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Transit Photography in Vancouver – now criminal?

Thunder and lightning, very, very frightening!

The issue of photography in transit is raising its ugly head again as the transit police (partially funded by the Federal Government, judging by the livery) have stuck ads in transit asking people to report “suspicious” behaviour and illustrate that with people taking pictures of security cameras!

What can I say, except that I am very, very disappointed. As the online facilitator for last year’s SkyTrain Unconference, I can’t say I didn’t try to proactively encourage dialogue around this issue, through my post about Photography and Public Safety. I’m fairly disappointed that transit police did not decide to engage with the opportunity to have this conversation either on the blog or at the event, and instead chose to insist that their approach – which essentially criminalizes photographers – is the default and natural assumption when people are taking pictures on transit.

Well, you might be asking, isn’t it criminal behaviour to be so curious about surveillance cameras? To that, I respond that it is a very simplistic and naive approach. And I would encourage you to learn more about issues of surveillance in public space. The fact that citizens exercising critical thought in asking what information is being collected during our daily activities and what’s being done with that information is explicitly being stated as criminal strikes me as being near undemocratic.

I was only mildly disappointed with TransLink and the Transit Police before this. Now, I’m on my way to getting downright cynical. I would encourage TransLink’s corporate communication team to make sure they’re on the same page and in the know about what all the other subsidiaries are doing, because this is damage to the brand from the people who you could get to be your strongest advocates. Imagine if people like me or Keith Loh were praising TransLink instead of questioning its policies and comparing them to their other negative experiences in other transit systems? The Buzzer Blog was even profiling the people taking pictures of the new Canada Line SkyTrain and actively promoting transit fan culture with their recent I Love Transit week. Check out the thread of comments at this Flickr picture to see more reactions from others to this ad campaign. Alongside the “Target Trash” with people’s heads at the centre of the target, why does TransLink treat its riders like enemies without ever knowing or acknowledging it?

TransLink, we know you’re trying real hard, but man you make it hard for us to love you. If this were a person-to-person relationship, some might call this abuse, being so hot and cold. Are we dumb cargo you schlep aroud until you need a vote, or your value co-creators?  If the latter is true, co-create with us already.

Update: There’s some great (and perhaps slightly less hot-headed and more well-rounded) discussion happening on this Flickr thread as well.


  1. Ken Har

    Karen, it is an exaggeration to claim that this program 'criminalizes' photography. It does not.

    It reflects a fact of life that has been only too real in London, Madrid, Israel and other places — that bad people like to target transit. And one of the things that these bad people do is to research their targets by collecting stills and videos of security systems, wiring, control systems, etc.

    Right now, there are no direct threats to our system. However, Canada has been indicated as a terrorist target and, a couple of years ago, US investigators found pictures of SkyTrain infrastructure among the material seized from individuals with terrorist ties.

    The purpose of the campaign is to get your fellow transit passengers to pay more attention to things going on around them, If the campaign works, those taking pictures under circumstances deemed to be suspicious by their peers on the transit system are more likely to be challenged. Creating this environment is known to be a deterrent to those bad people I referred to above.

    So, no criminalization — no need for that kind of hyperbole — but certainly more vigilence in an increasingly hostile world.

    Posted March 19, 2009 at 8:02 pm | Permalink
  2. I now plan to ensure i take at least one photo per day of Translink property.

    Posted March 19, 2009 at 8:24 pm | Permalink
  3. Hi Karen,

    Got your trackback. In addition to Ken's point, I just wanted to mention that I've also discussed TransLink's perspective on the ads in the Flickr thread you've mentioned. I've also posted images of the other 2 ads currently in the campaign.

    Posted March 19, 2009 at 9:19 pm | Permalink
  4. Those were RCMP ads, afaik. I saw it and was confused myself.

    Posted March 19, 2009 at 11:44 pm | Permalink
  5. Rich

    Re: London, Madrid

    While I can't comment on Israel, all bombings that have taken place in London and Madrid are obviously false flag operations (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_flag) perpetrated against the public to insight fear. In case you haven't been to London in a while, check out the posters that the government has put up everywhere:
    Before the bombings this would have been seen as frightening and Orwellian to the general population, instead polls have shown that the public actually like them!

    Posted March 20, 2009 at 12:57 am | Permalink
  6. If this campaign was intended to educate people on the difference between “suspicious” and “strange,” then my disagreement is with the effectiveness of this ad in actually doing this. The ad may meet some criteria on the message it is conveying, but did you focus group this? Even I'll admit I didn't see the potentially negative consequences of a flaming trolley for the Vancouver Transit Camp logo when I stuck them together (it was not that long after Halloween 2007 either). There are many, many interpretations to the images in advertising, not just the “obvious” ones. This ad reminds us that the diversity of backgrounds and interests of those taking transit mean a more urgent need to acknowledge and prepare for diversity of responses, and to take this account in the design of the campaign.

