Dear Photographers: The Government Is Watching You

How would you feel if you were taking photos of some train tracks and suddenly found your name on a list formed by the government of people acting suspiciously? What about photos of planes taking off and landing, sea ports or industrial buildings? NPR reported today that such a list exists and I'll post some shots of it below. If your name shows up on this list be ready to have the FBI knock on your door or give you a call as one photographer in LA experienced.

Hal Bergman loves shooting all things industrial in and around Los Angeles. Unfortunately throughout his shoots he has also been stopped on numerous occasions by police officers asking about his activity. Often the officers will hear his explanation, see some of his photos and let him be on his way. But on more than one occasion his name has been reported to the Nationwide Suspicious Activity list which is an initiative started by the Justice Department. As a result, at one point two FBI agents showed up at his door to investigate the situation and another he received a phone call from the FBI asking questions like, 'Do you hold any ill will toward the United States of America?'

Is this list limiting our ability to take the photographs we wish? Are our freedoms of being able to create art even while we are on public property being taken from us?

Here are some screen shots from the database of suspicious activity that has been reported in the past.

Fstoppers Suspicious Activity List 2

Fstoppers Suspicious Activity List 4

Here is a screenshot from the Los Angeles Regional Intelligence Center.

Fstoppers Suspicious Activity List 3

If you would like to check out more suspicious activity reported to a list collected out in California you can find it here in this PDF.

Lastly, here are a few photos I grabbed while out driving around practicing a few years ago. Thankfully, as far as I know, I have not been placed on the suspicious activity list. Have you?



[Via NPR, Via Reddit]

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Sai Saelee's picture

I think I am. Many years ago when I was taking a photo class, we went on a field trip to the state capital building. I was just taking pictures of random objects and two police came out of the building to question me. The reason why they questioned me was because I took a picture of a lamp post and inside of it was a security camera! I guess I was a threat to security or something!

Chris Pickrell's picture

Well, that's one way to get the government to admit where their cameras are.

Lacy Lange's picture

We can't take photos. We can't collect rain water. And we live in the land of the FREE?

Jaron Schneider's picture

We can't collect rain water?

Lacy Lange's picture

Not in Utah. It's illegal here. There are other States that have the same laws, but not all of them.

Tim Krueger's picture

It is considered stealing from the person down stream from's a pretty lame law and I believe California has the same.

Akeem Casey's picture

Thats wild... there are a lot of out dated laws on the books of many they enforce that law?

Tim Krueger's picture

They can if they see it or a neighbor reports you.

P Larson's picture


Fotache Sergiu's picture

You there! Stop breathing!

Aquase's picture

What if you are the furthest person downstream?

Mr Blah's picture

You'd be living in the ocean....

Mr Blah's picture

Bolivia had the same rules after their were forced to privatise thier water supply. Outrage ensued and the decision was over turned in the end...

Bolivia did it. US citizens should wake up...

emp11's picture

So its you that's been stealing my water ? Countries go to war over this.:)
I'm sure i on a list somewhere. My great grandfather was an engineer on the Eisenhower Locks and i photograph it about once every decade. The last time i was there security was very tight and i got run off even though the looks a part of a state park.

Debbie Caudill's picture

While that is the law, it is highly unlikely that it would be enforced against an individual collecting water for personal use. The cases that are pursued usually involve business who collect water in cisterns for use.

Brendan Cherry's picture

What the actual heck, how is it stealing when it comes off your own roof? I am so so glad Australia does not have this law, I would literally not be able to live without rainwater

Trevor Dayley's picture

***Lifts hands in innocence. Dumps out barrels of collected rain water***

archsf's picture

Hey, but you can buy a gun!

Chris Pickrell's picture

What if I put my barrel down stream from my neighbor?

ikeithb's picture

So it's only the person at the bottom that gets to collect water?

Chris Pickrell's picture

Sarcasm dude.

Marco's picture

Get a job. Go to work. Get married. Have children. Follow fashion. Act
normal. Walk on the pavement. Watch TV. Obey the law. Save for your old
age. Now repeat after me. "I am free"

Brian Bray's picture

And spend, spend, spend!

Ben McEntire's picture

Words like black, gay, pride used to be words for a color, a feeling and honor for America... now today it gets you in jail.... . yes we are free, more free then other nations , yet those freedoms are going away to fear, fear of hurting peoples feelings, fear of terrorism, fear of financial loss... the list goes on.... The biggest thing that brings end to freedom is fear.... and the world is becoming more afraid ...

Todd's picture

"Freedom is Slavery"

About that rain water. Same law in Colorado. Since the water belongs to someone and collecting it in a rain barrel as it runs off one's roof is illegal, is the some one to whom the water belongs responsible for all the damage that water just did washing out roads, destroying homes and killing people?

Lacy Lange's picture

That's a good question! The government should go after them for damages. How are the cleanups going in CO btw? That was just insane and so so sad!

Pierce Fischer's picture

Great! 13 years old and on a watch list. "Ohhhhh mom, I have something to tell you." I will have to be very careful on my next school field trip and just shot pics with a phone like everyone else.

