War on Cameras

Cops Won't Let Journalist Take Pics of Ugly Government Buildings, Because 9/11!

Maybe they're self-conscious? Or maybe, "You are suspicious and we are in a post-9/11 word."


Post office building
Coolcaesar / Wikimedia Commons

Washington, D.C. is home to many government buildings that are as ugly on the outside as they are the inside. BuzzFeed's Benny Johnson biked around town earlier this week snapping photos of a few of the most hideous examples, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation headquarters, the U.S. Post Office Building, and the Department of Health and Human Services. You can see the results here.

Today, in a follow-up article, Johnson explained that taking the photos was no easy task—cops actually attempted to thwart him at every turn. Even though representatives for the various departments confirmed to Johnson by phone that it was perfectly fine to take pictures of the buildings, law enforcement agents contradicted that directive over and over again. From BuzzFeed [I took out the pictures and condensed the text—you can see the full thing here if you're curious]:

I asked, from across the street, why I could not come any closer to the building.
But when I tried to take photos there… The four officers surrounded me right here, directly in front of the building entrance.

After taking the above photo of the public, ahem, Sponge Bob mailbox, an armed security guard approached. He told me the pictures I was taking were "suspicious" and said I was not allowed to take them. "This is a public sidewalk, why not?" I asked. He then told me I was no longer allowed on the property and to go across the street immediately.

He said, "You would not want people taking photos of your office, would you?" Ultimately, he asked me to leave.

On Thursday, a spokesperson for Department of Energy Security told BuzzFeed: "There is no problem or restrictions in taking photos of the building," and simply cautioned against photographing employees.

After I took this photo of a public walkway in front of the building, four armed guards surrounded me and my bike. I was ordered off my bicycle and told to hand over my camera. "Where is your identification? Why are you taking photos of our building?" an officer asked me. I explained my role as a reporter and asked what rules I had broken. "You are suspicious, and we are in a post-9/11 world," he said.

The four armed guards prevented me from moving or getting on my bike. After calling my boss, and discussing with the guards, I was given my camera back. "Be smarter next time," he said, "and don't take any more photos here."

Don't the cops have anything better to do than hang around outside government buildings, casually invoking national security when a reporter tries to snap some clearly innocent photos? Maybe they're self-conscious or something.

For more on this subject, check out Reason TV's "The Government's War on Cameras."

NEXT: Why Conservative Reformers, and the Rest of the Right, Should Adopt a Foreign Policy of Caution

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. And cops wonder why there’s so much hate and distrust for them.

  2. This happens in Minneapolis ALL THE FUCKING TIME.

  3. I explained my role as a reporter and asked what rules I had broken. “You are suspicious, and we are in a post-9/11 world,” he said.

    Any further evidence needed that we do actually live in a Police State?

  4. Oddly, I happen to like brutalist architecture.

    The occupants of those buildings, not so much.

    1. Oddly, I happen to like brutalist architecture.

      I like some of it. Boston City Hall is spectacular, in its own way.

      1. My favorite is the AT&T Long Lines building in Manhattan. It’s exactly what you’d expect a skyscraper for machines to look like.

        1. Prison or dorms? You be the judge.

  5. I saw this via Facebook, and one of the “top comments” was a girl saying “oh please, if FedGov had spent ridiculous amounts of money making these buildings look nice, you all would be harping about them wasting tax dollars on expensive government architecture.” I half agree, but those buildings are still ugly AF.

    1. So … building a giant concrete monstrosity is cheaper than building a normal, non-hideous building? Paying for giant geometry statues is cheaper than paying for, say, a statue of your organization’s first director/secretary/whatevs?

      1. I just can’t speak with enough credibility on construction costs to be able to say that a “normal non-hideous” building would’ve actually turned out cheaper. Is concrete considered *cheap* in terms of construction materials?

        1. Is concrete considered *cheap* in terms of construction materials?

          Concrete is damn expensive.

          1. Ah, thanks for the clarification.

            1. It should be clarified, though, that there aren’t many materials out of which you can build a building of that size. You can go brick, but you lose A LOT of space on your lower floors. Otherwise, you’re pretty much looking at concrete and steel as your only option.

        2. Concrete is hella expensive. But on the plus side they should be safer from hurricanes/earthquakes/bombs.

          You know, if they didn’t use the cheapest bidder to build the damn thing.

