Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Please Ignore the Big Gray Ship in the Background

The Ship You Don't See, 2006

If you take pictures in the harbor of Norfolk, Virginia, or almost anywhere in the Elizabeth River or lower Chesapeake Bay, it’s pretty likely you’ll have one or more U.S. Navy ships in the scene. You can’t go very far around here without tripping over a naval base of some kind. We’re home to the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic and Mediterranean fleets, and a regular stop on the NATO circuit. There’s a huge naval shipyard and several large commercial shipbuilding and repair facilities throughout the region.

In short, big gray naval ships are pretty ubiquitous around here. For local residents they’re such a routine part of the landscape as to be almost unnoticed.

Up until 9/11 changed things, there used to be organized bus tours of the world’s largest naval base. Anyone who didn’t look obviously menacing could hop a tour bus and get close to aircraft carriers, destroyers, guided missile cruisers, submarines and all manner of other naval ships. At one time, you could even drive through the base in your own car with no more identification than a valid driver’s license.

During the summer tourist season naval ships are photographed by thousands of people a day. But what’s okay for tourists isn’t necessarily okay for photographers. On several occasions when I have been standing in public places taking pictures in the harbor or along the Elizabeth River where the big shipyards are, I’ve been intercepted by military port security officers or officers of the Homeland Security. One time two inflatable U.S. Navy sentry boats raced across the harbor to intercept me.

The problem, if you’re inclined to follow in my apparently menacing steps, is carrying a professional-looking camera. The Navy does not like photographers with long lenses. Or even short lens, as I had brief skirmishes over picture like this and this. I say "like" those two pictures because I had to agree to destroy the ones I took that attracted security attention.

You’d think there’d be some common sense in this. I’m not a terrorist, after all. I have no idea what half the stuff sticking out the top of these ships is. I'm not inconsiderate and have no interest in compromising national security. But at the same time I'm aware that the Patriot Act gives these 19 year-old military sentries and Homeland Security officers the right to lock me away for an indefinite stay in a black hole somewhere without even telling anyone where I am.

All of which, I guess, is my way of asking that if you don’t hear from me for a while, check with your local Congressman.


  1. wow. those noted linked photos are just incredibly innocuous, it seems, security -wise, especially the latter!
    I have read many similar tales from fellow flickr-ites around the world, not just here, and in places far less... seeming appropriate to security concerns than the shipyards.
    Guess you will need to dress like a tourist, and carry a little camera....
    oh, and the silhouette photo is a great one...

  2. Yes, this is a wonderful photo. Amazing--you have that surly, suspicious look about you, though, Chris. I can see why they'd track you down.

  3. Crazy, this world we live in. Instances such as those you referenced are when it pays to know your rights and have a lawyer on speed dial. ... Not that righteous indignation and legal smarts get you much when you're standing on the wrong side of an M-16.