Forbidden Photos, Anyone?

Subway shooters to set their sights on underground camera ban

Would you pay the proposed $25 fine?

I'm not worried about the fine. I'm worried about being harassed and made to identify myself, and being racially profiled by the police again. (Last time that happened, they decided I wasn't a threat because I have a Jewish last name. A photographer whose first name is Mohammed should have the same rights as one named Michael.)

photo: ©1998-2004 Rion Nakaya
Rion Nakaya ( is an information designer and photographer.

How will the photo ban affect you?

Honestly, I don't think the photo ban will affect me much. I've been taking pictures almost daily for more than 3 years here in the city, so I've learned to be relatively inconspicuous.

If there's a ban in effect, I doubt I'll be taking the camera out in front of a cop or transit workers, but on the average day where there is a great moment to be captured—crowds waiting for a train on a hot day, someone dressed outrageously, or details in an old station that I've never been to before—I can't imagine not trying to record it. A lot of things are banned on the subway, but rarely enforced.

Do subway riders look at you suspiciously when you're shooting?

Often, I'm not taking photos of people, as much as I am taking photos of station mosaics, signs or architectural details, so people tend to pass by me. If I am in a train car and taking photos in close quarters, they may glance toward me to check out what I'm doing, but mostly if people see me taking photos, they ignore it. More than likely, they just think I'm a tourist.

Have you ever been hassled by the NYPD in or around the subway?

Never. But again, it's habit for me to try and avoid drawing attention to myself when I'm taking photos. The few times I've had my camera out when cops were around—mostly around Times Square where I work and live—they just looked at me and then looked past me. I'm guessing they had more important things to pay attention to than a girl with a camera in Times Square.

What will be lost if this ban goes into effect?

People from all walks of life crowd in next to each [other] on the subway. It moves fast and the city depends on it every day to stay up and running, and that aspect makes it a symbol of what New York City culture is. Therefore, it's great photoblog fodder.

Subway musicians, morning commuters, moms with strollers who get helped up the stairs from strangers, tourists, stinky bums who lay sideways in the train seats, school kids on field trips, Yankee fans on the way to a game, regular people going home from a long day at work—all just a part of the subway culture. I don't know that those things will be "missed" photographically when you are technically banned from taking photos of them. I think, if anything, it may make those images a bit more rare or valuable for photobloggers—and other photographers—to capture and publish in the long run.

I think of Walker Evans' subway portraits in the late '30s–early '40s: the hair, makeup, or outfit of his subjects tells about our values and interests at that time—how the ads, newspapers, and materials in the train cars tell how we communicated and created. It's a phenomenal record of New York in that era.

I imagine that in a few decades, the images that NYC photobloggers are taking now will have some resonance as wonderful documentation when we're looking back. It would be a shame to not have our subways be a part of that record.

photo: Jake Dobkin
Jake Dobkin ( is the publisher of Gothamist and photographer.

How often do you shoot in and around the subway?

I shoot in the subway about twice a month. However, if I'm working on a subway-themed series like the one I did at the Smith and 9th streets station, I might shoot in the subway three nights in a row.

Have you ever encountered a problem?

Never. I try to shoot at low traffic stations and avoid getting in anyone's way. I use a small tripod to avoid attracting attention. The police have asked me what I'm doing a few times. I always tell them that I'm an amateur photographer working on a subway-themed project, and they've been satisfied with that.

Do you think the proposed ban is part of a larger agenda in the city?

I think that since 9-11 there has been a slow erosion of civil liberties in the city. The threat of terrorism has been used to justify cracking down on some of our fundamental rights: the right to free speech, the right to assemble, and the right to equal protection and due process under the law. It's a scary time, but people seem to be waking up to the threat and mobilizing to protect constitutional rights. Things like the subway photography ban certainly throw these issues out into the open.

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