IAM_THE_KGB's picture

Everyone is guilty and must prove their innocence.

And good luck with that...

Mike Folden's picture

If you have nothing to hide, who cares? Most train tracks say "no trespassing" that I've seen. If I get caught or added to a list for trespassing, it's my own fault. They're not stopping you from creating art, they're just adding you to a list.

IAM_THE_KGB's picture

Oh to be young and naive...

Mike Folden's picture

I'll take the compliment but how is that naive? I'm not saying it's right or wrong, I'm just saying I don't really care.

Jay M.'s picture

"I don't really care"... and that's the problem. To many people don't care. Since 9/11 the government creates an atmosphere of fear and paranoia. They restrict our civil liberties step by step to "protect us" as they say... they are giving us an illusion of safety. But there is no thing like safety, not in a free country, nor in a dictatorship as history has proven many times. They say the terrorists hate us because of our freedom. So far no terrorist has taken away some of my liberty... but the government has... all they really want is the transparent citizen and this atmosphere of fear and paranoia helps them to achieve this goal...

They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.
(Benjamin Franklin)

Marco's picture

To be honest "terrorists" hate U.S.A. because they have been bombing their homelands, influencing their politics and stealing their resources long before 9/11

Chris Rogers's picture

werrd marco. their hate is justified imo. i would hate some one if they did that to my country.

Trevor Dayley's picture

It's not just walking on train tracks (which yes is illegal.) It includes taking photos of bridges, ports, industrial buildings.... honestly it could be anything, even from public property. If someone has a hunch that what you are doing is suspicious they can report you to the police which will then report you to this list.

Matthew Saville Baldon's picture

Mike Folden, To say "If you have nothing to hide, who cares?" is about as good as saying "Neither would I mind if you decided to forbid me and everyone else from doing this entirely..."

To be honest most of the time I do not agree with the whole slippery slope thing. But the bottom line is that eventually we simply won't be allowed to do these things, period.

Because the less people care, the more authorities will simply say "Hey, if nobody cares then why don't we just save ourselves the headache and make more stuf illegal and off-limits? It would make our job easier if we didn't have to police these areas and deal with all the pesky citizens crawling all over the place with their cameras..."

Again, I know it sounds absurd, but we're probably less than one generation away form this happening on a very large scale. Getting arrested, or at least forbidden / kicked out, from photographing interesting industrial stuff.

25 years ago, I used to be able to go down to the nearest airport, construction zone, or train yard with my dad, or a big bridge or a dam or whatever, and just watch the machines work, take pictures, and just enjoy an adventure. (Obviously, minding the usual "no trespassing" signs that are for your own damn safety when it comes to certain things...)

Now, not only does everybody get hassled left and right, but many of these subjects are extremely sensitive and risky endeavors, or off limits completely...

Being "added to a list", by the way, is a HUGE thing. Maybe if you never plan on traveling out of your home town, or going anywhere interesting again in your life, you won't have any trouble. But as soon as you try to go anywhere, get permits for anything, etc, you immediately forfeit hours of your life to additional scrutiny, screening, and in many cases wind up getting rejected or severely delayed... If you don't believe me, just google it and do some reading about other people's experiences.

Anyways, that's just my opinion. If you keep telling yourself you have nothing to hide, you may wind up with nothing exciting to DO...

Matthew Saville Baldon's picture

Let me be clear- I'm all in favor of national security. I LIKE seeing our law enforcement patrolling certain areas, that's what my tax dollars pay for. And thankfully so far I have had nothing but good encounters, because I'm not an idiot and I pick my words carefully, I have business cards that clearly describe what I do, and demonstrations of my timelapse etc. work ready to go on my phone.

I believe that it is totally possible for us to maintain "national security" without cutting off or complicating the lives of creative or adventurous citizens who enjoy exploring their country...

Brian Bray's picture

What would you rather have your tax dollars paying for, law enforcement hassling harmless photographers, or schools, hospitals, roads and transit systems?

Matthew Saville Baldon's picture

To quote the band Rush: "You don't get something for nothing, you can't have freedom for free"

Trevor Dayley's picture

To quote Bob Marley: “Better to die fighting for freedom then be a prisoner all the days of your life.”

Connor MacKinney's picture

I agree with anyone who quotes Rush. :)

Mike Folden's picture

Great points Mathew. I appreciate the good info!

