The Hazards of Reference Photos

WEEKS GO BY and I never get past “I should write about this [event, thought, picture] on the blog.” Maybe I’ll do a catchup post another time, but today I had a real life adventure because of the work I do. And it’s nothing they ever warn you about when you decide to become a freelancing creative, whether a writer or artist.

I occasionally work with reference photos. I mentioned something about that in my last post, about the card alteration I painted. And when I’m working on something where I can use local color and real locations, it only makes sense to go have a look-see and maybe snap a few photos.

I did this a week or two ago, getting some photos for local color. (And yes, Tucson is serious about “color” in the local color!)

Colorful storefront, bright colors, images, Mexican, Tucson, vivid

So today I was off picking up a package from the far end of town and realized I wasn’t too far from a location featured in the zone I’m presently writing content for, for the Wasteland 2 computer game. I spotted some “location shots” that applied to something I knew might be relevant for someone else’s section also.

So I pulled over to the side of the road and started taking shots with my phone. I drove a ways closer to an interesting spot, with some really interesting visuals, and stopped the car again. I took some more shots and a short video.

Then someone tapped on my car window.

“Why are you taking pictures here?” growled the big man in the security uniform.


“I’m working on a video game and some of it takes place around here, 100 years in the future. I wanted to send the producers some reference pictures of what it looks like at the moment.”

“You can’t take pictures here. After 9/11, it’s not allowed. The FBI wouldn’t like it. You’ll have to delete the photos.”

“Okay, you bet.”


*show him*

“Your name? And what is this for specifically?”

“Liz Danforth. The game is Wasteland 2. We did the original game back in 1988; this is the sequel we’re working on. You can look me up on the web and verify all this.”

Clouds, desert, Tucson, roadside
A Tucson skyline, but not what you see in the tourism brochures

Okay, so the conversation wasn’t precisely like that, but that’s the gist of it.

I have many thoughts concerning how the whole thing was handled, but I’m going to keep them to myself. You can correctly assume they swing wildly between laughing my ass off and shrieking in horror. Regardless, I now wonder if I’m on someone’s watchlist, and what kind of welcome I’ll get trying to board a plane in the future.

It might have made a better story if I’d been arrested, I suppose, or mistreated in some other fashion. I wasn’t; it was perfectly civil although seriously surreal. I wasn’t even taking pictures of a locale that I *knew* would get me a hairy eyeball further down the road. (I simply made written notes for myself after driving by.)

Years ago, my ex and I went overseas for the first time. When asked what he did for a living, he said “Writer.” Without looking up, the customs official said “Business or pleasure?”

Being well-informed of the consequences of saying “Business,” he answered “Pleasure.”

The customs official looked up from under the brim of his cap, completely seriously, and said “Writers are never not working.”

And it’s true. I’m presently wearing my writer’s hat, pulled down low over my artist’s eye. Everywhere I go, every person I talk to or overhear, every sign on the street, every strain of music — it all goes into the stewpot of my brain for potentially being altered, remixed, and developed into something I can use.

Frank's, Francisco's, greasy spoon, diner, great grub
Frank’s, a famous local landmark. Really.

I have a t-shirt that reads “Careful, or you’ll end up in my novel.” I expect there might be a perfectly civil but fairly scary security official somewhere in the zone I’m writing right now. (Given what I’m doing, there may be more than one. Or two. Or ten. Maybe even an entire Cohort.)

But this sure isn’t the kind of thing they mention when you when you sign up to be a working artist or writer.

Tell me about such experiences you might’ve had in the comments. It would really be nice to know I’m not the only one who ever had things like this happen.


ETA: I didn’t make this clear upon writing it, because I didn’t want to deliver anything that might qualify as a spoiler. I’ll just say that it was, in fact, a federal facility (not that I realized it) and there are restrictions on photographing them. The guy was doing what he was supposed to.


