Andy sez,

This afternoon, an NPR colleague of mine and I were almost arrested at Washington DC's Union Station for taking panorama photos with a Gigapan, a robotic camera mount developed by Carnegie Mellon University originally for the Mars Rover. The university had sent us a loaner of the robot for us to evaluate.

Though we were initially allowed to take photos, they unexpectedly changed their minds, demanding that we delete our pictures and cease taking pictures, or face arrest. They didn't seem to care I was Twittering their comments throughout the incident, though. I've posted a summary of what happened, as well as the resulting half-gigapixel panorama photo, on my blog.

Link (Thanks, Andy!)

39 Responses to “Security guards threaten NPR photos with arrest for shooting panorama of DC's Union Station”

  1. Takuan says:

    “War on Society of Free Humans”

    One of our most basic rights is the right to CHOOSE TO TRUST OTHER PEOPLE

  2. darsal says:

    DC is two cities in one location, the Federal City where the US Government operates, and the municipality of the District of Columbia with all the various issues and resources of any mid-sized city in the USA. Congress doesn’t actively administer DC, but it does occasionally step in and overrule the municipality. I have a philosophical objection to this, of course, but in practice it’s done rarely and with restraint.

    Policing in DC is complicated. There are at least 21 police jurisdictions in the district, and some overlap and cooperate while others are exclusive. Consider a burglary at Obama’s apartment in NE. If the thief then walked to Union Station, he’d have been in and out of at least 6 jurisdictions, not to mention the Secret Service detail when Obama is in town.

    Union Station itself is the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Police Department, the Metro Transit Police, Amtrak Police, the TSA and at least one private armed security service – it IS private property after all. Three other jurisdictions border Union Station, and the authority of some police forces here follows their “subjects” wherever they may go.

    For photographers, from tourists taking snapshots to professionals and photojournalists on assignment, there are few restrictions anywhere in DC. The main restriction is against the use of tripods or lighting equipment without attaining special permits.

    If you’re interested, here are some good summaries of photography rights in the USA, all from the last few years. I carry printed copies in my camera bags for just these kinds of situations (haven’t needed them yet, BTW):

  3. Valchael says:

    It’s “Fear of terror”

    They want to make us afraid, and disrupt our way of life. As trite or cliché as that sounds.

    And it’s not “Everything Changed”

    It’s our cultural perception that changed. Fear and mistrust in other people.

  4. Bob says:

    I get an error page when I try to access the picture. Here’s the full text of the error.

    Fatal error: Class ‘BasePage’ not found in /var/www/html/viewGigapan.php on line 198

    Warning: Unknown: Failed to write session data (user). Please verify that the current setting of session.save_path is correct (/var/lib/php/session) in Unknown on line 0


  5. nooberry says:

    That is MOST DEFINIELY Jared from the subway commercials in that restaurant. Photographic win!

  6. Jonathan Badger says:

    Union Station is one the most photographed places in the history of Washington, DC. See for example “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, ca. 1939, for example.

    That was when Union Station was, you know, an actual train station. Today, although there is still a small Amtrak presence, it is basically just a shopping mall like any other. It’s pretty typical for mall management to get all snippy about taking pictures — and terrorism isn’t even probably the primary reason.

  7. danegeld says:

    @9 GENIUS!

  8. Jake0748 says:

    Nooberry – I was thinking the exact same thing when I was looking around the photo.

  9. Doran says:

    So now I’ve been stewing on this for a while.

    We have someone working for NPR, probably the premiere public radio network, which prides itself on it’s news coverage.

    He’s confronted with a Constitutional challenge (“Hey, you can’t do that!”).

    After valiantly waiting to get a business card, he leaves.

    Such is the state of mainstream journalism in our country today. It would have been nice to see what would have happened if he called their bluff. Would they really have arrested him?

    We’ll never know, because he left.

    I guess we’ll have to wait for an interested person to get hassled before we find out what really happens when the goons are called out.


  10. paddysat says:

    @GWERAN: I was told to stop taking photos there in early 2002 and I was not using a tripod nor did I have some cumbersome camera bag. Just a small range finder. When he approached me and asked me to stop taking photos I of course asked him why. He said no professional photography was allowed without a permit. I told him I was a tourist on my first trip to DC (which was true) and that I was not taking “professional” photos. I asked him what made him think I was a professional and he ignored the question and just said I was not allowed to take pictures of people in the building. I said I wasn’t taking pictures of the people and that I was taking pictures of the wonderful architecture (which I was). He again said that I couldn’t take any more shots.

