Photographer Faces Resistance While Taking Photographs Near Oil Refinery

Photographer Faces Resistance While Taking Photographs Near Oil Refinery

Tom Atwood, a photographer and professor of broadcast journalism at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, went about taking photographs of models for a project he described as a series of “industrial landscape portraits” near the Phillips 66 Wood River Refinery in Roxana, Illinois. His shoot put him up against resistance and alleged serious threats. As a former television reporter, Tom is very familiar with what and where he is allowed to photograph. He soon discovered that his project was taken very seriously. I talked with the refinery’s spokeswoman, the Roxanna police chief, and the photographer himself to get a better picture of what happened.

Tom has always been interested in the Wood River refinery. He has been photographing it for years, but explained to me that he wanted to start using it as a backdrop for portraits he wanted to take of models.

“I liked the idea of the contrast between the beauty of the models and the industrial landscape.”

So he went about his first shoot, found a large empty parking lot near the refinery, and began his project a year ago last May. Within minutes he was stopped by a local police officer and informed that the parking lot was private property owned by the refinery and that he couldn’t shoot there.

“[The officer] was extremely polite about it – almost embarrassed to have been called out once he saw what we were up to.”


He made sure to stress that the majority of his encounters or discussions with law enforcement were always very friendly and professional. Roxana police chief Will Cunningham explained that the police department is required to investigate all reports of suspicious behavior.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean that a crime is being committed, but we still have to go check it out.”

The Roxana police department responded to a call from the security office at the refinery to which Wood River Refinery spokeswoman Michelle Erker clarified simply.

“The refinery security is to report any suspicious activity to a list of authorities as outlined in the Maritime Transportation Security Act.”

Tom didn't understand why taking photographs of pretty women was deemed "suspicious activity," but he moved to different locations discovering through subsequent visits from police and security that the refinery owned most of the land surrounding it. This made his project very difficult to continue, but he still searched for vistas that could work.

During our conversation, Michelle pointed me to one of Tom’s photos where he had a model holding on to a chain-link fence underneath a “No Trespassing” sign. She jokingly told me that she felt like he knew what he was doing a lot of the time he was out there shooting. Tom admitted to me that he walked some fine lines at times to get the images he was after, but that he would never intentionally trespass to get a shot.

“The fence was the border. I wouldn’t climb over, but I took photos as close as I could get.”

The end came in October. Tom was approached by both a security guard and a police officer while working with two models in the middle of an empty street that runs perpendicular to the refinery. He claims the security guard from the refinery threatened to have him arrested for trespassing and that he also threatened to put Tom’s name on the homeland security list.

“I was scared. I didn’t know what that meant and I didn’t want to be on a list like that.”

Tom was eventually able to talk with a supervisor and show the photos he had taken, proving that he hadn’t done anything wrong, but things had gone too far this time. Tom felt bullied. He felt harassed. Instead of pushing the issue any further, he decided to just pack things up for the sake of his models and head home. Frustrated and worried, Tom decided to stop his project completely.

“It just didn’t seem worth it. It seemed crazy – a person shooting portraits around a refinery to be threatened to be put on a terrorist list.”

Outraged, his brother shared what had happened through Facebook and Tom’s story began to go viral. There was talk of emails being sent to the refinery and of other photographers organizing shoots there in protest of what Tom had gone through. The uproar culminated in less than a week when he sat down at Melissa Erker's office to discuss a resolution. In their meeting, she proposed establishing places around the refinery property where he could shoot with the stipulation that he gave advance notice. One of those locations Tom chuckled about was the very parking lot where his project began. Michelle insists that they aren’t looking to encourage other photographers to come out, but that she understood Tom's project and wanted to come to a compromise. Tom used to cover refinery stories for KSDK Channel 5 in St. Louis, so perhaps the fact that they have known each other over the years has helped them build this bridge together. Michelle was very forthright in clarifying that the refinery's security guards have no authority to arrest nor to confiscate. She responded to Tom’s claim that a security guard threatened to put him on the homeland security list as well.

“[…] this is not verified by our team. Our team fully understands their authority and works to contact the local authorities per the MTSA.”

Looking back on it all, he has some simple advice for photographers who want easygoing photo shoots.

“Stay clear of refineries and industrial areas because the headache of going up against giants like this isn’t fun.”