    I also tried to broach this subject when TransLink first put out an RFP for what looks a lot like this ad campaign, on the SkyTrain Unconference blog as well.

    Paying attention can also manifest in several ways – not just suspicion, but also friendly awareness that can be just as discerning in spotting “suspicious” activities. Why not promote that instead?

    Posted March 20, 2009 at 5:07 pm | Permalink
  7. Also, on another level, I've found some of the comments you've made on other blogs (not as much on this one) to be disrespectful of us, as the public, questioning how we choose to interpret what you've imposed on our mindspace as a condition of us using the transit system (regardless of the fare we pay). You may own and lease the space you've put the ad on, but you have no claim to the space between our ears. Implying that with our objections that we enable terrorism to happen to us is, frankly, pretty sickening to me, the sort of rhetoric I'd hoped had ended when we got a new President down south. (I imagine after the 3rd or 4th blog post it can get pretty exasperating. Jhenifer's tactic – responding once and forwarding people to that – seemed to work pretty well.)

    I'm seeing some great comments coming out of the discussion Jhenifer joined on Flickr – perhaps a broader group of citizens who are immersed in the visual language can be your allies in crafting future campaigns that can accurately capture and convey the nuances of the message you are trying to put across.

    Posted March 20, 2009 at 5:16 pm | Permalink
  8. Thanks for letting me know.

    See, in the context of the other two ads, this one makes sense, and is actually a little funny. But being that this photographer one is the first one (thereby removing a lot of the context), and that the bus version of this ad does not have the first panel (“call a paranormal investigator”), there were few ways to interpret this that weren't negative.

    Add to this that there's a certain demographic dimension to this too. Ads like this asking people to be more “aware” can encourage people to make judgments based on their pre-existing prejudices about people and encourage them to imagine scenarios based on things they've seen on 24. I think it would be rather groundbreaking for TransLink to work with riders to actually put across the message (“be aware”) while also not getting ahead of themselves (“be mindful”).

    Perhaps I'm sensitive because I've had a certain experience with the paranoia that can come with racism, and I think this ad campaign actively contributes to that, purposefully or not.

    Posted March 20, 2009 at 5:24 pm | Permalink
  9. Be sure to use an SLR with the biggest lens possible, just to get people's heckles on size issues too. ;)

    Posted March 20, 2009 at 5:28 pm | Permalink
  10. Begs the question, have they run this (same) campaign in other major city centres, and if yes, what's the reaction there?

    Posted March 20, 2009 at 5:29 pm | Permalink
  11. Karen, as I said in my blog and in that discussion, I think we all should be vigilant against real threats. But we still need to function as a democracy and as a free society. In all those states where terrorism is an omnipresent threat such as Israel, Northern Ireland during the troubles, these places you would expect have a hypervigilant atmosphere but despite that bombings still occurred. The main failure has been 1) not solving the political impetus behind terrorism and 2) knowing beforehand the existence of plots and networks. Let's face it. Anyone with a backpack can carry enough explosive to destroy a bus or a train. Anyone with a handbag could contain enough explosive to kill and injure a dozen people; an event that would grind the Olympics to a halt. Even given Big Brother powers where anyone can be stopped at any time and made to empty out the contents of their bags, this is just a pro forma security measure and extremely random. Even with the tightest security as you see in Israel, at the height of the Intifada they couldn't prevent every bomber from getting through. I would rather they take the budget for this campaign and put it into the intelligence apparatus such as analysts and agents who speak more than just English; into consultations with groups and communities who have the pulse of what is happening in their own worlds; and into practical emergency response should anything occur. Awareness, okay, but let's not kid ourselves that it is a simple trade off of freedoms for security.

    Posted March 23, 2009 at 7:20 pm | Permalink
  12. countablyinfinite

    Keith, thanks for stopping by.

    I don't think I have conveyed it very well, but I am in completely agreement with you on this (emphasis mine):

    I would rather they take the budget for this campaign and put it into the intelligence apparatus such as analysts and agents who speak more than just English; into consultations with groups and communities who have the pulse of what is happening in their own worlds; and into practical emergency response should anything occur. Awareness, okay, but let's not kid ourselves that it is a simple trade off of freedoms for security.

    I don't think it's a simple trade off by any means. I've had the experience of strolling through bag checks at malls in Manila, then finding out weeks later that those same places were bombed with many killed and wounded. I just think there are prudent ways to help people become more aware and discerning in the correct and actually helpful ways, and this ad did not pass the test with me as doing that effectively.

    Posted March 23, 2009 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

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