24 Replies to “The Hazards of Reference Photos”

  1. Dang, Liz, it’s hard to believe that security cops can walk up to you on public property and tell you to stop taking pictues and to delete what you have taken. not wishing the job on you or me but this kind of totalitarianism needs to be challenged and revoked.

    1. Several people have commented on this to me via private channels since I wrote this. I should make it clear that I was taking pictures of a federal facility — and there are restrictions on that since 9/11.

      1. “and there are restrictions on that since 9/11.”

        No, actually there aren’t. This is the big problem with the War On Photography.. much like the rest of post 9/11 Security Theatre, it is based on no actual law. Someone in a uniform just asserts that “things are different” (aka “you have fewer rights”) “since 9/11” and law abiding, well meaning people such as yourself believe it.

        The chance that you were taking a picture of a building you are actually not allowed to take a picture of is vanishingly small, federal building or not. Even if you were somehow taking a picture of a top secret facility, the idea of photos being associated with terrorism is a non-sequitur. Yep, people staking out targets in movies at shady in cars and take pictures of their targets. Real terrorists don’t need to take pictures of their targets, because their targets are most often public places for which, for example, floor plans are available. With cell phone cameras ubiquitous, this association of conspicuous-photography-with-a-camera with incipient terrorism is even more non-sequitur.

        Google “War On Photography” and you will find countless cases of people being told to stop taking legal pictures. Petty tyrants proliferate, and your (polite, reasonable on its face) compliance encourages them.

        Under the settlement, announced Monday by the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Federal Protective Service said that it would inform its officers and employees in writing of the “public’s general right to photograph the exterior of federal courthouses from publicly accessible spaces” and remind them that “there are currently no general security regulations prohibiting exterior photography by individuals from publicly accessible spaces, absent a written local rule, regulation or order.”

        !!! AWESOMER !!!

  2. Do you know if they are done hiring writers for Wasteland 2? I’d exchanged a couple e-mails with Brian Fargo, but that was some while ago. Glad you’re working on it.

    1. I don’t know anything about how things like that are being handled, Chris. Sorry, but I can’t help much on that.

      1. There are threads on the WL2 forums where inXile has solicited ideas from the public on what is to go in the game, and even asked for folks to post their interest in helping out and their credentials. I can only imagine they are scrutinizing the juiciest of these posts and perhaps will even offer some folks a job, or maybe offer to use their stuff if they like it. It can’t hurt to stop by and put in your two cents.

  3. The same thing happened to my cousin. He was taking pictures of downtown where I live for a history assignment. Except they took the camera and deleted the photos themselves and gave his camera back. He got the same response from the officer about 9/11 and federal buildings.

  4. Interesting. I suppose I see the sense in such precautions but I can also see how it might lead to a sense of surrealism when one encounters this attitude. Be glad you didn’t tell the security fellow you were taking reference photos in order to conceptualise what the area might look like as a post-apocalyptic wasteland though, consequences for that might have been far more serious than a polite warning.

    1. Heh… yeah I thought of that after driving away. And as you say, I was glad I didn’t elaborate.

  5. Obviously you need that app created for OWS that streams your photos and video to a secure server as you take them. 😉

  6. I’m laughing, but suspect they’re already following your online activities. Shiver.

    1. I am, and always have been, pretty much an open book since the advent of the online world. It’s the only way I can expect to do business to my satisfaction.

  7. You did what was probably safest for you, Liz, but just for future reference, if you are on public land, you can take pictures of anything you want, even Federal buildings, even post 9/11. Of additional note: a warrant is required for an officer to see the photos on your camera.

    Beyond the ACLU, there are other sites and organizations trying to correct the myths about permitted photography. Sometimes they can be a bit shrill, but it is easy to become agitated when your rights are being abused. This is probably the best known of the watchdog sites.

    (And yes, I get my knickers in a twist about things like this.)

  8. I appreciate the links and comments from everyone, more than I can tell you. This is a topic that has only lightly ever been on my radar — I have had more issues with people being told they could not photograph police officers handling arrests, for example.

