While some of my photography may be questionable, I never considered it to be terrorism. The FBI has its own opinion, however, as evidenced by their questioning my photographic activities in the summer of ’07.
I used to live near an industrial gas supply company, you know, the kind of place you take your gas grill propane tank to be refilled. Well, one hot summer day I was waiting in traffic and happened to be in front of this place. This company has a giant propane holding tank in front, painted to look like an enormous hot dog, complete with bun and mustard. I was in my convertible with my DSLR on the seat next to me. I don’t know about you, but as a photographer, I can’t avoid taking pictures of goofy thing, so I snapped a few. Without me realizing I was arousing anyone’s suspicion, an alert citizen took my license number and reported me to the Department of Homeland Security!
A couple days later and blissfully unaware that I’d been reported, I get home from work and grab mail out of the box. There’s a business card in there from an FBI agent, with a message scrawled on the back, “Please call me.” Not bad for a practical joke, I think, as I promptly forget the card. Next day, I get home from work and ask my son how school was. “Okay,” he says, then adds, “Two guys from the FBI were here looking for you.” Hmmm. Maybe I should call that number.
Now realize that I had no idea why the FBI would want to talk to me. I always try to cut the mustard legally, so I thought maybe this might be about the recent drug raid on the house next door. (Though I didn’t know the neighbors very well, it gave me an odd feeling to come home and see the head of household being led to a police car in handcuffs. As he sheepishly nodded to me and gave me a little wave with a cuffed hand, I felt like yelling, “I do not know this man!”)
But it wasn’t about drugs, it was about dogs—hot dogs, to be precise. I called the locally-based FBI agent and introduced myself. To the best of my recollection, here’s how the conversation went:
FBI: “Mr. Snyder, you were observed photographing something over the weekend.”
PHOTOGRAPHER: “Uh…. photographing what? I take a lot of pictures.”
FBI: “It was an industrial site.”
Normally I take a lot of pictures, so I really had no idea what he was talking about.
PHOTOGRAPHER: “Could you be more specific? I take a lot of pictures.”
FBI: “Do you” (he replies, in what appears to be the character of Mr. Bookman, the Seinfeld library detective).
PHOTOGRAPHER: (Pause while thinking) ”Where was this?”
FBI: “Near where you live.”
Hmmm, knows where I live…or he’s bluffing…then it hits me and I exclaim:
PHOTOGRAPHER: “Oh! You’re talking about that giant hot dog…?”
PHOTOGRAPHER: “At the propane place?”
FBI: “Go on…” (he said, in the manner of Sgt. Joe Friday from the old Dragnet TV series).At this point I rattle off my explanation that as an amateur photographer being stuck in traffic, I was unable to resist photographing this silly hot dog which was obviously put there for people to notice and be amused by…I start laughing and realize by his profound lack of emotion that I was just digging myself in deeper. Assuming I was either a lunatic, a terrorist, or both, he continues:
FBI: “The fact that you work for a hospital makes this even more suspicious.”
PHOTOGRAPHER: “Um…what? Why?” (I stammer, as I realized they’ve investigated me!)
Once you know what “it” is, you can commence to talk your way out of it—its just so much easier to get forgiveness than permission. This guy got the report of someone not-so-covertly photographing an industrial complex, but never actually went there himself! Not having seen the giant wiener, I guess he didn’t realize how silly this all sounded. So I offer:
PHOTOGRAPHER: “Look, its just that there’s this giant hot dog there smiling for all the world to see and…”
FBI: (Humorless, he says)”What do you plan to do with the pictures? Have you printed them?”
I didn’t want to broach the subject of digital cameras or JPEGS so I just said:
PHOTOGRAPHER: “I rarely print what I shoot because, well, I just shoot on impulse (perhaps a poor choice of words) and I have thousands of images—“
FBI: “If your story checks out, you won’t be hearing from us again. You will, however, be getting some calls from other agencies. Keep my card and when they contact you, just give them my name and tell them you’ve spoken to me.” (Hangs up—no fanfare, no twenty-one bun salute)
I guess my “story” checked out, as I was never questioned again. They must have verified the existence of the giant hot dog and determined that I wasn’t much of a threat to society. So the FBI has a file on me, due mainly to the paranoia paradigm shift of our post-9/11 world. At some point, I may have promised Sgt. Friday that I would not do anything with the pictures I took, and I’ve been true to my word. They are lost among the thousands of other nonsensical images I’ve captured over the years. So for your benefit, I went back and took other pictures for this article.
Since this all happened, I’ve been chased from other random sites by police and other defenders of our homeland—from refineries, power plants, even the Lincoln Tunnel! It seems I never learn from my mistakes—always crashing in the same car, to quote David Bowie. Last winter, I was clawing my way through traffic trying to leave Manhattan, when I got stuck at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel. Camera at the ready, I start snapping pictures of this great landmark when a police officer yells at me, comes over to the car and says, “Can’t take photographs of bridges or tunnels in New York City.” What’s this world coming to? Seemingly innocent actions at one time appear doubtful at another, like photographing children. Want to grab that photo op? Take a bite out of that hot dog with your name on it? Be careful my photographer friend, as it may bite back!
As an aside, a few weeks after my run-in with the “Bureau,” I found this little squeak toy between the seats in my car. Now, here’s the deal: I only told the FBI story to a handful of people. A few of them know where I park my car in South Philly (I walk the rest of the way to work). Even fewer know that I leave my car unlocked (due to a break-in a few years ago which left my ragtop slashed). So, it follows that one of these people planted the item in question. Who was the perp? To this day, no one has fessed up to the deed, but it taught me something—it doesn’t take much to make you paranoid.