I'm still quite hung up about what his line of questioning implied. In effect, what I got from him was that he saw me as a misguided, unpatriotic citizen.

He asked me how long I was going to be taking photos. Not just for that day, but with regard to the foreseeable future. I said I hoped to get photos during all four seasons, or in other words a year. I added that I knew I was fortunate to have the permit, and that I would only do my thing as long as it was okay by them. I stressed that I did not wish to cause anyone any problems.

He prefaced his next question by saying he was aware of my rights and so on, which indicated right away that he thought I was some kind of activist making a stand. That was a wrong assumption, so I interrupted him. I wanted him to know I was not taking photos of trains to exercise my rights, hassle the police, or make any sort of statement. I am not with those groups who have been protesting the New York City subway photo ban. These groups have been staging protests at transportation hubs around the city, making a fairly good sized stir. But as for me, I am just a railfan, and I have been one since long before 9/11.

But before I could finish my sentence he glanced at me in a way that indicated interrupting him was not a good idea, so I dropped my attempt to clarify that I am not an activist. I do what I do out of a simple if incomprehensible fascination with trains. I do what I do in much the same spirit as those who enjoy fly fishing, customizing cars, collecting sports memorabilia, or any other hobby.

He saw it differently though. He wanted to know how I, as an American citizen, could have no concern whatsoever about others using my photos to perhaps commit terrorist acts. I explained that thousands of books, photos, and videos about trains already existed. I said that the horse was out of the barn on that note a long time ago, meaning there is already a dearth of info about trains available to anyone who wants it without my photos. And as far as tactical value goes, I think it's safe to say my photos are not especially remarkable. In fact, I told him, a trip to the local library would provide far more detailed info about infrastructure than any of my photos ever could. And then there's the information that can be easily accessed at home from the Internet. There are webcams all over the world which show real-time activity at railroads, airports and busy locations in most major cities in many countries. I can watch trains at Rochelle, Illinois any time I want right here at my desk in Mount Vernon, New York.

I got the impression that even if this officer encountered more railfans than most people, it's still a weird and unnecessary hobby to him. He didn't strike me as being truly aware of just how many people like trains, and that there are enough of them to support several monthly magazines on the subject, just like there are magazines about golf or guitar playing.

On that note I added that no link has ever been found between amateur train photography and terrorists. I can't remember where I read that, but it didn't matter. He wasn't buying. I know Mayor Bloomberg recently said publicly that the he thinks ban is overkill.

A train went by. The other officer was still on his cell phone with headquarters at other end of the platform.

The officer continued asking me questions and explaining his thoughts. He asked me if I realized I was in effect putting his life at risk. After all, it would be him who got killed if he had to respond to an attack on the trains. I said I could get killed too, but he mocked me. "You?" he said with a smile. "You're not going to be the one who rushes to the scene of an attack!" If he laughed at all during this dialogue, it was at this point.

In my mind, I was reeling from the insinuation that I was unpatriotic and somehow my photos would be to blame if there was some kind of an attack. He was putting an awful lot of blame on my shoulders. with his line of thinking of course he would view me with contempt. Yet it was all conjecture! I stated that a reasonable balance between security and hysteria must be determined. He countered that he had a wife and kids, evidently implying I should feel guilty. He said he understood that photography was something I enjoyed, but how would I feel if my hobby resulted in an attack, and that he and others like him lost their lives as a result?

I blurted out that of course I would feel awful if such a thing ever happened, and I would. I just have a hard time it believing it could. I mean, I believe the threat of an attack is very real. I just don't believe my photos specifically would be needed or used by our enemies. I do not believe my photos have any special tactical value or provide any information already easily accesible elsewhere. In fact, I would be very surprised if it mattered to an attacker whether he was riding on a Budd M-1 or a Bombardier M-7.

He continued that while there's been no link found between amateur railroad photos and terrorists, it doesn't mean there couldn't. I felt he was implying that I am betraying my country by taking train photos. He really wanted to know why I continued doing what he so clearly saw as wrong, and he seemed perplexed that I could not understand what he so clearly understood to be an incontrovertible fact.

