Two FBI agents just showed up at my door... (I think I'm being investigated)

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halbergman
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Posted Wed May 14, 2008 2:26PM
A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine and I drove down to the Port of Los Angeles on a photo mission. It was pretty laid-back, and all-around a fun time.


At one point in the day, I noticed a security guard looking into the windows of my parked car while I was out shooting. I walked back, and politely introduced myself. He informed me that I was parked on private property (a big empty dirt lot, but whatever), and so I offered to move my car. When he asked what I was doing in the port complex, I replied that I was taking photos. I declined to elaborate. He informed me that he didn't care what I was taking photos of, but that I couldn't take photos of the Valero plant. I had my rights card on me, but I was planning on leaving the area anyway and didn't want to start an altercation, so I politely said "okay" and went on my way.



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So, we drove around for a few more hours, shot in some junkyards, train yards, truck yards, all the fun industrial places. Around sunset, we decided to return to the oil refinery area to shoot the cooling towers silhouetted by the sun. We parked in a different place and I tried to frame a good shot. Most of my shots were encumbered by powerlines or high fences, so I decided to try to find another location. Just as we were leaving, I noticed a pickup truck heading towards us. As I drove past him, I noticed him make a U-turn in my rear-view mirror. After a couple of turns, it became apparent that he was following us. I drove completely legally, even used my turn signals, but after I got on the freeway and he followed us there, I began to get annoyed. I got off, pulled into a parking lot to wait for him to pull over, but he kept going. I don't know if he wasn't anticipating my turn or if he legally couldn't go on somebody else's "private property" or whatever, but after a minute I took the opportunity to head off in the other direction. We did a bit more shooting, but after that point we'd lost most of the amazing light and just went home to download our photos.




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So, fast forward to this morning. I just had my morning coffee, so I'm in the can, when I hear this really intimidatingly loud knock on my screen door. I live near the beach, so my front door is perpetually open, and when people knock on the screen door it makes this really scary rattling sound, so usually when somebody knocks on it I immediately assume they're angry bill collectors or repo men, even though there is no reason either should be coming to my door, and it's always my upstairs neighbor asking me to turn my music down. Anyway, so my roommate answers it, tells them to wait, and then whispers to me through the bathroom door that there are "two men with badges here to see me". This really set the tone.


So, I go to talk to them. The first one informs me he needs to ask me some questions about what I was doing in the port complex two weeks ago. The other one demands to see my driver's license. I politely decline, and he informs me that he already has all the information on it (I look, and sure enough, there is a photo of me on his clipboard along with god knows what else). He makes a crack about "wow, you're younger than you look in this photo" when he comments on my birthdate (gee, thanks). I decide to give him my ID.


We exchange cards. I give him my business card that says "Photographer" as well as my iStock card (for legitimacy), and he gives me his card that says "Detective, FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force". Yikes.


From that point on, the conversation was much more polite and much less confrontational. They inform me that a security guard had asked me to leave, and that when I came back later that day, decided I was suspicious and filed a report. They have to follow up on all the reports. That's why they're at my door.


So I inform them that I was under the impression that everything I was doing was legal. Security guards can't chase you off of public streets, and that I'm free to shoot whatever I want in public view. I inform them that my rationalization was that anything you can see from a public street isn't private (if they're trying to protect some secret, they shouldn't put it there), and if I really wanted to canvas the place, Google Maps' satellite view is a much better place to start. They confirm that yes, what I was doing was completely legal, but they're just doing their jobs, that it doesn't make sense, and that the "heightened security alert"... "will change soon". They informed me that most of their job lately has been following up with photographers who take photos in the port complex. They also informed me that they try their best to inform private security guards how to deal with confrontations with photographers, and that most of the guards have a bit of a skewed view on what's legal (oh my god this is true), and they're trying to correct that. They have had to correct guards who have insisted that photos be erased, or worse, have confiscated equipment in the name of homeland security. This doesn't help anybody, and makes their jobs harder.


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So, after what turned into a polite conversation, they determined that I was harmless and went their way. In the future, I'm told I can email the Port of Los Angeles police to obtain a permit. Permits are free, and just let the police know that I'll be photographing in the area, so if a nervous security guard calls them to make a report, they can call and confirm that we're harmless instead of chasing me onto the freeway.


There are more photos from my day on flickr here.  Most of these aren't iStock-worthy for various reasons, so they won't appear here.


Has anybody else had a confrontation like this? I've definitely had other confrontations with private security, but this is the first time FBI antiterrorism agents have come to my door.


I hope this doesn't delay my passport application...

(Edited on 2008-05-14 14:31:34 by halbergman)
rogermexico
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Posted Wed May 14, 2008 2:32PM
When we came up with the business cards, we had no idea that 'helps you get out of sticky legal jams' was one of the main selling features.

That's a crazy story! Glad to hear that it all turned out well.
lisafx
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Posted Wed May 14, 2008 2:32PM

Wow!  Sounds like a really harrowing experience.  Not the first similar incident I have read of, unfortunately.


Glad the FBI guys were reasonable and that you didn't get in any real trouble.  In a way you have to feel sorry for those guys - obligated to check out every shaky lead from crackpot security guards.  I am sure they would rather be chasing down real terrorists...