        3. We spent an extra $14 M to replace a damaged bridge with a “signature” bridge instead of some tired old concrete bridge.


        4. Hideousness is a design feature. As a percentage of the total cost of a building like that, the cost of the design is fairly minor, but government agencies almost always cut costs on the design end (in the sense of fee), and ignore the enormously expensive materials the architect is dumping into the shitty, half-baked design he’s being paid to produce.

          1. Well, when we get paid shit we tend to produce shit. Funny how that works.

            (I know everyone here, save Tony and craiginmass, understands this.)

    2. What about leasing?

  6. I love all the comments on the Buzzfeed article saying people just don’t “understand” the architecture and were a bunch of rubes for hating it. Because you need to be an expert to decide if a building is ugly or not.

    And then there’s the people saying they don’t have the funding to fix and clean them up… because all of these agencies are obviously massively underfunded.

    1. Anyone who uses the ‘you just don’t understand’ argument is a pretentious dumbass.

      I like brutalist architecutre, but I can easily see why people who don’t share that affinity find it ugly. I don’t think there’s some great artistic expression in the concrete blocks. If you want artistic architecture, you’re talking baroque/neogothic, or my personal favorite, Art Deco. But anyone who claims that they are unequivically artistic and those who don’t ‘get’ it are rubes and philostines needs to be yelled at and told to get a job (or fetch the damn coffee already if they happen to be holding down a job)

    2. Some dipshit actually keeps throwing around the word “austerity” like that has ever happened in the history of the countries budget.

  7. “Where is your identification? Why are you taking photos of our building?” an officer asked me. I explained my role as a reporter and asked what rules I had broken. “You are suspicious, and we are in a post-9/11 world,” he said.

    The four armed guards prevented me from moving or getting on my bike. After calling my boss, and discussing with the guards, I was given my camera back. “Be smarter next time,” he said, “and don’t take any more photos here.”

    So “because I want to” wouldn’t fly as a reason for these pigs? I’d need to be a reporter, and prove that I’m a reporter, to stand on public property and take a picture of a public building?

    …Could be a good way to get a lawsuit started.

  8. After calling my boss, and discussing with the guards, I was given my camera back. “Be smarter next time,” he said, “and don’t take any more photos here.”

    Be less of an authoritative prick next time, and don’t forget that it’s not illegal to photograph public buildings.

    1. Cops decide on the spot what is legal or illegal, and their bosses will always back them up. And if you fail to obey they might kill you for fun. That’s the world we live in.

      1. They don’t make the laws, they just ignore them.

  9. I have to admit to being very lucky in this regard. I’ve filmed a bunch of government buildings in DC and in NYC (and sometimes on 16mm with a battery belt… which looks like a bandolier of explosives), and was never harassed. Walked up to the Congressional building, the SC, the Fed, I think the FBI building as well, and started filming.

    I even had a very easy experience at a VA hospital in NY. I was helping people film some b-roll and, apparently, they decided that this VA hospital had the best exterior. But they had to change the sign, and it had to be a night shot. So they went onto federal property, after dark, and put a gel over a sign that was on the front lawn. As expected, a couple guards eventually came out and told us we can’t do that. No real trouble, we packed up and drove on.

    Thankfully I wasn’t reading H&R much back then. I probably would’ve freaked out more.

    1. I hope the “You can’t do that” was with regards to messing with the sign.

    2. Pre or post 9/11?

      1. 2008-2009.

  10. Oh this is just precious.

    “Reverting the agency’s funding level to FY 2008 levels would hinder IRS efforts to provide robust service to taxpayers, improve enforcement operations, and implement new statutory responsibilities,” the statement read. “The Administration also objects to provisions that unnecessarily encumber IRS operations with reporting requirements and unduly restrict the IRS’s ability to finalize regulations.”

    (emphasis mine)


    But I thought regulations make everything more better??

    1. But I thought regulations make everything more better?

      They mean regulations on everyone else.

      Personally I want to see the IRS burned down and not replaced.

    2. …”would hinder IRS efforts to provide robust service to taxpayers,”…

      As a taxpayer, I’ve had ‘robust services’ from the IRS, and I’d rather not have it again.

    3. Oh, God, this is just priceless.

      It’s like how regulating abortion providers is an undue burden on women’s rights, but regulating the economy is magically free of externalities because intentions.

