In-flight picture-taker detained for questioning

travel q&a photo flap

October 12, 2008|By Los Angeles Times

Last fall, three friends and I flew from Lisbon, Portugal, to Los Angeles by way of Philadelphia. On the flight from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, I was showing them my new camera and took a few pictures of our surroundings. A flight attendant came to me and told me to show her the pictures, which I did. On our arrival, armed officers escorted us off the plane, separated us and made us wait for the authorities. They asked ridiculous questions ("What's your eye color?") and, in the end, they let us go with no apologies. Why would this happen? Did we do anything wrong?

In taking photos, you and your friends didn't violate any Federal Aviation Administration or Transportation Security Administration rules, their spokesmen told me.

If the use of electronic devices was permitted at that point in the flight, you were in the clear.

In fact, if anyone looks at the photos they'll see that the only thing the traveler apparently did wrong was to use a camera without studying the manual. Ansel Adams he's not.

In a later conversation, the traveler, Jose Silva of Lisbon, Portugal, said his group complied with flight attendants and wasn't causing a ruckus.

Because the airline would not go back and research the details, we don't have its side of the story.

But assuming that Silva is correct, what could prompt such a reaction?

He said the authorities later told him that these are "sensitive times."

Indeed. But such pictures are hardly a threat to national security and are no different from images you can find all over the Internet.

Just to see the spectrum, Google "767 interior" and click "Images," and you'll find dozens of photos.

Silva said the authorities also told him to be careful. One has to wonder how careful he would have needed to be if he didn't, in his words, look Moroccan or Egyptian.

Richard Derk, photo editor for the Los Angeles Times, has shot many photos on airplanes. I asked him whether he had experienced any problems on commercial flights.

"No, never," he said. "I shoot quickly and try not to get in anyone's way, but no one has ever stopped me."

Derk, we should note, does not look Middle Eastern.

Mickey H. Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, also expressed surprise.

"It's hard to believe that somebody didn't call a timeout in the process and say, 'What exactly did this man do?'" Osterreicher said.

"At a certain point, somebody has to use some common sense."

Picture that.

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