However, Tom was insistent that photographers understand their first amendment rights as well — specifically that they have the right to take photographs while on public property. When I asked him why he didn’t just contact the refinery before he started his project to avoid all this trouble, Tom explained that it was never his intention to step foot on the refinery’s property, and he made it clear to me that he doesn’t advocate blatant trespassing. He attributes all this hassle as an overreaction to what happened on 9/11.

So, What can we take away from Tom Atwood’s story? Well, I’m glad to hear that he felt the local police handled everything overall like true professionals. A lot of photography stories that involve police go in a completely different direction. I am troubled by the possibility that an overzealous security guard could have threatened and bullied Tom, as he claims, but I also think that preparation and communication of intent are integral when planning a project like his. In the end, I believe that this experience has given all parties involved much to to think about and learn from.

Tom surprised me with this final thought.

“Some people don’t like the refinery for various reasons, but I’ve always thought it was beautiful. Something went overboard here, but I still love the refinery.”

“The Refinery Project” exhibit runs from July 18 through Aug. 22 at the Edwardsville Arts Center. You can see more of Tom's work at his website. All images were used with permission.

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Mr Blah's picture

Cool story.

Ugly orange skin tones though....

Veldask Krofkomanov's picture

The cool thing about art is even if you don't like it, there are tons of other people that do!

Mr Blah's picture


but ORANGE skin tone. Orange. Doritos flavoured skin.


Omar Salgado's picture

The cool thing about "art" is: even if you like it, there are tonnes of others that don't.

JOHN PARISI's picture

if he is on public property, there is nothing they can do to stop him. They can lie and they will, but he is right. of course, the police may not care and they will arrest him for disorderly conduct or something like that only to have it thrown out but this is always about pun intended...and it always is.

jrconner's picture

It might make sense to check public records for property ownership before starting such a shoot. Even streets that appear to be public can be owned by the industrial entity.

Private security guards quite often are poorly paid, poorly informed, bored, and far too eager to catch a terrorist. I'm sure the guards had little trouble imagining Atwood was casing the joint with art as his cover. And the guards may have been working under orders to discourage photography.

Photographers should know their rights, and keep in their wallets the business cards of their attorney and bail bondsman.

Ross Floyd's picture

I have actually been on shoots for oil refineries. All the photos/cards/ and our hard drives had to be turned over at the end of the shoot in cooperation with the company and homeland security, because the specific refinery and port are vital to our energy infrastructure and certain technologies/layouts were proprietary. This of course was arranged in advance and they paid very well for this arrangement.

You would be surprised what is refinery owned and what is not. 1/4 mile around the entire 3 mile facility was owned by the refinery. Signs were posted everywhere "no photography" etc. We all had to turn in our cell phones and disclose the number of cameras we were bringing in.

It was a very interesting experience overall.

Eduardo Cervantes's picture

Your (very cool) story makes me see scenes from Mad Max.

A AA's picture

Yes because a terrorist couldn't just go on google earth to case the joint. Or use a telephoto lens from public property. Oh noes.

Ross Floyd's picture

Actually Google works with the government and homeland security. There are places that you cannot zoom past a certain point to protect vulnerable targets.

Darksaga's picture

Like Area 51....That's a given though.

AnnoyingOrange's picture

Why didn't he ask permission from the refinery first before starting his project???

Andre Goulet's picture

When you shoot on public property, do you go ask the owners of the buildings in the background if it's okay that their buildings be in your photos?

AnnoyingOrange's picture

But he wasn't on public property....

"he moved to different locations discovering through subsequent visits from police and security that the refinery owned most of the land surrounding it"

Andre Goulet's picture

That was learned after the fact. He's shooting OUTSIDE of an area that says "No Trespassing" so the presumption is simply that it was okay to shoot there. So, why would he go ask permission before shooting there?

AnnoyingOrange's picture

"So he went about his first shoot, found a large empty parking lot near the refinery, and began his project a year ago last May. Within minutes he was stopped by a local police officer and informed that the parking lot was private property owned by the refinery and that he couldn’t shoot there."

He learned it after the fact, then why not ask afterwards? Because there's no sign, it's ok? You learned the area around the refinery is owned by the refinery, so you just keep what you want to do without asking permission anyway? And then when you finally get threatened, you cry foul because you kept shooting at their property without permit? Anyway, he was given permission as long as there's advance notice after crying foul that he was always asked not to shoot in someone else's property. Boohoo.

Mr Blah's picture

It would be courtesy to do so.

Also, it shields you against another neighbour wanting to call the cops on you.

David hobby had a great post a few years back on this.

