Thursday, January 6, 2011

Cemetery Photographer Wanted by FBI

However powerful a tool the camera may be, I'd never considered it to be a weapon of mass destruction. The FBI has its own opinion, however, evidenced by their questioning of my photographic activities in the summer of 2006.

I used to live near an industrial gas supply company--you know, the kind of place you take your gas grill propane tank to be refilled. Well, one hot summer day I found myself in front of the place, idling in traffic as I waited for a freight train to pass. I was probably on my wait to shoot cemetery statues somewhere. Anyway, this company has a giant propane holding tank in front, painted to look like an enormous hot dog, complete with mustard and bun. I was in my convertible with my camera on the seat next to me. I don’t know about you, but as a photographer, I can’t avoid taking pictures of goofy things, so I snapped a few images of the giant hot dog. Without me realizing I was arousing anyone’s suspicion, an alert citizen took my license number and reported me to the Department of Homeland Security!

An Adventure in Homeland Security

A couple days later and totally unaware that I’d been reported, I get home from work and grab mail out of the box. There’s a business card in there from an FBI agent, with a message scrawled on the back, “Please call me.” Not bad for a practical joke, I think, as I promptly forget about the card. Next day, I get home from work and ask my son how school was. “Okay,” he says, then adds, “Two guys from the FBI were here looking for you.” Hmmm. Maybe I should call that number.

Now realize that I had no idea why the FBI would want to talk to me. I always try to cut the mustard legally, so I thought maybe this might be about the recent drug raid on the house next door. (Though I didn’t know the neighbors very well, it gave me an odd feeling to come home and see the head of household being escorted to a police car in handcuffs. As he sheepishly nodded to me and gave me a little wave with a cuffed hand, I felt like yelling, “I do not know this man!”)

But it wasn’t about drugs, it was about dogs—hot dogs, to be precise. I called the locally-based FBI agent and introduced myself. To the best of my recollection, here’s how the conversation went:

FBI: “Mr. Snyder, you were observed photographing something over the weekend.”
PHOTOGRAPHER: “Uh…. photographing what? I take a lot of pictures.”

FBI: “It was an industrial site.”

(Normally I take a lot of pictures, mostly in cemeteries, so I really had no idea what he was talking about.)

PHOTOGRAPHER: “Could you be more specific? I take a lot of pictures.”
FBI:Do you…?” (he replies, in character reminiscent of Mr. Bookman, the Seinfeld library detective).

PHOTOGRAPHER: (Pause while thinking) ”Where was this?”
FBI: “Near where you live.”
Hmmm, knows where I live...or he’s bluffing…then it hits me and I exclaim:

PHOTOGRAPHER: “Oh! You’re talking about the giant hot dog…?”
FBI: (Silence)

PHOTOGRAPHER: “At the propane place?”
FBI:Go on…” (he says, as if he were Sgt. Joe Friday from the old Dragnet TV series).

At this point I rattle off my explanation that I was stuck in traffic, and like any photographer, I'm genetically unable to resist photographing odd things, like this silly hot dog which was obviously put there for people to notice and be amused by!…I start chuckling, like its all one big misunderstanding, but quickly realize I’m just digging myself in deeper. By Sgt. Friday’s profound silence I realize that the Fed has no sense of humor. Assuming I was either a lunatic, a terrorist, or both, he continues:

FBI: “The fact that you work for a hospital makes this even more suspicious.”
PHOTOGRAPHER: “Um…what? Why?” (I stammer, as I realize that they investigated me! AND…they've determined my M.O.!)

Once you know what they’re after, you can begin to talk your way out of it—I’ve always found it much easier to get forgiveness than permission. This guy got the report of someone photographing an industrial complex, but never actually went there to check it out himself! Not having seen the giant wiener, I guess he didn’t realize how silly this all sounded. So I offer:

PHOTOGRAPHER: “Look, its just that there’s this giant hot dog there smiling for all the world to see and…”
FBI: (In a manner totally devoid of emotion, he says) ”What do you plan to do with the pictures? Have you printed them?”

Cleverly avoiding the subject of digital photography, and its infinite potential for communicating via the Internet, I said:

PHOTOGRAPHER: “I rarely print what I shoot because, well, I just shoot on impulse (perhaps a poor choice of words) and I have thousands of images—“
FBI: “Well, you won’t print them. If your story checks out, you won’t be hearing from us again. You will, however, be getting some calls from other agencies. Keep my card and when they contact you, just give them my name and tell them you’ve spoken to me.” (Hangs up—no fanfare, no twenty-one bun salute.)


If my story ... “checks out?” I imagine him calling in a 10-3 for a black and white to be dispatched to the scene … “Affirmative on the outsized red-hot, over.” I guess they were able to corroborate my story, as I was never contacted again. They must have verified the existence of the ginormous wiener and determined that I was of minimal threat to the free world. So the FBI has a file on me, due mainly to the paradigm shift of our post-9/11 planet. I'm kind of surprised I wasn't contacted even when the gas supply company did subsequently explode, but that was years later (see link below).

At some point, I may have promised Sgt. Friday that I would not do anything with the pictures I took, and I’ve been true to my word. They are lost among thousands of other images I’ve captured over the years and will never look at again (digital allows us to do this quite easily, as you may know). So for your benefit, I returned to the scene and took other pictures for this article. Hey, I was true to my word—technically. I never printed the ones to which he referred--I went back and took different ones.

Further Adventures with the Man
As an aside, a few weeks after my run-in with the “Bureau,” I found this little squeak toy between the seats in my car. Now, here’s the deal: I only told the FBI story to a handful of people. A few of them know where I park my car in South Philly (I walk the rest of the way to work). Even fewer know that I leave my car unlocked (due to a break-in a few years ago which left my ragtop slashed). So, it follows that one of these people planted the item in question. Who was the perp? To this day, no one has fessed up to the deed! The entire FBI experience taught me something--that I should just stick to taking pictures in cemeteries--I get in less trouble there! Call me paranoid, but as the great philosopher Charles Manson said, total paranoia is total awareness!

Watch video of Sept. 1, 2010 Scully Propane Service Corporation Explosion