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.