He made one more point. He said that he and his partner were at a far busier station than Wakefield when they got the call to come up north and check me out. Now that other station was unprotected. Someone, he said, could be getting assaulted while they were wasting time with me. I guess I am somehow responsible for when ordinary criminals might strike too.

There was little more I could say. I just re-emphasized I had the railroad's permission to take photos. Evidently someone whose judgment he could trust more than mine must have decided my activities are okay. After all, I'd furnished the railroad with sample photos, a copy of my resume, and a copy of my driverís license.

I felt it would be ineffective to go on defending my point-of-view. He obviously did not like it, but I did have a valid permit. I do not see how I could be responsible for an assault that might or might not happen miles away. I believe an assault was more likely to occur at a minor station such as Wakefield, where we were standing at the moment, simply because the location is indeed not watched as closely.

But I was going to persuade this policeman anything other than what he steadfastly believed. I felt we were at an impasse, so I extended my hand for a friendly handshake to end what I considered had been a gentlemanly dialogue. But he did not shake my hand. In fact, he grabbed my wrist and pushed my arm down. What was he thinking? I had not raised my hand suddenly in any sort of alarming way. Did he think I was reaching for his belt? Was he afraid I was somehow infectious? Or was it a plain and simple snub delivered to show how deeply displeased he was with me?

Countless images of New York City's railroads and major landmarks appear in movies, TV shows, newspapers, post cards, brochures, and magazines. The library has books and videos not just about trains, but about military armor, weapons, aircraft, and naval vessels. There are programs about such diverse topics as the inner workings of the CIA to local law enforcement procedures to understanding alarm systems and computer code encryptions. If anyone is alarmed by the easy availability of this information it is news to me. Yet if I take a simple photo of a relatively mundane commuter train in the suburbs the response is swift and serious.

I really have a hard time accepting that anything I do compromises New York's safety and security. Does anybody remember the 70's film 'Escape From New York'? In its opening scenes, terrorists hijack a plane and crash it into New York City's Financial District. Should the producers be held liable for planting the idea in the 9/11 terrorist's minds?

The New York Daily News ran a centerfold story depicting images of the most likely terror targets. Why isn't that deemed 'unpatriotic' and a 'threat to security' in the same manner my photos seem to be?

I believe I am being a patriot by refusing to allow terror theats to completely re-direct my life. I am all for security, I am not about to go into hiding in my apartment, or anywhere else for that matter.

The other officer returned. He'd spoken with the person who issued my pass. He said there was no problem. It was valid. He just said I should stick to stations on the list, and that if I want to go to other locations I can call headquarters on Monday for a revised permit.

And with that, they left.

Everything was fine, but I felt troubled. I still feel troubled. In October I went to the Metro-North Open House. All types of equipment were on display. Photography was encouraged. I was able to look beneath rolling stock and take photos of rolling stock details impossible to see anywhere else but in a repair bay. The photos I took are among my most popular at

In September the railroad offered a railfan photographer's special. The trains traveled up the New Haven Line and the Danbury Branch, across The Beacon Line, and then back to Grand Central Terminal. Hundreds of fans took thousands of photos from the train and trackside. What made that day any different from yesterday? Same tracks. Same equipment. Same details.

Many photos from these events are already on the Internet. Other photos taken on ordinary days along the railroad through the years are also easily found.

A friend suggested that the arguments I heard yesterday weren't the real root of the debate. The sore spot was that they had to drop whatever they were doing and drive five miles to check me out, and probably had to write a lengthy report about it too. I don't know. Could be, I suppose.

I am troubled that this policeman thinks I have a selfish, unpatriotic disregard for his safety. I am a bit worried too that he will make some calls Monday and pressure the person who issued my permit to take it away so he doesn't have to be bothered whenever someone calls about me being at some station taking photos.

If that happens, there will be little recourse. Metro-North is my local railroad.

I guess I could switch to photographing beautiful women modeling skimpy lingerie. That's All-American, isn't it? Because I could really get down with that program! But they would have to assign me one who would do it for free.

If you would like to see a photo taken exactly where this dialogue took place, click here:


Dave Sommer
Click Here to view my photos at RailPictures.Net!
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