    Honestly, I kinda felt a little bad for the guy because I could tell he knew he had no cause to stop me from shooting just by the fact that he could barely look me in the eye. I am sure some other higher up douche told him he had to do it. And it was less than 6 months after 9/11 so I said OK and stopped shooting. I had plenty of shots anyway.

    But, (IMHO) considering the equipment NPR was using, I have to admit that they should of let the authorities know they were coming just as a courtesy really.

  11. danegeld says:

    Suppose you’re the guard and potentially you’d lose your job for NOT checking these people out. You’re going to go hassle them and make up some bullshit about how they need a notarised photography license.

    If you pay people to do stupid things, in a way such that their livelihood depends on them doing those stupid things, then they’re going to carry out those stupid things in spite of any common sense they might apply off the clock.

  12. Takuan says:

    how about some crippling litigation for private “guards” that overstep their bounds? How about some jail time?

  13. avidd says:

    I’m not sure I’d want to be a high resolution “extra” in NPR’s photograph, but I doubt they would have asked.

    People who loathe so called security cameras will be hard pressed to insist on their right to photograph any time, any place. Is everyone allowed to shoot without permission *except the property owners? Who is more likely to put their images on the internet?

    Some of the anti-photo madness is backlash from the intrusive presence of cheap consumer gadgets in our public space. It is the same impulse that leads to shops barring cell phones on their premises. They may not have the right, it may not help anything, but you can see there are motivations beyond anti-terrorism fear mongering.

    If you’re going to respond, please know that I am a public space activist who loathes security cameras…

  14. MrScience says:

    #3: For a blade runner experience, check out the Photosynth technology Microsoft’s been researching. Capable of rounding corners and everything.

    #4: In fact… your flashmob idea would be excellent for this. Photosynth was recently featured in recent a CSI episode:

  15. stratojoe says:

    Avidd – I wholeheartedly agree with your second paragraph. It’s not enough there are security cameras everywhere, there are google vans driving around snapping pictures of everything (they got one of me and my girlfriend buckling our seatbelts. glad I don’t cheat), now I’ve got to deal with jackasses wandering around with hi-def cameras.

    A personal shout out to German girl at Molinari’s – hey guess what lady- I know this may be your first time in a delicatessen, but stop with the pictures. I don’t want to end up on your vapid travel blog about your trip to San Francisco. If you don’t have the guts to ask people if you can take their photograph, stick to still lifes and animals.

  16. JJR1971 says:

    Union Station is beautiful. Not only is it an AmTrak station, it also is a hub for the DC Metro subway system. It’s a shame it’s private property. Wish it was publicly owned.

  17. ill lich says:

    On all these weird paranoid security precautions, of which photography bans seem to be the most ubiquitous:

    It’s not the “fear of another 9-11″, it’s the fear that “I might be the one that allowed another 9-11 to happen.” In other words, they’re not thinking of possible “lives saved”, just afraid of being blamed for it if it does happen on their watch.

    Better selfish than sorry.

  18. Antinous says:

    I guess we’ll have to wait for an interested person to get hassled before we find out what really happens when the goons are called out.

    Go for it. I’ll chip in $20 towards your bail.

  19. arkizzle says:

    Can we just step back a bit here, to the “this would never happen in DC” thread?

    I don’t think we quite got to the bottom of that one.

  20. Jeff says:

    If the guards get spooked by unusual activity with unusual technology, they might decide to err on the side of caution. Perhaps it would have been best to notify the station management that this sort of camera was going to be tested. It’s a paranoid world. The NPR guy should simply have said they were reporters and had a right to be there and take pictures.

  21. Antinous says:

    It’s not the “fear of another 9-11″, it’s the fear that “I might be the one that allowed another 9-11 to happen.” In other words, they’re not thinking of possible “lives saved”, just afraid of being blamed for it if it does happen on their watch.

    So…helicopter parents.

  22. Jake0748 says:

    Union Station is one the most photographed places in the history of Washington, DC. See for example “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, ca. 1939, for example. (No, really you should see the movie if you haven’t, it’s relevant).

    What kind of problem could ANYfuckingBODY have with someone filming there??? It’s all already in the national archives for christ sakes.

    US Government “Security” = FAIL.

  23. Steve Rhodes says:

    @Doran Andy wasn’t covering a breaking news event, he was testing some equiptment.

    It was far more effective posting to twitter as it happened and then blogging about it than getting arrested.

  24. gigarizel says:

    Luckily it looks as if they got a pretty good image anyway!
    good job guys!

    There is another pretty interesting gigapan project here,

  25. igpajo says:

    That picture’s amazing. The way you can zoom way down into the background and still be able to read text on the souvenirs in those stands reminds me of that scene in Blade Runner.

