Are we giving up our right to take scenic photographs?

Dam opener.jpgIt might have been illegal to take this scenic Fall photo in NY state simply because I was standing on a dam and this is a protected reservoir. (Photo taken with the Canon EOS 50D and EF 28-70mm f/2.8 L lens.)

The tragedy of 911 brings back haunting images of an unforgivable attack on innocent people, especially for those who lost loved ones and neighbors. In its aftermath, I agreed with everyone else that security had to be tightened to prevent such an act from reoccurring. However, I didn’t give my consent to allow the government to take away my rights without an argument, or for police to hassle me for simply taking scenic pictures in the woods and along the lakes that I once hiked and fished while growing up. Those are among the same parks and waterways that inspired painters of the Hudson River School in the mid-1800s, as well as generations of nature photographers and naturalists.

While I slept, or more precisely while I continued to commute to NY City for six more years after 911, it appears that concern for the safety of the hundreds of square miles of reservoirs, dams, streams, aqueducts, and watershed properties that deliver water to NY City residents mutated into mild paranoia. One of the current attack “scenarios” revolves around terrorists dumping a huge truck of poison, or worse–a biological weapon–into one of the reservoirs in an attempt to kill or sicken thousands downstream. Another has a truck loaded with explosives could seriously damage a dam and threaten to wipe out towns and schools downstream of the dam. I’m sure there are now plans to prevent or deal with suicide airplane crashes into the dams or bridges that cross over these waterways or lead into NY City. I’m all for that kind of planning and anticipation–in fact, that’s what I thought my taxes were being used for prior to 911 (but I was obviously mistaken since gov’t officials denied the plane-into-WTC attack had even been imagined by the experts who should have figured that one out in their sleep).

But preparing for or trying to anticipate ways that terrorists could infect the water leading into NY or in the wetlands surrounding any major city is one thing, while keeping individual law biding citizens out or restricting their rights to hike or take scenic photos on public property is another. How is taking photos of a dam or reservoir a threat anyway? After all, it would take a huge amount of explosives to damage a dam, several trucks of chemicals to create a health concern, or a hijacked commercial airliner to seriously impair a bridge or dam. (At least, that’s what my limited intelligence and military background lead me to believe. I could be wrong!) And if hikers and photographers were encouraged to visit these areas, instead of restricted, they would be more likely to spot something out of the ordinary.

So on a beautiful sunny Fall day it really made no sense to me when I was stopped and questioned about my photographic activities first by a local police officer, and second by a NY City DEP officer called in as back up. All this for taking photos of eagles and vultures flying over a lake and dam–simply because they happen to be part of the NY City water supply area nearly 100 miles away from the city.


Turkey Vultures love to ride the wind currents in this valley, but oops, this photo shows part of a water spillway, and I was warned that detail might be dangerous if it fell into the wrong hands.

Ok, I admit I actually walked onto the dam after passing a stop sign that was set up to prevent cars (or huge chemical tanker trucks) from driving out on the dam. There was no pedestrian fence or obstruction, and I had walked out on that same dam nearly every Fall for the last thirty years to take pictures of the water, soaring birds, and occasionally for romantic reasons. I certainly posed no threat to the city of NY–but the fact that I actually walked out onto this dam set off a Red Alert alarms to a passing policeman on mid-day patrol.

Now, the funny thing is that just 10 minutes earlier I met a NY State Trooper on duty in a near by park and shared notes about some of the more beautiful scenes and overlooks in the area. We also talked about cameras and lenses as well, seeing he was in the market for his wife’s Xmas present. Plus, I had just returned several days prior from a three hour, all-access private photo tour of the Hoover Dam. So when I was stopped and the questions started flying about my dam fall photos, those memories probably added to the “Are you *&^*&%^ kidding me?” attitude look on my face. (After all, if the Hoover Dam isn’t threatened by someone carrying a camera, then how could a dam that’s 1/100 its size be in danger?) When I told the officer I had stopped to take pictures of Golden Eagles and Turkey Vultures riding the air currents around the dam and reservoir, plus the gorgeous fall foliage, he and the other officer who eventually showed up from the DEP were unconvinced. They asked me if I realized the danger my photos might pose if they fell into the wrong hands. (I didn’t bother pointing out that every important detail of that dam’s structure and placement were probably visible using Google Earth!!)


Just prior to my Dam bad experience, I discussed the beauty of the fall foliage and camera gear with a NY State Trooper at a nearby park. His only concern was whether I was having car trouble or not.

You know, despite my assurances, arguments to the contrary, and business card showing I was indeed a photographer, they were actually considering taking me in for my serious breach of security. That’s when I pulled my trump card and called my brother Tom, a retired Sheriff who once patrolled the very same public highway I parked along next to the reservoir. With some casual name-dropping (Excuse me Officer X, my brother wants to know if Sergeant Z is still working the night shift at DEP headquaters? No? He’s actually your Captain now? Wow! Tell him Tom Mc says hello!), the two police officers on the scene started to mellow out. That’s when I mentioned that the Canon EOS 50D I was shooting with had a great 3-inch monitor for viewing every picture I took at the dam. With that, the DEP officer went through every shot I had of the birds flying around, and then ordered me to erase all photos showing any parts of the dam or spillways before I could leave.