jimhuffman's picture

I agree partly, but I disagree, also. You see, 25 years ago if you stood outside the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, Bremerton Navy Yard, Mare Island Navy Yard, or definitely Beale AFB with a camera photographing goings on, you could almost be certain to have your camera stripped of its film. These days, however, with the Cold War over, I have done these things. I retained my camera and its images. I was NOT questioned, nor detained. I HAVE however been asked to leave the USS Tripoli when i walked aboard with my cameras and asked the guys on lunch what was going on on the flight deck. I was on US Government property, AND in a hard hat area AND they said they could not answer those questions. They did not take down my name, nor did they detain me. I was in the wrong. I was able to find the information anyway, though, simply by asking a dock worker down the pier. I was on US Government property, as a citizen without having asked permission to be at the Mare Island Facility. I walked around the entire base and snapped photos, no one bothered me. This happened on several occasions in 2003-4, at no time was I given any problems. I contend that these photographers may be singled out because of behavior, for I have never had any such problems. Then again, i observe the signs and USUALLY obey them. There IS something to be said, however, about standing on top of the blast door of an Atlas E missile silo behind the no trespassing signs. Still, I make very little effort to conceal what I am doing. I dress in casual clothes, and colors that I am comfortable with. I have stood at the approach end of the runway and never been asked to leave...of course, I don't camp out, either. I'm there for maybe ten minutes and then I leave. I've taken pictures of bridges and dams. The only thing I was ever asked to try to do was NOT take pictures of the fence surrounding a Marine HQ when I was photographing a couple tanks used as gate guards...and this because I was ON US Government land and had to arrange for permission to enter, so I observed their request. They did not go through my images, nor did they, that i know of, check to make sure when i posted the images on line. Maybe it's profiling. I DO get away with things a lot and I might assume it's simply because i was born the right color and sex. I don't know, but I have never had the experience described above.

Derek Feldman's picture

You might not care now, but think about this: Next time you're traveling, you go through a country with terrorist or 'antiAmerican' activity. As you come back into the country, your travel list crosses with the FBI's suspicious activity list, and boom. You're in a holding cell.

I've spent time in airport detention for this kind of thing. 'Where were you going? Who were you talking to? ...And you say you're a photographer?'

Rob Barnes's picture

This is interesting as I have been in touch with the police numerous times regarding my photography and also because I happen to own a studio in a part of Chicago that is a little rough and by rough, i mean a normal area(chicago is a hot bed of gun activity). My name is all over the police system because of this.
I have never once been detained, or held up at security and I have traveled internationally in the past month. Maybe its the way you present yourself to authority figures. I am pretty agreeable and if they ask for identification I give it to them. You know what they say 9.9/10 times they do? Ok, just get out of here. You know what I say back? do you mind if I finish up and get one last shot? They either reply, sure, or sorry buddy, no can do.
Learn to talk to people of authority so you dont set off a situation that can easily be handled and you wont have these problems.
Sorry, this post went from being directed towards you and has now grown to a public annoucement. I am by no means saying you dont know how to talk to authority figures.

Kait Jaouen's picture

Having interactions with police on record and being on a government watch list are two VERY different things. Just having an interaction with police isn't gonna do that, but if concerned citizens make reports of suspicious behavior, or the police officers (for whatever reason, even if its just them having a bad day) don't buy your story and decide to report it to the agency, it is *snaps* THAT easy to run into some REAL trouble

LaraH2's picture

i don't feel as if i have to "get out of here" if i am standing on public property photographing trains or buildings. the police have no right to ask me to do so. i don't like the idea of going along just to keep some overzealous cop or rent-a-cop happy. the police need to know the law ad abide by it. i used to carry a copy of the photographer's right with me. but have heard from other shooters that the cops won't read it anyway. this is my livelihood and i'll be darned if someone is going to tell me i can't go where i am allowed by law to go.

Rob Barnes's picture

Also and this is from experience. You cant shoot on CTA tracks, like ever. I have been approached for being in places that were clearly off limits where i have had a shoot. You know how I did it? I contacted the proper authorities(CTA) and not only got permission but paper work explaining I was alloud to be there. This really helped when 4 police officers showed up to shut things down. They called it in and all was resolved in a matter of minutes.

Derek Feldman's picture

You're definitely right about the proper way to do things, and I do try to go through the proper channels when I'm shooting. I'm always respectful to authority figures, and I've never had a problem beyond, "What are you doing here?" "I'm a photographer, here is my work." "Okay, good. Now, 1)get out of here, or 2)goodnight."

My concern is less to do with confrontations with the police, and more to do with eventually winding up in a DHS cell, without being charged with a crime, because I've popped up on suspicious activities reports in three states and I've just spent a couple of months in a tense part of Africa.

(That's a little more dramatic than my actual experiences, I was only detained briefly. But that was last time. I've been a few more places and maybe a few more suspicious activities since then.)

I guess what I'm saying is that secret lists with my name on them make me nervous. Does that sound paranoid?

Rob Barnes's picture

All makes sense. Its possible the detaining was becuase of the strife your past visit was to. At this point, who knows but I understand your concern.
I wouldnt say it makes you paranoid but dont let it rule your life. I think thats what I take out of this. I understand there are activities that seem pretty simple to us that authorities are instructed to question and that to us seems pretty absurd. I just dont let the fear of getting put on some secret list I may or may not know about influence my daily activities and artistic creation. Some people on here are defending tooth and nail to be able to do whatever they want whenever they want no matter if it puts them in harm(train tracks, abandoned buildings, industrial areas) or is done on private property. Btw, the train companies own the tracks and property it resides on so they can have the cops called at any point, pictures or not and they will do it.

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