Yet more reader reports of unusual activity

Seems like it’s important to say first, we’re not sharing these types of reader reports in the spirit of having everyone freak out about the motives of every stranger they encounter. But from the comments and discussions, there seems to be power in people sharing this kind of information in this way — even if it’s just to gain knowledge and reassurance. Maybe someone out there knows what these incidents were really about and can enlighten everyone. So, toward that end, two more unusual sightings — this time involving people taking pictures — read on:

First, this one out of the inbox tonight:

Tonight at about 7:30 pm a woman parked across the street from our house, got out of her car and started taking pictures of our car, including the license plate. My husband went out and asked her if he could help her, and she said no. When he asked why she was taking pictures of our car, she said it was for a project her son was doing at West Seattle High school, and asked if it was illegal to take the pictures. My husband told her he preferred she didn’t take them, especially the license plate and asked why she didn’t download some pictures off the internet. Her reply was that they needed to be taken with a camera. My husband returned to the house and she walked down the street with her camera leaving her radio playing loudly in her car. After about 10 minutes she returned and knocked on our door. My husband opened it just a crack and asked her what she wanted. She asked if she could take yet another picture of the front car without the license plate. He told her again that he did not want her photographing our car, but that it was not illegal. She told him that she couldn’t see him very well as the door was opened just a little. We found it odd that she wanted him to open the door wider even though she could hear him clearly. She also still had her camera in her hand ready to take another picture. She did take another picture of our car even though we asked her not to. After she did this she then took some pictures of her car which was still parked across the street. We thought this was odd also, why would she take pictures of her car in front of our house.

A young man then came from somewhere down the street and got into the car and they drove off. We noticed that they drove by our house three more times within an hour. We are wondering if there really is a project at the high school that would require students or their parents to take picture of cars? Even if there is such a project this woman’s behavior seemed very strange to us.

And this came in from someone else a few hours earlier:

I wanted to mention something that happened at Lincoln Park on Sunday, May 4th. It was a great day and the park and lower playground were packed with picnickers and kids. I was pushing my pre-schooler on the swings – which were all taken. A tall man in a black muscle shirt and black shorts sat down on the bench very close to the swings. He had a large dog, coloring similar to a Rottweiler. He also had a camera and proceeded to shoot pictures of kids on the swings. I watched for a minute and realized he didn’t know anyone around there. When the camera was pointed at my kid I said “What are you doing? Do not take pictures of my kid, please.” He said OK, but didn’t apologize or say what the pictures were for so I will assume they were for no good. Soon after, he got up and left.

Something just didn’t feel right and I assume that I should be asked permission before my children are photographed, even in public. Do you know if this is true? I think it would be a great article to post what the rights or limitations of photographers are in public places. …

I hope more parents speak up if they see something a little suspicious like this.

As we wrote back to that person, it’s not illegal to take photos of kids (or anyone else) in public places, but certainly permission should be asked in a situation like this (unless you are taking a wide shot and nobody is particularly distinguishable or zeroed-in on).

23 Replies to "Yet more reader reports of unusual activity"

  • Todd May 6, 2008 (10:06 pm)

    Both strange happenings. Thanks for the heads up.

  • jt May 6, 2008 (11:03 pm)

    i guess i don’t see these things as threatening, although i can see why anything out of the ordinary bears a little extra attention.

    i really enjoy taking a camera out and seeing what i can come up with. there’s a lot of media attention right now about being vigilant about this kind of thing, but i’d just like to kinda espouse the artistic bent with this quietly wacked neighborhood.

    if i asked for personally identifying information, like the last name of your child or the name the car is registered under, i’d expect to end up as a footnote in some police blotter though.

  • OP May 6, 2008 (11:05 pm)

    On the first one, several things come to mind: Ask for a name of the student and the teacher’s name. 2.) Upon answering the door, a stern no and leave immediately and call the cops. 3.) Definitely call the cops on the second pass through the neighborhood.

    On the second one: That’s way beyond f-ing creepy. And I do not know if it’s technically illegal, but it’s beyond suspicious. Again, call the cops right then and there and provide an accurate description.

    In both cases, call the cops.

    And you’re right, WSB, reporting suspicious behavior helps us to gain knowledge and reassurance about potential creeps among us and people who wish to do us harm. (Like 2 guys on a ferry taking photos.) Keep up the good work. Knowledge IS power.

  • WestwoodWriter May 6, 2008 (11:21 pm)

    Even if no malice was intended, such behavior in both cases is so usual as to warrant mention and law-enforcement follow-up. If the FBI can distribute photos of innocent ferry riders worldwide on a hunch, then people skulking around taking photos of your property and loved ones need to be put on notice. People need to be responsible for their own stupidity in public places. These days, there are many worse things than “fire” one can shout in a public place! If you are taking pictures of something that you don’t own, expect to be hassled. If you are taking pictures of someone you don’t know, expect to get hassled. I will hassle you. If the young woman had come back to my door, I would have called 911 and reported a trespasser who I’d asked once to leave and try to keep her on the porch [for 45 minutes] until the police arrived.