I did as told, and erased all the images from the camera. I didn’t erase the shots of the eagles, I didn’t reformat the card, and I didn’t take any more photos either (hmmm, I’ve heard there is software that could probably restore those erased photos…), which may explain the presence of some granite structures in the photos I’m including in this story.

At the end of this all I was given a ticket from the local officer for “abandonment of a vehicle” and told to go on my not-so-merry way. I’m thinking of fighting it in court and subjecting (I mean treating) the officer and traffic judge to a slideshow of the photos I took directly across the street from where I “abandoned” my car. But I can’t be sure if doing so might actually increase the fine, or if I might run into the same officer again next year when I go searching for great fall shots and eagles riding the wind currents–not from the Dam, but from the safety of my car’s open sunroof, of course.

Final note: I haven’t been able to determine whether what the officers told me is actually true: that it’s now illegal to take photos of any reservoir or dam in NY, and that you can’t even hike or walk around a reservoir without a DEP permit. I’ve heard of other photographers being questioned for taking photos near bridges, and planes being diverted away from reservoirs. A former co-worker of mine was actually detained in DC several years ago for taking close ups of government buildings on a search for interesting textures. But since my dam unforgettable day, I’ve noticed a ton of “no trespassing” signs (courtesy of the NYC DEP) posted on dozens of hiking trails as far as a half mile from any water or dam. That concerns me even more, because it looks like the NY state or the city is buying up land around the watershed (80 to 100 miles north) and locking it down to all but a few with permits to enter.

So my next plan is to get a DEP permit just to avoid problems in the future (if I can’t get one, that will be fodder for another story). I also plan to bring a super strong pair of binoculars with me the next time I go out to capture photos of wildlife in these areas. After all, you never know when I might spot the elusive and destructive Al Queda Duck, or the Hamas Heron sneaking around the Dams. If I spot one, I wonder if I will be allowed to shoot it before alerting the local deputy?

For more commentary on this topic, listen to the November 15, 2008 McNamara Report segment on Inside Digital Photo (slide to the 21min 15sec mark for that segment);

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About Author

Michael J. McNamara
Michael J. McNamara

Michael J. McNamara is the Editor-in-Chief of the McNamara Report, Director of In-Depth Focus Labs, and former Exec. Technology Editor at Popular Photography Magazine. His photo and video portfolios can be viewed at

  • Ken

    Used to be that it was illegal to photograph the subways in NYC for similar security reasons. That ban was lifted, but it is still occasionally enforced:

    It would be interesting to know the actual DEP code that says you can’t photograph the dams. I know the Kensico Dam has banned vehicular traffic since 9/11, as well as hiking near the reservior, but you can still walk across. Nothing that I know of banning photography. Also, I live near the Jerome Reservoir in the Bronx (part of the drinking water system) and there are not signs explicitly banning photography. Not sure if I’d press the issue, though, knowing the NYPD.

  • Mark Romani

    I was stopped at a pull off by Barkhampstead resevoir by some MDC patrol car and it was one of the most ridiculas experiences I’ve ever had taking pictures. She pulls in while I was changing lenses and I rolled down my window and said whats up. She said what are you doing parked here. I said I was taking pictures. She then says in a gruff tone can I see your pictures and I said sure. She took the camera and I could tell she did’nt have a clue how to operate it and then she made a stupid remark like its a good thing you don’t have a picture of the weir dam, at least thats what I thought she said or I would have to delete it,like she would even know how. I then said to her I don’t even know where that is! She then sayys to me “you can’t take pictures of this area and sell them for profit” I looked at her in total disbeleif and said to her ” I don’t sell pictures for profit all mine are free on my websites.” What a moron!!! Anyhow I could tell she was on a power trip and this was probably the highlight of her day, stopping a person in his car on property that is unmarked with no signs and thats exactly what I said to her. I pulled in here because there were no posted signs or anything indicating this peice of property twenty feet from the main highway was super top secret. Then she says something else dumb like, commen sense should tell me not that this is not a place to be. Where is Kresken when you need him. I had to bite my tounge now because I was getting agitated. So next she said ,” can I see your license please. ” Holy crap she actually was human I was shocked she used the magic word, but like a good little citizen sheep I said sure,baa,baa. I handed her my license so she could run a terrorist check and feel like she saved the world for George W. and company. I sninely said to her “I’am not hurting anybody”. After a few minutes she return and I thanked her and said they really should post this area, as just up the road people were pulled of at a marked state forest. She headed back to her car and I had to have the last word so I said excuse me but can you tell me where I can go and take pictures around here and she said you can go back up the road where there is a green fence and drive in there. Thanks! This experience just shows what a paranoid country we live in. Taxpyers pay to build dams and they can’t take a picture of them, such stupidity I could’nt stand it anylonger! I just now got on google map and found tons of pictures taken by ordinary people of this areas dams and I know of no one who has been arexted yet, but I will call my congressman and tell him to get his ass in gear.