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ON THE SPOT / by Catharine Hamm

Say 'Geez'

September 14, 2008|catharine hamm

Question: Last fall, three friends and I flew from Lisbon to Los Angeles by way of Philadelphia. On the flight from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, I was showing them my new camera and took a few pictures of our surroundings. A flight attendant came to me and told me to show her the pictures, which I did. On our arrival, armed officers escorted us off the plane, separated us and made us wait for the authorities. They asked ridiculous questions ("What's your eye color?"), and in the end they let us go with no apologies. Why would this happen? Did we do anything wrong?

-- Jose Silva, Lisbon

Answer: In taking photos, Silva and his friends didn't violate any Federal Aviation Administration or Transportation Security Administration rules, their spokesmen told me.

If the use of electronic devices was permitted at that point in the flight, they were in the clear.

In fact, if you look at the photos you'll see that the only thing they apparently did wrong was to use a camera without studying the manual. Ansel Adams he's not. See for yourself at

In a later conversation, Silva said his group complied with flight attendants and wasn't causing a ruckus.

Because the airline would not go back and research the details, we don't have its side of the story.

But assuming that Silva is correct, what could prompt such a reaction?

He said the authorities later told him that these are "sensitive times."

Indeed. But those pictures are hardly a threat to national security and are no different from the images you can find all over the Internet.

Just to see the spectrum, Google "767 interior" and click "Images," and you'll find about six dozen photos.

Silva said the authorities also told him to be careful. One has to wonder how careful he would have needed to be if he didn't, in his words, look Moroccan or Egyptian.

Richard Derk, the photo editor for the Los Angeles Times Travel section, has shot many photos on airplanes, some of which have ended up in these pages.

I asked him whether he had experienced any problems on commercial flights.

"No, never," he said. "I shoot quickly and try not to get in anyone's way, but no one has ever stopped me."

Derk, we should note, does not look Middle Eastern.

Mickey H. Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Assn., also expressed surprise.

"It's hard to believe that somebody didn't call a timeout in the process and say, 'What exactly did this man do?' " Osterreicher said.

"At a certain point, somebody has to use some common sense."

Picture that.

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