Forbidden Photos, Anyone?

Subway shooters to set their sights on underground camera ban

Enter the Forbidden Photos Contest

Mike Epstein is not a terrorist, but if a proposed ban on photography on New York trains and buses goes into effect, he might very well find himself treated like one.

"How can they ban photographing unusual sights aboard trains and in stations?" wonders Epstein, who operates Satan's Laundromat, a website dedicated to "urban decay, strange signage, and general weirdness." "What about when someone boards the 1 train with bags full of fully inflated orange and red balloons that almost exactly match the colors of the seats: Do they really expect me to keep my camera in my pocket?"

You bet. The MTA's move to stop the shooting of unauthorized pictures or video has pissed-off everyone from photobloggers to subway advocates and free-speech activists. To show their opposition to the ban, a group of photographers gathered at the main information kiosk in Grand Central station Sunday, June 6th, at 1 p.m. They fanned out across several train lines, shooting photos throughout the system in a peaceful demonstration.

The demonstration started mere yards from an MTA-sponsored photography show called "The New York Subway: A Centennial Celebration." Most of the 16 subway-themed prints were taken during an earlier photo ban, which was taken off the books in 1994. The work includes work from such giants of the form as Bruce Davidson and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

The MTA isn't slated to vote on the measure until at least mid June, when a 45-day public comment period ends. Also included in regulation 21 NYCRR 1050.9c are stiffer penalties for hopping turnstiles, walking between cars, and using seats as footrests. Ostensibly designed to counter terrorist attacks, the new rules clearly extend to ordinary—and artistic—activity.

For New York City photobloggers like Epstein—amateur photographers who post digital images on their own sites—the proposed ban makes little sense. "It's utterly the wrong way to protect the subway," he says. "If there's anyone who won't be deterred by a $25 fine, it's an actual terrorist."

Others, like Jake Dobkin (, raise concerns about the ban's impact on civil rights. "First they cracked down on immigrants," he says, "then on people who were protesting the war in Iraq, and now they seem to be coming after artists."

What follows is a sampling of some of the imagery that would be lost if the ban went into effect, and e-mail interviews with the people who will be affected most: the artists.

photo: © 2004 Eliot Shepard
Eliot Shepard (, freelance computer programmer and photographer

How long have you been shooting the city?

I've been taking pictures in New York for about two and a half years. I take photos on the trains or in the stations about one in every three trips—so three times a week, maybe.

Have you ever been hassled by the authorities? When someone asks you to stop shooting, do you stop?

I've had people look at me angrily and give me some verbal abuse here and there, but I think they were just individuals who didn't want their picture taken. I've never been asked to stop taking photos.

What do you think is the main motivation for this ban?

To promote a vague public perception of security. I don't have a problem with making people feel safer, per se. Obviously the city doesn't work unless people do. It will be a great tragedy if law enforcement spends actual resources enforcing a silly ban at the expense of actually doing what they can to secure the system.

What effect will the ban have on the photoblogger or subway aficionado communities?

I think there will probably be some short-term galvanization, which will fade away because the ban is essentially unenforceable and will be widely ignored. If and when someone gets popped for violating it, there will probably be some fuss.

photo: Mike Epstein
Mike Epstein (, computer programmer and photographer

Have you ever encountered any problems with police or transit officials?

I've found that most subway police officers think that photography is already illegal, and there's no way to convince them otherwise. So I've taken to carrying a copy of the law with me. The only people this [regulation] will affect is law-abiding citizens.

An enormous amount of great photography has come out of the subway. Look at Bruce Davidson, who powerfully documented the run-down transit system of the '70s and '80s and its weary riders. He probably wouldn't have been able to get a permit at the time (no one knows if the MTA will even issue permits this time around!). Would we be better off without his art?

What are the larger implications of this ban for the city?

We have been conditioned to accept ever-greater incursions on our liberties in the name of security. But no one has advanced a coherent argument for how banning photography in public areas of the subway—not tracks and switchrooms mind you, but trains and platforms—has any effect whatsoever on security.

The subway is the great meeting place of New York City. Almost everyone rides it. Taking pictures of my fellow New Yorkers should be just as legal on a train as it is on the street. And people who like to look at pictures of trains all day, well, maybe they're a little odd, but they're utterly harmless.

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