MBTA, What’s So Scary About Photography?

I take a camera with me almost everyday. These are a few responses I’ve gotten lately from various individuals:

“No picture! No picture! No picture!”Fabric store shopkeeper in Chinatown

“No pictures on the train! Absolutely NO pictures on the train!”Green Line Boston College MBTA driver

“SIR! There is no photographing in MBTA stations without a permit, sir!”Copley Station MBTA attendant, who sprinted up to me and yelled this 1′ from my face

Ok, Chinatown fabric purveyor, it’s your store and if you don’t want me to take photos of your luxurious Asian-themed fabrics, that’s completely fine. I don’t particularly understand your fear of it, but I respect your wishes because you own the place and its contents. (And because you probably know David Lo-Pan.)

But the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority? I have been harassed by your employees on numerous occasions since my arrival in Boston. While I understand that these people are “just doing their jobs,” it is also abundantly clear to me that they don’t know what they’re talking about and you need to fix it.

Photography is not against the law. Photography in public spaces is protected by the U.S. Constitution (Freedom of Expression, the 1st Amendment) and the Massachusetts Constitution (Freedom of the Press, the 16th Amendment, which doesn’t provide criteria for “the press”). These rights are obviously protected by law as civil rights, and any attempt to stop me from exercising them is a violation of my civil rights. The MBTA does not own the property it operates on, it merely manages it. It’s public space, and I am free to excercise my civil rights on said public space how I see fit.

(Before someone jumps on some Patriot Act, Post 9/11, threat of terrorism thing – If one were looking for a terrorism starter-kit, the MBTA posts 3D BLUEPRINTS OF EACH STATION [PDF] on their website. I’d wager that’s a slightly bigger threat to transit security than me snapping photos of my wife with a plastic toy camera.)

In my four weeks of consistent train travel, I’ve never seen a signage prohibiting photography in MBTA stations or trains. Searching for “photography” or “photography policy” on MBTA’s website yields minimal results – mainly pages related to procuring commercial permits for filming/sampling. There is no official policy for non-commercial photography in any MBTA literature on the web, in print, or in the stations and trains. The MBTA workforce is enforcing a non-existent policy.However, thanks to the consistent pressure of local photographer Jason Desjardins and the local ACLU, the MBTA’s hand has been forced to draft a policy in writing. It would make too much sense to post that policy on the MBTA site, so you have to visit the MBTA Transit Police site to download the MBTA Photography Policy [PDF]. I now carry it me on a daily basis. It’s a gem, especially this part:

No permit is required for non-commercial/personal use pictures taken in public areas. However, any person taking pictures on, in, or of MBTA property, vehicles, or employees must provide proper identification* upon request of an MBTA Transit Police Officer or other MBTA Official. The MBTA Transit Police Officer or other MBTA Official may allow the person to take pictures at the specific location under the followingconditions:• the person provides proper identification; the circumstances indicate that the subject(s) of the picture(s) does/do not pose a security or safety threat or in any way cause disruption of service or operations of the MBTA; and• the picture(s) is/are for personal or educational use only (e.g., tourist, railroad buff, student, artist, etc.).Non-commercial photographers are prohibited from using tripods, monopods, wiring or any like equipment that may have an impact on the safety of customers or employees and are prohibited from interfering with the free flow of passengers or disrupting service in any manner.*Photo identification that includes, at a minimum, name, address, and date of birth.

While the bit about “picture(s) do not pose a security or safety threat” is completely subjective and left to the whims of MBTA employees, as long as I have a photo ID and I’m not using lights and tripods, I’m not to be bothered.

MBTA, please do all the Boston-area and tourist photographers a favor by uploading your new policy to your website and educating your employees about it. And photographers, know your rights and don’t back down when someone is trampling on your civil rights.