Taking a picture of you taking a picture of me

I’m not a professional photographer, but I aspire to take nice pictures and to learn how to use my SLR camera as if I really were. Apart from mastering photography techniques, I’ve discovered that mastering a certain kind of etiquette might also be necessary if you want to take pictures of the types of spaces that are not typically subjects of photo documentation.

About a year ago I had the idea to start documenting Silicon Valley office parks. There’s something about the ambiance of these spaces that I find fascinating, especially the perpetual sense of vacantness created by their empty parking lots and the sleek, reflective surfaces of their buildings, often tucked unassumingly behind impeccably manicured greenery. These spaces seem more expansive than what one would imagine might be needed to develop the increasingly smaller electronic components and gadgets of the internet age. For those Silicon Valley companies that produce nothing material at all – companies like Google and eBay – the office park seems to serve no functional purpose except to create the illusion of a utopian community. The phrase itself – office park – seems like an oxymoron; one half is associated with the private sphere while the other half implies a public, communal space. When grouped together, as they are down the length of N. 1st street in San Jose, all the way to their terminus at the bay, the Silicon Valley office parks gleam under the ultra-fluorescence that illuminates new structures of their kind, as if they collectively formed some kind of utilitarian super-factory that neatly provides for the needs of the civilization that surrounds it.

One Sunday afternoon, I was driving down 1st street, musing over the meanings of the office park aesthetic, when I was struck by how beautiful the fall foliage appears on their grounds. Maybe this is due to the careful engineering of the visual features of office parks in general. In any case, the fall colors were stunningly sharp and bright, and I couldn’t help but pull over to take a picture of the trees in front of the eBay lot. I had been standing in front of the trees, snapping photos of them, for no more than a few minutes when a small security truck pulled away from the eBay building entrance (within walking distance) and drove over to the parking lot entrance where I was located. I tried to ignore the security guard, who had deliberately blocked the entrance and was quietly observing me. Finally, I had had enough of his uncomfortable and obtrusive presence and, being vaguely worried that he and I were the only people there, I decided to leave. When I turned around to face his direction, he dispatched his instructions in a calm and patient tone:

“What you’re doing, taking pictures of the trees, is fine. But I just want you to know that you can’t take pictures of the building.”

“The building and everything over there” he said waving haphazardly behind him “cannot be photographed.”

I’m certain I rolled my eyes and muttered something about the absurdity of it. He responded with an empathetic shrug, raising his hands up as if he wasn’t completely certain why he was enforcing this stupid policy on a Sunday afternoon just because someone was taking a picture of a tree. “It has something to do with…terrorism…” he added. Hearing my exasperated groan to this explanation, he reiterated, “but what you’re doing is fine, so long as you don’t photograph the building. Okay?”

I suppose I’m lucky that the security guard was friendly and relatively non-aggressive – just persistent in his instructions to not turn my camera toward the building. In subsequent encounters, whilst photographing other office parks (I was naïve to think the eBay incident would be an isolated case!), I have stood my ground, saying things like, “I’m on a public sidewalk and I have every right to photograph whatever I choose,” or “I believe I can take photographs, but if you think differently, then call the cops.”

My responses are predicated on the likelihood that private security guards probably have no real authority. They can react however they choose, but do they really have the legal right to detain an individual or confiscate their property? Don’t photographers have some civil liberties regardless of whether they find themselves standing on public or private property? I find it disconcerting to think that private guards are trained to believe that they serve the same function as public law enforcement, especially when the reasoning for the ban on photography is always presented in terms of that supposedly ubiquitous threat to public safety – as a safeguard against “terrorism.”

These experiences remind me of the signs along the bay trails that stretch within a few kilometers of Moffett Field, a now mostly defunct naval airbase whose hangers are being dismantled. The signs say No Trespassing. No photography. No sketching. Data gathering of ANY kind is PROHIBITED.

Don’t even think about it. It’s best to not even look in that general direction, the message warns the handful of hikers, bicyclists, and nature enthusiasts who might venture far enough along the trail to notice such signs.

The general problem with prohibiting citizens from documenting the spaces and places of their reality is that similar restrictions are not applied in reverse. Office parks and other similar spaces have a plethora of cameras on their premises, many of which are carefully hidden from view. It seems that covert surveillance of people in virtually any space that people are likely to occupy or pass through is not met with the same scrutiny that the lone individual faces when attempting to document her surroundings. The real threat that photographers and videographers pose is to expose how different standards for observation activities are applied to the same spaces.

It’s quite irritating for anyone to have to explain or justify their presence when they’ve done nothing wrong. I’m an aspiring photographer who’s interested in architecture and design…blah, blah, blah…Why is any explanation necessary, except as an attempt to avoid a hassle? Admittedly, patience is not a virtue that I possess in great quantity, and when I’ve had enough of being held suspect – sooner rather than later – I just pack up my camera and leave. I’ve not yet mastered the etiquette, if there is one, to entering any space that I find interesting and feeling completely comfortable with taking a photograph. Yet I persist because I know there is an abundance of worthy images just waiting to be created.

I hope that there are others out there, with more experience, who have advice or interesting anecdotes to share on this topic.

In the meantime, please enjoy the eBay trees.

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2 comments to Taking a picture of you taking a picture of me

  • Bel

    This anti-photography trend is disturbing; I’ve been seeing more and more accounts like yours. And all at a time when we ourselves are under more and more surveillance, which would seem ironic if it was at all surprising.

    Lovely trees, though!

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