  26. twig says:

    The NPR guy should simply have said they were reporters and had a right to be there and take pictures.

    It is fantastically rare that logic actually solves these problems.

  27. gweran says:

    Union Station is still very much a train station, as someone who goes through it every day I can understand why security wouldn’t want them setting up equipment without permission.

    There are plenty of people taking pictures inside without a tripod and I have yet to see them get hassled.

  28. Bruce Arthurs says:


    How feasible would it be to do a flashmob/Improv Everywhere type event, where hundreds of people showed up at Union Station, all with cameras, and everyone started shooting pictures at the same time?

    Flash pictures would make the maximum impact. (Hey! A whole new meaning for “flashmob”!)

  29. gigarizel says:

    Good idea Bruce, sounds like it would be really easy w/ text messaging for coordination. How many people could they really arrest?

    Igpajo, there are some more bladerunner like experinces here on up to 9 gigapixel images at

  30. noen says:

    Yay Bush! Keep digging that hole big enough to bury the GOP for all time.

  31. Don says:

    So it’s a game really. Although Andy was in the wrong in this instance because he set up a tripod on private property without getting permission first.

    (1) Union Station is not by any means private property. It’s a public building that happens to be managed under contract by a private organization. That doesn’t give them the right to redefine personal freedoms.

    You can see in the US Code that the station is in the posession of the Secretary of Transportation.

    The Secretary of Transportation has the right, title, and interest in and to the Union Station complex, including all agreements and leases made under sections 101-110 of the National Visitors Center Facilities Act of 1968 (Public Law 90-264, 82 Stat. 43). To the extent the Secretary of Transportation and the Secretary of the Interior agree, the Secretary of the Interior may lease space for visitor services.

    In fact, we had this exact battle here in the area last year, and the Montgomery County attorney stated unequivocally that the private management firm was in the wrong.

    (2) Suggesting that a tripod was the problem here completely ignores everything Andy Carvin wrote about the incident. Nobody told him their placement was an issue or the tripod, they blamed taking pictures entirely.

    (3) That aside, the suggestion that a single tripod is necessarily an issue anywhere is just silly. Union Station is filled with dawdlers and gawkers and people on the phone standing around in places that maybe you wish they weren’t. We don’t harass these people unless they’re legitimately causing a problem, why does putting a tripod into the mix make the slightest bit of difference?

  32. noen says:

    If you read the article you can see that Andy doesn’t accept the security guards’ bullshit. It takes them four tries before he leaves. If you read the comments on Andy’s blog there is a security guard who explains his side.

    It is company policy that no photographs are permitted to be taken of the facility, for both safety/security reasons, and for corporate privacy reasons. However, it is perfectly legal to take photographs of the facility if you are not on the refinery’s property at the time. All the guards know this, but we have to try to stop them anyway. It’s part of our procedure.


    My point is that these guards may know that what they are demanding of you is outside of their authority, but they have to try to bully you into compliance anyway, because that’s their company’s policy. And of course company policy does not equal law, but they’ll try to convince you that it does.

    So it’s a game really. Although Andy was in the wrong in this instance because he set up a tripod on private property without getting permission first. But that brings up another issue, the erosion of public space. A lot of people who do not usually pay attention to these things are surprised at how few rights they have at the mall.

  33. Dean says:

    AH! I’m so jealous! I wish I had a gigapan machine! It wouldn’t provide precise enough movements for the giant photo I wanted to take that was on BBGadgets, but it’s awesome nonetheless.

    I may look up the team working on it at Carnegie Mellon to consult them about panorama stitching in Solaris. The only article I’ve found so far is an 8 year old project done at Stanford.

  34. Doran says:

    Uh, D.C. is “administered” by our Congresscritters, isn’t it? I’m sure our elected officials would be interested in how IPC International Corporation and Mr. Mangiante are doing their jobs. Personally, I’m interested in what I hear back from Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein about this.

  35. Takuan says:

    Gods! Time for all to take empty cardboard boxes marked “SECRET SPY CAMERAS” into all public places and solemnly stand in place while slowly rotating “taking pictures”. Along with the standard script for the renta-cops: Do you REALLY believe this is a “Secret Spy Camera (you twit)?”

  36. Jake0748 says:

    War on terror = war on photographers?

  37. Jake0748 says:

    Maybe it’s not that personal.

    War on terror = War on photography?

  38. Belac says:

    It’s the War On The Unusual. Anything but bland conformity is banned.

  39. noen says:

    ‘Cept they be out thinking ya Takuan. You see, a cardboard box labeled secret camera would be a perfect hiding place afore them thar terrrists. It just goes to show you can’t out paranoid professionals.

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