Not the Shot I Hoped For Today

Update (3/7/2011):

Since I originally posted this, I have had a number of people ask why I didn't stand up for my rights. Well, there is a time and place for the battle. Arguing with a security guard would not have gotten any where and had the police been called, I would not count on them knowing the law on this matter any better. I never intended to let the matter go and I planned to contact city hall, Austin Energy, the newspaper, and the local news channels the next morning. However, within hours of posting this blog entry I was contacted by the Public Information Officer of Austin Energy after one of his staff saw my blog. He apologized for our treatment and told me that a memo was already sent to the security company about their error in confronting us. I was even invited to photograph the plant interior! 


I've read a number of stories on the internet about photographers who are warned, harassed, and in some cases arrested for photographing state, federal, or other buildings deemed "sensitive." It has always been incredulous to me that the state or federal government would prohibit the photographing of a building in plain public view.

An informal group of photography amateurs convened at the Austin Holly Street Power Plant one afternoon.. This power plant has been out of commission since late 2007. It is scheduled to be torn down this summer and some of us thought it would be nice to grab some images for posterity. Besides the buildings themselves there is some interesting graffiti on the walls around the premises.

I got there a little earlier than the rest of our group and was setting up my tripod on the public sidewalk outside the front entrance. Before I could get any shots off, a security guard came up and told me that photographs of the power plant were prohibited. How interesting. A huge power plant that is visible for blocks around cannot be photographed? I explained that I was part of a group of amateur photographers and we simply wanted to take some shots for our personal blogs and such. After making some calls to a supervisor, I was finally told that our group could take some photographs from the sidewalk as long as we stated why we were there and provided our driver license numbers. Really? I courteously thanked the gentleman and said that I was not willing to show my driver license in order to take a picture from a public place.

Once everyone arrived, we decided as a group to walk over to Lady Bird Lake and take some shots in the park there instead of photographing the plant. A public walking trail runs along the outside wall of the power plant and leads to the park. The concrete wall is about 8-10 feet high and is painted with a lot of cool graffiti. I decided to take a picture of a bit of the artwork on the wall before we moved on. I no more than got the legs of my tripod opened when a guy who was apparently the security supervisor yelled down to me that no pictures were allowed. I explained that I was already told not to take pictures of the power plant and I was simply taking a photo of some artwork painted on the wall. I assured him that the power plant was not in any way visible in my frame. He said that would be fine, if I would explain to him why I was taking photos and provide my driver license. I politely said that I would rather just be on my way and I left the area with no photos of the buildings or the outside wall.

I believe that we were in our rights to be there and take photos from a public area. One should not have to present ID to a security guard when standing on a public sidewalk or walking trail. However, I feared that if we remained we would soon be having the same conversation with Austin police. I'd love to have gotten some photos of this facility before it is torn down, but not enough to risk being arrested over. I have no desire to break any laws, although I have a hard time believing that there are any that apply in this circumstance.

It is so sad that this is the state that our society is degrading to. Is it paranoia of a security threat that causes such ludicrous policy? If so, is a decommissioned power plant tucked deep in east Austin really such a sensitive area? Perhaps the walls should be a lot higher if that is the case. A baseball field is directly behind the site and surely the plant gets photographed regularly by many parents snapping shots of their kids playing in games. Houses surround other sides. I suppose one must be careful with any backyard photography on those properties. Ironically, many photos of the plant are provided on Austin Energy's web site and these are far more detailed than anything we could have taken outside the walls. So what gives?

In lieu of power plant photos of my own, I took some nice shots along the banks of Lady Bird Lake in a public park. There are some buildings that disrupt the scenery in this shot, but there was regrettably no way to avoid them.