- Call the cops and warn them before hand (if you are shooting on public property)
- warn the closest neighbours that they might see flashes go off and it's normal.
- leave a contact number.

Doing this basically prevents any working brains to trigger the "terrorist" flag.

Troy Shantz's picture

it's not like you can just call one guy at the refinery to let them know. You're probably looking at weeks of calling and getting handed off from department to department. And even then, when you have permission, the (oil refinery) crew working on the day of the shoot may not know what's going on. It turns out to be a fools errand either way.

agour's picture

It's an oil refinery... they're being protective for a reason. I don't see why people get so arsey sometimes about being told off.

james johnson's picture

I understand his dilemma about whether to seek permission before
starting (sometimes you just risk it), but I don't believe his
ignorance. Very few "parking lots" are public property. Someone owned
that land and, whether it was the refinery or not, he was trespassing on

It sounds like he took a risk and got caught. We can debate whether the terrorist watch list should exist in its current form and how much of a pompous ass the security guard was for threatening to put him on it, but come on. The photographer WAS trespassing (doesn't matter the reason) and he got caught. Now he is being painted as some sort of martyr?

Aaron Brown's picture

How did I paint him as a martyr in this article?

james johnson's picture

It's the context. This is one of series of articles about photographer harassment recently. Plus, he and his brother clearly believe he was not in the wrong and that he was harassed. Other than the rent-a-cop threatening (without authority) to put him on a list, he was the one actually/obviously doing something illegal.

And obliviously, at least three other people read your article that way.

Aaron Brown's picture

"Obliviously" indeed.

james johnson's picture

Normally, I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt and take the "shades of gray" approach, but this seems really black and white. He had absolutely no reason to assume he was on public property, yet he did. There were even signs posted saying it was private property. His very first location was a parking lot. Why would he think randomly developed land was public? Does he think any abandoned structure is public? Once kicked off one site, did he research any further before continuing to shoot, or did he make another assumption?

He might not have thought about where he was shooting— we all make mistakes— but I think it is really "obvious" where he made assumptions without thinking it through. And to anyone who has done even the tiniest bit of research into their right to photograph (as a professional photographer should), it is "obvious" that he should not have made such giant leaps in logic.

You can be snarky all you want, but this is a case where the photographer did not know what he was doing outside of snapping the shutter. Maybe it wasn't "obvious" to him that he was trespassing, but it should have been. And the more times that cops have to waste their time because some photographer didn't do his due diligence in preparing his shoot, the less patience they will have even when the next photographer is within his/her rights.

Aaron Brown's picture

Jim, I understand your points about trespassing, but I don't understand you saying that this article paints him as a martyr. I stuck to presenting what I was told from all sides of the story and even wrapped up that there was a lot to be learned on all sides. I even called him out on shooting under the "no trespassing" sign. The whole reason I wrote this up was to inform photographers and educate them -- not to throw my middle fingers up to the law for the sake of art. Cheers, man.

Shawn Robertson's picture

This exact thing happened to me! I was shooting a wedding in New orleans on April 5th, on my way back from the venue back to the hotel room I passed through a city called NORCO which was this huge oil refinery. I stopped on a public road because I wanted to get a picture of one of the smoke stacks that had smoke coming out of it. I had am 10 stop ND filter on a tripod setup and a security officer came out and started harassing me saying that I was illegally taking pictures.

I calmly and politely told the security officer hat I was on public property, i was on across the street on the side of the road not even on their property. She insisted it was illegal and that I was to remain there as she called her supervisor.

I had no idea what was going on and was intimated, they called a police officer as well, the supervisor a showed up with a video camera and took all my information down, and repeatedly told me that I was trespassing and photographing illegally. I stated I did not see a sign anywhere that said photographing was illegal and he said its on another road not this one.

Since I was in town to photograph a wedding I didn't want any headaches or troubles and certainly didnt want to push my luck with the whole "are you detaining me" stuff that you see in youtube videos for people exercising their rights. I agreed to give my information and let them see me delete my pictures and I was on my way home after being held for about an hour. The police officer was the nicest one I had ever met and talked to, he took my business card and went to my website on his laptop in the cruiser to verify I was a legitimate wedding photographer, came back and complemented the site and pictures.

it was pretty stressful and now i'm sure i'm on some government watch list somewhere. If i was not there for work, I would have exercised my rights but it just wasn't worth the potential hassle and stress it could have caused my clients and would have been selfish of me.

These places really need to put up no photography signs in clear seen areas if they dont want people taking pictures.