As an avid plane spotter, I’ve had my fair share of run-ins with the curious/uninformed public, skeptic law enforcement officers (LEOs), airport staff, and even airline employees. Typically these exchanges go positively and, with luck, without missing out on any good shots: “Who are you? What are you doing? Why are you taking photos in a post-9/11 world?” To which I respond: JL Johnson, frequent traveler, airline reporter, and, most importantly: AvGeek.
Typically I tell them about my passion and how [whatever organization they represent] is generally supportive (or at least tolerant) of such activity. It’s not uncommon that I pull out an iDevice and show the inquirer samples of my work and/or tweets endorsing or acknowledging spotting from various institutions (I keep a list of tweets handy for this very reason – you should too).
While doing homework on the environment in advance of spotting is key, I find that the more geeky and passionate I make the conversation the quicker a situation is defused. Apparently geeks can’t be bad guys. For whatever reason, people respond better not to fact, but passion/emotion. So I bring both.
That’s the typical interaction. Alas, my attempts to convince folks that I’m not a terrorist and that my telephoto lens doesn’t shoot plane-crippling ray-gun beams are not always successful. I had one such interaction recently at Chicago’s Midway Airport (MDW) which I’d like to detail if only to clear the air about what’s generally allowed vs. not, how to handle these encounters, and to assure my AvGeek brethren that it’s typically OK to take photos of publicly-visible property from public areas. But…your results may vary.
I arrived at the airport well in advance of my flight, anxious to review a new (to me) airline flying aboard uncommon equipment. As with all of my travel, my trusty dSLR was at my side. Part of what I do is take photos of
everything almost everything while on adventure.
Things to avoid:
- Individuals (typically their faces) without their permission. Depending on the situation, the person could try to come after you legally… although unlikely, just don’t out of courtesy.
- TSA equipment. Don’t. Shoot. TSA. Equipment. Can you legally? Yes, the TSA has said so, but good luck doing it without a confrontation.
- TSA lines and their representatives. Again… you can, but I wouldn’t advise it.
- Military installations
- Nuclear facilities
After snapping shots of the signage pre-security it was time to put my camera away. Once through the checkpoint I had it back out and continued my leisurely stroll through the airport, occasionally snapping things of interest: airline signage, a closed door with a sign on it identifying it as a yoga room, and finally a nearly-empty, tiny concourse C with just three gates.
I fly through MDW at least a dozen times a year and, while I knew concourse C existed, I had no idea how small it was. Cute, almost.
I walked towards the single customer service desk serving all three gates. It was unoccupied and the flight status boards were on the fritz. I backed up and snapped a few shots but was interrupted by a voice: “Sir… SIR… SIRRRRR! No photos in the airport!” I stopped and looked for the source.
I asked the middle-aged airport employee who appeared to be a LEO why I couldn’t take a photo of an unoccupied desk. “It’s the law,” he replied with authority. He then mentioned 9/11, as everyone always does. Right…
I bit my tongue and asked for his name and he just replied, “Michael.” I could confirm this from what appeared to be an SIDA (secure identification display area) badge that he was an actual employee and not an impostor. But his last name was smaller, and I couldn’t make it out. “What’s your last name, Michael?” to which he responded “911.” He noticed me eyeing his ID badge and took a step back. Classy.
[Note from editor: I just want to take a moment to note that MANY people who report issues with authorities say that they were complete angels and totally respectful, where really, they were rude and looking to cause trouble. JL is one of the kindest people that I have ever met and I think he would have a hard time coming off mean or impolite, even if he tried. Okay… as you were. -David]
“Michael, I don’t think there’s a law preventing photography of empty desks. What department do you work for?”
“Aviation department. You’ve got to get clearance for any photography from O’Hare. That’s the law.”
It was time to board. I gave him my AirlineReporter busines card, told him I’d be following up and wished him the best. I also shared my experience via social media.
— JL Johnson (@user47) June 4, 2015
While the airport was active on social media for the next few hours and my query received a lot of attention from the AvGeek community, Midway was initially unresponsive. That evening, I emailed the Chicago Department of Aviation’s Media Director detailing the interaction.
To my delight, she responded within the first few business hours the following day and, shortly after, my social media queries were answered as well. I was impressed.
Well done, Chicago Aviation Department!
Thank you for your message.
We regret the unfortunate experience you had at Midway International Airport yesterday.
The CDA Media Policy pertains to working media requesting to film at or past security checkpoints for story coverage or B-roll purposes. If that is the case, media representatives must contact my office to request escort past security. We will honor or deny the request based on staff availability and other factors.
As you were a ticketed and traveling passenger and as you stated, did not take photographs that might pose a safety or security issue, you should not have stopped by airport personnel.
We will follow up with staff at Midway to determine in which division the employee in question may work, and contact that division’s supervisors.
We exchanged a few emails back and forth confirming various details which suggests the above response was genuine and there would be a real effort to identify “Officer Michael 911” and retrain him on what is, and is not, allowed. I was very impressed with how MDW responded — world class!
The key to defusing these situations is being respectful but firm. Not all encounters end positively in the field; in those cases it’s best to continue the conversation with officials as I did. It’s important to do one’s research before photographing in potentially sensitive areas. Additionally, laws vary wildly state-to-state, community-to-community, as do policies from organization-to-organization.
Finally, the USA PATRIOT Act is often quoted as basis for prohibition on photography. And while it does give wide authority for increasing “security” it turns out the words “photo”, “photography”, nor “photographer” appear not once in the entire 132-page document.
It’s crucial for the AvGeek community to shine a light on cases where officers seem to be making up (or misinterpreting) the law. Otherwise, with each encounter these incorrect assumptions become more ingrained as if they are true laws.