Good for you for keeping a calm head.  And it's nice to know the istock business card helped out
slobo
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Posted Wed May 14, 2008 2:34PM
Good story, thanks for sharing.
sdominick
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Posted Wed May 14, 2008 2:34PM
Wow, what a story!  Thanks for sharing. 
stray_cat
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Posted Wed May 14, 2008 2:45PM

Wow, that's crazy! I bet it was nerve-wracking to see those three letters!


Nice shots, btw, for what it's worth!
kelvinjay
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Posted Wed May 14, 2008 2:52PM

God, some people will go through anything to pimp a few shots


Seriously though, they seem like they were very understanding. Glad it worked out OK in the end.
JessicaFMoore
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Posted Wed May 14, 2008 2:58PM
lol, makes me want to go take pictures of oil rigs and power plants at sunset...too bad I am as old as my picture, and with my lack of abundance in time out of the house, I'll probably just have to sit here at my desk while the kids play in the other room and live vicariously through reading adventures like this
halbergman
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Posted Wed May 14, 2008 3:08PM
Thanks guys!


Most of the photos in this thread are actually from the LAST time I went to the port complex. The photos I'm being hassled about are actually in the queue. (Shameless pimping never hurt anybody! ) When I shot those, it was completely uneventful, I don't think I even saw a single person much less private security.


I'm still a bit tripped out about my conversation this morning. I'll follow up with the agent in a couple of days to make sure I'm not on any kind of no-fly list or anything now.

(Edited on 2008-05-14 15:10:52 by halbergman)
Geoarts
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Posted Wed May 14, 2008 3:12PM
Glad it worked out all right for you.  It sure does pay to be informed about what your rights are.
AzureLaRouxCLOSED
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Posted Wed May 14, 2008 3:12PM

These stories happen all the time because pseudo law enforcement isn't given the correct information on how to assess if something is a real threat or not and photographers have a little card and a sense of entitlement.


No one trusts anyone. Everyone is a threat. The next attack could be any day now. At least that's what the news tells us with pictures from Iraq and the "Color of the day".


If your going to take pictures of children expect that the parents my call the cops and report you as a pedophile. If your going to take pictures of locations that are listed on the "Possible terror attack sites" list then expect a visit from the Security Guard, Local Police and the FBI anti-terrorism unit. If you take pictures on private property with out the consent of the owner expect the owner to be upset to find out that the images are being sold here.


It has nothing to do with rights. It's the world we live in. Use your common sense. Get permission to shoot locations, or at least call and give them a heads up that your going to be shooting in the area. If they deny you permission then you can either change your location or shoot anyway making very sure that you are not violating any of their rights (trespass) and then be prepared for the consequences.
JenDen2005
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Posted Wed May 14, 2008 3:38PM

I am glad to see that the system worked in this case. I'm happy that you were not unduly hassled, and I'm also happy that security was at least being watchful even if they were mis-informed. I still fear the times that it doesn't work though, both possible modes of failure are a scary thought.


 
66North
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Posted Wed May 14, 2008 3:40PM
Good story and nice shots.
Funwithfood
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Posted Wed May 14, 2008 3:47PM
Good to know the FBI is "on it"! (...and you get a great story to tell your grandchildren )
OwenPrice
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Posted Wed May 14, 2008 3:49PM
I was recenlty at a goverment air traffic contol building with approval to take pictures for them but the security guard said you can not come in with a camera. I said I am here to take pictures of the ATC control room and how the **** am I supposed to do it without a camera, eventually I got in but it needed 3 managers to have a meeting and then let me in. Unfortuantely these stella images have to remain private.

(Edited on 2008-05-14 15:50:27 by OwenPrice)

(Edited on 2008-05-16 03:54:41 by OwenPrice)
dcdp
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Posted Wed May 14, 2008 3:57PM

Great story. I had almost exactly the same experience except in Sydney shooting the Shell Refinery. I think your photos are a whole lot better than mine were. I realised when I got there that it would have been much better at dawn or dusk, but there was no way I was going back after that experience. My friends and family now call me "The Terrorist". 


 
justelaine
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Posted Wed May 14, 2008 4:15PM
I was recently interviewed by a lady from the FBI (they made an appointment and she came to my home), though when she showed me her ID it was a private security/fact finding org that was investigating one of my colleagues for a position with the Immigration Service. The questions she asked were pretty interesting. But altogether--an unexciting 30-40 minutes.
eyeidea
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Posted Wed May 14, 2008 4:23PM
great story
mpiotti
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Posted Wed May 14, 2008 4:27PM
I was camping in King Canyon National Park in California, when a wild fire started a few hundred meters away from the campground. I went with my camera to take some pics of the fire, but was intercepted by a guard. I automatically became a suspect of arson. According to the gurds (and the explanation made sence) an arsonist may come back to the fire site to take images of his/her accomplishment. After they called to see if I had arson history, and after I showed that I did not take any photo of the fire, they left me alone. So really, be careful of where you go with a camera!
YinYang
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Posted Wed May 14, 2008 4:33PM

Did you offer the agents some dougnuts! Hmmmm.... may be that would help your passport app! wink


Amazing story!

(Edited on 2008-05-14 16:34:10 by YinYang)
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