By: Elizabeth M. Gillespie, Associated Press Writer
(AP) Ian Spiers had just hours to finish an assignment for his photography class. He was taking shots of a railroad bridge near the Ballard Locks when an officer with a German shepherd approached him, asked him what he was doing and requested some ID.
Later, he was questioned and photographed by a Homeland Security agent.
It was the second time in less than two months that Spiers had been questioned about taking pictures of a landmark that attracts hundreds of tourists a day, many of whom snap photos of the ships passing between Lake Union and Elliott Bay.
A growing number of photographers around the country have been similarly rousted in recent years as they’ve tried to take pictures of federal buildings and other major public works, said Donald Winslow, editor of the National Press Photographers Association’s magazine.
“We’ve seen the constant erosion of our civil liberties amid this cry for homeland security by doing things that have an appearance of making us safe, but in reality it’s a sham,” Winslow said. “No one showed up at the World Trade Center and took photographs from nine different angles before they flew planes into it.”
The morning of May 26, Spiers explained he was a photography student at a community college, showed a copy of his assignment, then asked the officer if he was legally obligated to show his ID.
The officer said no and walked away. But soon after, several armed officers approached him, including three from the Seattle Police Department and three from the federal Homeland Security Department.
“I was trying to be calm, but the truth was I was scared out of my mind,” Spiers said.
This time, Spiers said, a Seattle police officer told him he had no choice but to show his ID. A Homeland Security agent who flashed his badge told him he had broken a law by taking pictures of a federal facility.
“We’ve never seen such a law,” said Doug Honig, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union in Seattle.
Spiers said he complied, spent half an hour answering questions and let a Homeland Security agent photograph him — after being told he had no choice.
The ACLU has written the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and runs the locks, asking for the agency’s assurance that Spiers will not be arrested if he returns there.
Corps spokeswoman Patricia Graesser said her agency had no involvement in the incident and questioned an order Spiers said a homeland security agent gave him — that he could not return to the locks with his camera without getting permission in advance.
“Everyone — all members of the public — are welcome on the locks property, and photographs are allowed, and there’s no need to get prior permission,” she said.
Seattle police spokesman Sean Whitcomb said the department has a duty to respond to reports of suspicious activity.
Calls to the Homeland Security Department were not immediately returned.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Spiers kept his distance from the spot where he was questioned, and wore a button on his camera bag that said: “Annoying but harmless photography student. Do not bend.” He made it in early April, after two police officers showed up at his door, saying they were responding to a report about a suspicious man taking pictures at the locks.
Spiers said he’d like to hear one of the officers who questioned him say if they hassled him because his mocha-colored skin and short black hair made him look like a terrorist.
“I’m trying to figure out how not to attract attention,” said Spiers, 36. “So far the only thing I can think of is that I can never ever pick up a camera.”
In early June, about 100 photographers crowded onto New York City subway trains and snapped pictures of each other in protest of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s proposed ban on photography in subways and other public transit.
And Brian Fitzgerald, the chief photographer at the Yakima (Wash.) Herald-Republic, said a uniformed security officer tried to prevent him from taking a picture of an immigration office, citing a “law,” then calling it a “directive” that gave the officer the right to confiscate any film with pictures of a federal facility.
An officer in charge eventually let him take his photos, and he’s since been told there’s no reason he can’t take them.
“It’s frustrating mostly,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m not outraged because I didn’t get to the point where I didn’t get my photos. It just reminds me again how much disinformation there is, even in these agencies that are supposed to know.”