Photography in Public Spaces - MBTA

Now, photographing in public spaces generally gives me the heebies.  Because my work is confined mostly to the stage, that’s where I feel safe and comfortable.  Street photography has never been my thing.  Which is part of the reason why I’m taking a class at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education (Night and Low Light Photography, by the way, taught by the wonderful Skip Shiel).  Because it gives me an excuse to take out my camera more often, it’s a chance to learn more, and a chance to get over this whole phobia I have of photographing away from the stage.  

During tonight’s class, we decided to go down into the Harvard MBTA Station for some real life experience.  We had discussed before leaving the logistics of shooting in public and the fact that it is, indeed, perfectly legal.  (There are, by the way, great resources on the rights of photographers in public spaces - like this.)

Now there’s a slightly sticky point here, and that’s because MBTA is this nebulous organization (mostly made up of complete and total fail).  It’s technically a private company that is assisted by government funds and exists for public consumption.  To say it is a public space is not necessarily true - but nor is it truly a private space.  Nor, I feel, do customers feel the need for any extreme version of “expectation of privacy.”

Another sticky point is the fact that there’s clearly a miscommunication somewhere down the line between actual policies and what employees are trained to do.  

While I was wandering around, nervously shooting from the hip, I noticed one of my fellow students being stopped by an MBTA employee.  I retreated to higher ground, so that I could get a signal on my phone and pull up the MBTA website.  Just as Skip was coming down the stairs.  I told him what I saw, my classmate being talked to by an employee, and he immediately went to her.  Once the page loaded, I joined him, where he was having a polite but clearly heated discussion with said employee.  

As we were talking, another MBTA employee caught another one of our group taking photos, and pulled him towards us.  Eventually, I got around to showing each employee (by now, there were three of them gathering us together) what their own website said.  

They seemed shocked by this.  The woman we initially encountered had already called dispatch, and was in the middle of telling us that three years ago, she underwent training that told her that all photographic activity on MBTA property was strictly prohibited.  

My counter-argument, of course, was to bring up the “See something, Say something" campaign.  (Besides the logical fallacy that we are “now, more than ever” continuously on an escalating terror alert.)  

If someone harasses me on the MBTA, am I not even allowed to take a photo with my cell phone?  What if the only camera I have to catch the creep is my DSLR?  Where is the line?  I wanted to bring up the partnership that was forged just over a year ago with the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, where ads encouraged the taking of photos when one feels harassed and intimidated on the T.  I wanted to talk about all the tourists who are always, always, taking photos in the stations, on the trains, etc.  Not to mention the fact that the MBTA is continuously under-staffed and there are often no employees in stations after a certain point in the day (like in Davis Square, where there is generally never an employee after 8 pm, and any altercation means waiting - up to, and often more than, 30 minutes).  So taking photos might be the only way to “See Something Say Something”.

But I sadly never got the chance.  Employees largely dismissed us - the woman went back to work, one man simply wandered away - except for one, who offered to stick around until dispatch arrived (which took longer than 30 minutes, so we left) so that he could learn what the actual policy was.  

Truth be told, I doubt there will ever be a resolution to this.  It’s well-documented through other’s personal accounts that MBTA tells the public one thing and tells employees another, completely wrong, thing.  

Anyway, enough rambling - here’s the few shots I managed to get off before our operation got shut down:

What are your thoughts on photography in public spaces?  Namely, spaces like MBTA or other public transit authorities?