  11. My job makes me watch these stupid security training videos, and one thing they drill in is that taking pictures is suspicious. They’ve got some guy with an obviously fake accent training you the young terrorist to take pictures of buildings for later study so you can find out weaknesses, where there is or isn’t traffic, when shifts changes, where you might gain entry by having a kind person hold the door for you, etc. The fake terrorist goes on on how you should act like a tourist or reporter when you take pictures, so as to not be noticed.

    So of course anyone who looks like a tourist or reporter taking pictures must be treated like a terrorist. In fact, everyone is a terrorist unless they’ve gone through a government background check. Prove you’re not a terrorist! Prove it!

    1. Imagine being a youngster and not knowing that the US was once NOT a pants-shitting baby of a country.

  12. He said, “You would not want people taking photos of your office, would you?”

    What? He thinks that I care if somebody is taking pictures of my office building? What a weird universe this police officer lives in.

    1. Indeed – I would encourage it, especially if they get our name and logo in the picture!

  13. OT:But seriously considering posting this on my facebook and watching all my “IZRAEL IS TEH DEVUL” *friends* go apeshit. They’ll probably see that link to foxnews and immediately unfriend me, anyway.

    1. And I suppose you’ve already caught the news that Obo is talking out both ends of his digestive tract trying to look ‘decisive’ while offending no one:

      “The Obama administration accused Israel on Thursday of failing to do all it can to prevent civilian casualties in Gaza during cross-border attacks.
      “I don’t think we’ve made any secret about our strong concern about the actions of Hamas, the indiscriminate rocket attacks, the targeting of civilians,” Psaki said. “And that concern remains.”

  14. God Damn it, the first fucking comment:

    Since the early 80s, attractive kept-up buildings were an extravagance politicians (mostly republican) decided we could not afford.

    This is another example of letting government fall into disrepair only so idiots with no perspective can complain that “herp derp, gubmint cant do anything right”. I hope you’re proud of yourself.

    1. I jumped in, I had to. “So much derp, what can men do against such reckless derposity?”–King Theoden

      1. Andrew Large (ha!) seems to be the derpiest.

        1. By a long shot.

    2. “Since the early 80s, attractive kept-up buildings were an extravagance politicians (mostly republican) decided we could not afford.”

      Bullshit. Government buildings are not kept up because government maintenance workers are essentially welfare recipients with nametags who can’t be fired.

      Smart architects design governments buildings knowing they will receive NO MEANINGFUL MAINTENANCE WHATSOEVER. That’s a big part of what makes them so expensive, yet also needing to be torn down and replaced every 50 years.

      Also, at least in CA, the government is ALL ABOUT building “attractive” buildings that celebrate the wealth and power of the State. They don’t do “ugly and cheap” anymore because they got tired of getting laughed at.

  15. The question of whether cops have nothing better to do should be generalized to don’t bureaucrats have anything better to do, and the answer is, No. There’s probably a name for the generic problem that work is variable in much smaller steps than workers; you have 5 minutes extra work and it’s no big deal. An hour extra, you pay overtime. 20 hours extra, you hire someone full time, and suddenly he has to look busy those unused 20 hours a week.

    So you hire armed guards for the worst normal conditions, and they don’t want to look like they are unnecessary, so they look busy, and whether that is harassing photogs, harassing smokers who are too close to the door, harassing litterbugs pasing by, doesn’t matter. The only way cops can show they are necessary is by harassing somebody.

  16. I love that buzzfeed censors the comments. That is fucking priceless.

  17. I used to live by L’Enfant Plaza. It’s a decent neighborhood in a good location, but yes, the actual plaza is a desolate waste. The ellipse used to highlight the plaza goes a bit overboard and includes some pretty nice parts that people actually go to, like the park and the garden. But the plaza is spooky even.

    1. “You knew that and we don’t care…so where’s the surprise?”

  18. When visiting Pakistan (courtesy of my favorite Uncle) in the early-60’s, I and my comrades thought it was the height of idiocy to have (as the Pakistani’s did) a policy/law forbidding the taking of pictures of such things as bridges, rivers, even mosques, as strategic items of interest.
    Now we are that idiocy.

  19. “Be smarter next time,” he said, “and don’t take any more photos here.”

    A policeman says this, after just having been told that the reporter may take photos and that it’s legal. A proper response, sure to make them angry, is to say “Be smarter next time and don’t bother me when I’m engaged in legal activity.” Then when the cops give him hell, sue them for violating his civil rights.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.