Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Photographers shouldn't have to defend legal Metro photos to WMATA

February 28, 2012 - 01:44 PM
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Snap that picture. (Photo: Joshua Yospyn)

Is it legal to take photos on the Metro? Of course. But a persistent, troubling lie that's floated throughout our transit for years is this idea that you can't. Both riders and WMATA employees have expressed this belief. Look to Flickr, DCist, and countless news publications for evidence of photography's legality. WMATA explicitly states it doesn't regulate still photography that "does not require a tripod, special lighting, film crews, models," assuming it doesn't hurt WMATA's operations. In other words, casual photography is — or should be — perfectly legal.

If only reality backed up those laws. Photographer Pablo Benavente ran into trouble at the Archive-Navy Metro station on the morning of Feb. 23. He was setting up certain photographs in front of an oncoming Metro train. The Metro train operator apparently lowered his window and according to Benavente, "started yelling at me, and telling me that I can't take photos like that, that he didn't know what I was doing and that taking photos there is against the law."

"You can't take photos like that," the WMATA operator called out. 

"Yes, I can," Benavente insisted.

The operator continued to tell the photographer that his work was illegal as Benavente insisted he acted lawfully. The WMATA worker eventually closed the train window and moved the train up so riders could board. Benavente told me that he hasn't experienced this problem before. 

Yet other photographers have run into the same problem, haphazardly, over recent months and years. On Feb. 19, for instance, another photographer described how Transit Police stopped him for taking photos at the Dupont Circle station.

Chocolate strawberries
(Photo: flickr/Stewart)

Last November, D.C. Metro enthusiast Ben Schumin issued a formal complaint against WMATA after Metro Transit Police told him he had "taken enough pictures." His Red Line train's lights had died, and Schumin took 10 photos, eight point-and-shoot and two with his phone. But then an MTP officer threatened to take his camera and cell phone, Schumin alleged, and hand them over to antiterrorism forces. "I was now really peeved, because what this was is harassment, pure and simple," Schumin wrote at his blog, The Schumin Web. Earlier in fall, Schumin noted he's "repeatedly butted heads" with Metro over photography and said staff didn't seem to know the agency's own policies. Why would they oppose photos? Schumin suspected WMATA employees feared being caught acting unprofessional (as in the case of the sleeping station managers). He told me he considers the harassment "absurd" and has heard others' tales from Metro trains and buses.

The stories go back years. When I asked Schumin about the incidents, he provided me with tales from half a dozen encounters going back to 2005. One Metro rider described "many anecdotes" of WMATA staff telling people that their photos were illegal in September of 2008 as part of a WMATA Q&A with Metro Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn. In 2007, a photographer described "brutal, extensive, and unnecessary" questioning from MTP when he took photos in Gallery Place. The same behavior seems to have characterized WMATA for another photographer based on a WMATA complaint from January 2010, in which a Metro worker detained a rider and told him he "wasn't going anywhere, except maybe be arrested." Sometimes riders themselves rebel against photography. When Ryan Reed began publishing iPhone pictures of Metro riders at his blog D.C. Metro People in the last two years, some riders cried that such photography invaded their privacy. City Paper photographer Mike Hicks has encountered the same.

"On multiple occasions, I've had people tell me I'm 'not allowed' take pictures in the Metro stations — I find that in these situations it's usually best to ignore them and go about my business rather than waste time trying to educate an unreasonable person as to what my rights are," Hicks explained by e-mail, "but I find that calmness and politeness do tend to go a long way when faced with these kinds of confrontations."

WMATA workers have never troubled Hicks but he's heard reports of other photographers running into trouble. Metro maintains it's all legal — publicly, at least. The only Metro station where photography is prohibited seems to be Pentagon.

"We see our rail system as a tourist destination, and I've seen some beautiful photos of our stations, especially the ceilings," Chief Taborn said three and a half years ago. "We have no intention to regulate photography other than by restricting tripod use [because it's seen as a tripping hazard]."

I asked TBD photographer Joshua Yospyn, and he told me he hasn't run into issues and referred to the multitude of Metro pictures on Flickr, DCist, and elsewhere. Yospyn noted that photographers have taken transit photos for a century and brought up how Walker Evans once hid his camera under his coat. WMATA never raised any concerns when I took dozens of photos of the No Pants Metro Ride earlier this year. But these isolated incidents — at least three in the last four months — raise red flags.

So why all the fear and confusion? I suspect the ongoing uncertainty emanates from terrorism and 9/11 as much as any employee fear of shame. Hicks told me he chalks the attitudes up "to residual terrorist paranoia, and the fact that some people are just really afraid of cameras and assume that the people wielding them are doing so with malicious purposes." Exactly. But what's the harm given the myriad public spaces we all travel through? These photos and videos also provide the virtue of accountability. Riders should have the freedom to document their rides, to describe them, to tweet about the rail conditions and delays, to share the conditions visually.

But this attitude against photography that occasionally manifests has persisted for more than half a decade. Know your rights and demand them, photographers.

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