The night a cop tried to arrest me for doing street photography.

I found out first hand that photographer paranoia is alive and well in the USA. Here is a paraphrased retelling of what ensued the night I took the my modified infrared flash Olympus XA2 out for a test drive.

Man with Lawn Chair, Duluth, Minnesota, August 2009

I had taken a picture near a women, not of her, just near her and kept walking on. An hour or so later we crossed paths again and she chased me down to ask why I had taken a picture of her. It just so happened that there was a beat cop nearby when she caught up and he overheard her questioning me. He came over to see what the fuss was about, and things started to get ugly once he injected himself into the discussion I was trying to have with this women about photographic theory and why I work the way I work.

He started by firing off a steady stream of questions at me, and I answered them as honestly as I could.

“Why are you photographing here?”
“It just happened to be where I strolled tonight.”

“What kind of camera is that?”
“It is an Olympus XA2 from the early 80’s.”

“You know that people may consider this weird?”
“I am well aware of this, and comfortable with it. It is what I have to deal with to make the art I want to make.”

“You have any history with police encounters?”
“Just parking tickets. Alternate side parking rule gets me from time to time.”

His basic questioning continued on. Eventually it led to the beat cop making up laws that I knew not to be true, and to letting me know that he wouldn’t hesitate to arrest me if I didn’t cooperate.

“It is illegal to take pictures in this area.” (while making a swooping hand gesture that would indicated to me all of the tourist and downtown sections of the city)
“Every piece of literature I’ve ever read says else wise. If it is in public, I can take its picture.”

“And what kind of literature is that?”
“There is a very popular flier put out by a lawyer who is also a photographer to help educate people on photographer’s rights due to the ever growing harassment we are experiencing. As well as countless newspaper articles on incidents photographers who have been falsely accused of crimes.”

“You can’t trust what a lawyer writes about the laws. ..
Inside of my head: “Lawyers are not a proper means to get information about laws? For real?”

“… You need to provide me a proper statute number instead of something some lawyer wrote.”
Inside my head: Would there even be a statute number since nothing I’ve done is even against the law? Do they issue a statute number for every conceivable action that is legal? Bet he doesn’t even know what the statute is, or if it even exist either.
Outside of my head: I can’t provide any specific statute numbers.
“Not that I would know the statute numbers either.” While bumbling on his words in a way that I took to mean that he just made something up, and is trying to cover it the cop followed up with

At some point during the conversation I either convinced the women I was no threat, or she just got tired of the endless volley of questions that they cop was asking me which I would respond with long winded explanations using my knowledge photographic history and theory. I gave her one of my cards and she parted ways. She seemed very fair & reasonable to what I was saying. The cop, on the other hand wasn’t done with me yet.

“Why would you need to shoot in infrared? Is that so that people don’t notice?”
“It is because I love the aesthetic of full frontal flash. At this time of day people’s pupils will be wide open, so using a normal flash would be very blinding to them. I shoot this way mostly out of courtesy to my subjects.”

Throughout the entire conversation the officer kept trying to tell me that it was illegal to take photos of minors. I kept replying by telling him that everything I’ve read said otherwise.  So far I’ve answered all of his questions calmly, and with a verbose response that did nothing to self incriminate myself as doing anything wrong that night. Many of his questions felt like underhanded attempt to get me to confess to being a closet rapist or pedophile. I stuck to my ground and insisted intentions are based solely as being an artist. I could tell that he was starting to spin up like a freshly kicked beehive.

Annoyed Cop: So why are you just taking pictures of women?”
I‘m not just taking pictures of women. Any one who passes by is fair game.

Annoyed Cop: “The two I saw you take were of women.”
“That is two out of a roll of thirty-six.”

Even more annoyed cop: “Have you taken any photos of minors tonight?”
“I don’t think so. I tend to take my shot, and mentally move onto the next one. I rarely recall what Ive taken until I process review the photos later. I’m not out creeping on women & children, but I won’t hold back if they are involved in something interesting.”

Visibly angry cop: “Then show me the pictures you’ve taken that aren’t of children!”
Cop proceeds to flip over my camera and is greeted to a plain black plastic back.
Me on the outside: “Olympus XA2. It takes film. I can’t review for you.”
Me on the inside: “Film win!”

Shortly after that last comment I was on my way home.

It is easy to read similar stories like this on th web and think to yourself “If I was in that situation I’d totally tell the cop off.” In reality, I found it much easier to just stay polite, humble, and 100% honest with all of my responses through the thick of his BS. Walking home that night was a much better outcome than getting stuck in jail on a non-existent charge, and then getting hit with something stupid like disorderly conduct because the cop felt I threatened his authority and needed to make an example.