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Getting to the Bottom of the CTA Photography Policy

By Olivia Leigh in News on Jun 11, 2007 5:30PM

Take a quick look through Flickr, and you'll see that the CTA is one of the most popular subjects for photographers' lenses. Interesting architecture, intriguing people, and a nice dose of urban decay all beg to be photographed. We were similarly inspired last weekend while waiting for a brown line train at the Belmont "L" stop. After taking a photo of the view toward the end of the platform, and two snapshots of a glimpse down Belmont in between train cars, we were approached by a CTA employee who told me that us to stop taking photographs, as they were not allowed. We politely said we would stop, but we believed he was incorrect about the photography policy. His tone turned gruff quite quickly, and he said, "I know the rules. You can't take pictures here. I work for the CTA." We once again politely stated said that we understood, but said I did not believe that was the policy. The employee then said, "I could send you to jail for taking these pictures, so stop arguing with me!"

2007_06_cta.jpgAlthough we certainly thought that being sent to the slammer was not part of the CTA photography policy, we begrudgingly decided to keep mum and let it go, not wanting to run our mouth about a policy we couldn't remember word for word. After returning home, we did a little internet investigating, and we were surprised to discover that we could not find the photography policy posted anywhere on the CTA Website. The closest we came was a piece over at the CTA Tattler, where Kevin O'Neil posted an email he received from another disgruntled photographer, and then provided quotes from a follow-up interview he conducted with CTA Vice President of Marketing and Communications, Noelle Gaffney.

As the Tattler's article ran back in 2005, we decided to email Ms. Gaffney ourselves to see what the current policy was, find out where the photography policy has gone to, see if we could, indeed, "go to jail," and get to the bottom of photographer harassment on the "L." When we emailed Ms. Gaffney, she promptly responded, saying that the photography policy is "simple." However, after further discussion, we learned the policy is anything but.

According to Gaffney, the policy is as follows:

The general public is allowed to take snapshots in public areas. Equipment such as lighting, tripods, cables etc. is not allowed – except in instances where commercial and professional photographers enter into contractual agreements with CTA.

Photographers are not allowed to enter or photograph non-public areas of CTA stations. (Public areas are the areas where you enter the station, pay your fare, and wait for the trains. Non-public areas are any storage rooms, work areas, ends of platforms that are blocked off to public access (such as in subways), tracks, etc. )

Photographers are prohibited from obstructing transit operations, interfering with customers, and blocking doors or stairs.

CTA personnel may evaluate the actions of photographers on a case by case basis to determine if a photographer is in compliance with the above guidelines. Our goal is to try and be flexible. Instructions given to our personnel make it very clear that they must do their best to distinguish between tourists and people just taking a couple of snapshots compared to professional photographers, production companies or someone who is taking an extended period of time or showing an unusual interest in areas of the station or equipment that would not be of interest to an average customer. In those cases, CTA personnel may ask them to stop --but they are expected to do so politely. The same is true if someone is blocking the flow of traffic at a station, causing a distraction, or getting in the way of customers.

When we told Ms. Gaffney that we were interested in providing a link to the policy but could not locate it, she said that the policy was, indeed, posted on the Website. However, in follow-up correspondence, she admitted that she could not locate it, although she was "confident it had been posted at one point." She stated that as a result of our emails, they would post a link to the policy on the Website soon.

We also asked Gaffney for her recommendations for photographers who encounter harassment while photographing the CTA. She replied that the "customer should ask for a supervisor or contact customer service if the employee does not know the procedures regarding photography. Additionally, if photographers "encounter an employee who is not as well versed in the policy as he or she should be…photographers should report the location, date, time and employee id # (if possible) to CTA customer service so that the employee can be retrained." After hearing of an employee threatening to take a camera from a photographer, we asked if employees would ever have the recourse to seize cameras. Gaffney replied that employees "should not take any cameras," and instead should notify the control center to call the police if there is "suspicious behavior" (so perhaps we could have gone to jail?).

If you think this sounds a trifle confusing, you're not alone. While we applaud the CTA for never proposing a ban on photography, unlike some other major metropolitan transportation services, the policy is extremely vague, left to the subjective views of CTA employees who may not be properly trained on identifying suspicious behavior. Gaffney noted that people "take photographs all the time without incident"; however, the number of people who have had difficulties, nearly all of whom we would venture to guess are merely photography enthusiasts, are not insignificant.

This Chicagoist writer has a tendency to be a rule follower to a fault. We generally avoid confrontation like it's the plague. But at the same time, we're not a pushover, and with the heightened paranoia frequently infringing on photographers' rights post-9-11 (yes, clichéd, but very true) we feel more inclined to argue against those who tell us to stop, on those occasions when we know that we are within our rights.

Unfortunately, the vaguely defined policy of the CTA never really lets us know where our rights are. If we were told we could take photographs anywhere but on the platform or anywhere but on a train car or bus, we would be disappointed, but willing to oblige, knowing that's the policy. However, although the policy states that the "general public is allowed to take snapshots in public areas," discretion is nevertheless based on the almighty "suspicious behavior," which, apparently for one CTA employee, meant a young female casually taking three snapshots with a mid-range camera over the course of about 20 seconds. Admittedly, Gaffney stated that the particular employee we encountered seemed to be unclear on the actual policy, and she graciously offered her apology. In addition, as a result of our correspondence and the upcoming tourist season, the Rail Operations department decided "it would be a good time for them to reissue notice to employees regarding the policy."

In the meantime, however, what's a photographer to do? Our recommendations: print out the policy once it is posted to the CTA Website, or print out this article. Although we venture to guess it wouldn't have succeeded with the employee with whom we had the run in, politely reminding employees that you are most likely within the bounds of their policy with backing straight from the CTA can be of assistance. Although we don't do it, many other photographers have also taken to carrying around Burt Krages', The Photographer's Right. Lastly, while we aren't generally a fan of being a snitch, reporting employees as recommended by Gaffney may be a worthwhile step, at least insofar as they can perhaps be reminded of the policy and possibly be taught to better identify suspicious behavior.

To the photographers out there: what has been your experience? Have you had any run-ins with CTA employees regarding your photography?

Photo by Senor Codo