    Federal buildings? Fell under the “meh, w/e” radar, so when I was told by An Authority Figure to knock it off, I did.

    I’ll note that, while I was in a public space, I was also alone. That opens up a whole sidebar discussion of how the female population must always deal with questions of personal security throughout their lives in a way that few men can even imagine, but this isn’t the thread for that.

    MKHall, Awesome and others who have commented privately or in other venues: thank you for making me better informed, and also those others who might read this.

  9. I get what’s being said about legal rights, and I applaud resistance on point of law, but I’m not willing to try to face down a belligerent security guard and get my camera confiscated, or myself detained or arrested. Because the guards who don’t know about the law don’t give a damn about taking someone’s camera or arresting them *even if they’re in the wrong.* Sure, I could buy another camera (or phone) and get myself released, but in the mneantime is it worth the hassle? I *could* end up on a watch list. Certainly this is what law enforcement counts on, but it nonetheless could lead to repercussions. What’s to say a security guard believes that piece of paper?

    Now, don’t get me wrong: if it’s legal, we should be able to do it. But sometimes it’s not worth the hassle. And, as Liz mentioned, women alone are at a disadvantage.

    1. In fairness, he was not belligerent. And in light of people’s comments here, I could have easily refused his polite requests if I had been knowledgeable. I found the whole thing ridiculous, even at the time (and even as I was feeling pretty spooked), because heck, if I’d snapped a shot as I drove past, I doubt I’d’ve had MiBs at my door when I got home. But I had stopped the car, and was there a little while — enough time for someone to notice and send the guy out in his truck, or for him to come upon me on his regular patrols.

      Would the incident have been worth getting tossed, or my phone confiscated? Would’ve been great press for Wasteland. (Too bad I’m not getting royalties; it’d be worth going back!)

  10. I’m loving the conviction with which you defend the security guard. I think that it says something about you that this officer confronted you with what you later found out was an unjustified demand, and you still maintain repeatedly that he wasn’t uncivil about it.

    I don’t know if it comes from wanting to maintain the integrity of the story, or wanting to make sure that he’s not unfairly vilified, or simply remembering that his view of the situation may have been entirely different. Whatever the case, you’re sticking to your guns with integrity, and that’s commendable.

    1. It is mostly the second: wanting to make sure he was not unfairly vilified. I was intimidated by the situation, not so much by the man.

      One of my hobbyhorses is the lack of nuanced discourse about the troubling conditions in today’s society, with so much being cast in simple black and white terms. Yes, I see heroes and I see villains on the societal stage, but the vast majority of things are much grayer. It will not help the course of conversation to speak untruthfully of my experience.

      I can play with facts for greater drama in game design. And believe you me, Wasteland will be chucky-jam full of gray situations, from me and from others.

  11. Liz, I meant to mention this back when you wrote this but I’ve been busy — I got harassed by a couple of city public works employees because I was taking a picture of — of all things — a watertower in a small town. These fellows had, in their own mind, promoted themselves to defenders of the public infrastructure from terror, and they *actually reported me to Homeland Security* after I reported the whole thing to the local paper and they ran a story on it, subjecting them to much outrage & derision. The sum total result of this, that I know of, was a Homeland Security person stopping by my house when I wasn’t home and leaving his card with my wife. Still, it’s a little scary to think I might be on some list somewhere. Here’s the story as reported with reasonable accuracy (they misreported what I said slightly, but that happens):

  12. This is very interesting. I’m getting into writing, myself (gamebooks, for me) and I’ve often wondered if this sort of encounter would be in my future somewhere, if I make it fly. It’s neat to hear your experience of being on that side of it.

    Also, those pictures are amazing. I’ve always loved the aesthetic of desolation (don’t ask me why). Seeing your photos makes me really look forward to Wasteland.

    1. I spent yesterday in badly-needed R&R mode, out in the less-populated areas of Arizona. If InXile uses some of the pics I snapped, people will be surprised how lush this desert can be at the end of summer after a month of monsoon-season rains.

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