  • Flavian May 7, 2008 (12:46 am)

    Here’s how it works: a photograph taken in a public place for non-commercial or journalistic use (like this blog) does not require permission. This goes for people, houses, bridges, office buildings, and even those federal facilities with “Photography Not Allowed” signs on the front (inside the building is an entirely different matter). If the question is about courtesy, then yes, a courteous photographer would be polite and ask for permission. This why the skilled and discourteous practioner of street photography preferred the unobtrusive and quiet Leica. these days street photographers use even smaller cameras. However, lack of courtesy, is not a punishable offense, but getting carried away when hassling a photographer might well be. (I might also add that the noted street photographer Gary Winogrand, who fearlessly took photos in New York City, was also street smart and advised his smaller and gentler students to defend themselves by swinging their camera lens against against a threatening subject’s teeth.) Incidentally, there is some consolation for those who feel photographers should follow a boundary: the law also allows the subject or property owner to be compensated for commercial and unauthorized use of an image.

  • charlabob May 7, 2008 (8:15 am)

    The first one sounds like a Private Investigator without much experience. They weren’t trying to photograph a car — they were interested in that car and person. Could be misidentity or something else.

    Second one may seem more sinister, but again, I would guess it isn’t. We happen to have three absolutely adorable grandkids. When people take pix of soccer games, kids at playgrounds, etc., the gravitate toward our kids. We’re there — they aren’t going to be snatched. I’m flattered — of course, when I talk to the photographer, I start with, “Cute, aren’t they? Are you going to publish them (I’ll tell their parents where to look….)” I’ve never run into someone who didn’t jabber on endlessly about what they were doing.

    I always balance the possible danger of a situation (which is real) with the fact that I’ll be putting a possibly/probably innocent person on a police suspicious/watch list. I agree we have to err on the side of being safe — I just gently point out that we want a place to be safe for everyone who is innocent :-)

  • J May 7, 2008 (8:29 am)

    Out of all the reader reports I’ve heard, the car pictures is the most unusual (not to say some creep taking pictures of kids isn’t weird). If it were me, I would have marched out of my house with my camera and took pictures of her and her car after I called the cops. We had a man walking down the street a couple of weekends ago that mention he was “casing our neighborhood looking for yards to mow”. He then went on to ask my husband how much his truck is worth. Needless to say the cops were called from his odd word choice, and they were scouring the neighborhood looking for him in only a few minutes.

  • RainyDay1235 May 7, 2008 (8:44 am)

    I’m with you OP. Call me skeptical but I’d have called the cops as soon as she started taking photos in the front of my house. At least she can explain herself to them. Supsicious behavior is just that.

    At the very least she’d have a legit reason – no harm done – and she’d know there is a quick response police force and neighborhood watch in the area.

    If it was a “nice” car there is a good chance they were casing it. Coming up to the door and wanting him to open wider – sounds like casing a house to see if there is anything worth stealing to me.

  • mc May 7, 2008 (9:52 am)

    I am the person who reported the car incident. I realize that anyone can take a picture of anything and it is not against the law. The woman’s bizarre behavior was our concern, and we did report it to the police. We took down her license plate number after she disappered as did our neighbors who also witnessed the event. She had taken several photos when my husband asked her what she was doing. He was polite when he asked, not rude or accusing. She answered every question he asked with a question and was quite defensive. Then she left her car with the key in the ignition and disappeared for at least 10 minutes. Perhaps we did overreacted to this incident, and it is more common than I’m aware of.

  • beachdrivegirl May 7, 2008 (10:28 am)

    Both seem beyond strange to me. I defin. do not buy the high school story. It just doesnt make since. And although the photographer may seem creepy it very well could have been a class assignment…

  • keleeso May 7, 2008 (11:11 am)

    I don’t think it was a class assignment- why would a teacher suggest an activity that would make a stranger uncomfortable which could lead to a dangerous situation for the student? Also, if it was a class assignment, why wasn’t the student taking the picture!?

  • flipjack May 7, 2008 (11:34 am)

    huh, weird. I saw a guy yesterday walking down our street on Southern taking pictures of houses ( I think) seemingly randomly. I don’t think he took one of our house but I was on guard to see if he did.
    It was interesting to notice my reaction of being on guard and I think if he had taken a picture of our house I think I might have run out to ask what he was up to. He looked average and not suspicious really, just a guy pointing and shooting as he walked.
    How much harm could it really do though. There definitely is a feeling of trespassing when someone without permission takes a picture of you or things you are identified with. Ultimately it’s meaningless, but there are some cultures who regard being photographed equal to stealing a part of their soul.
    Interesting topic.

  • Noelle May 7, 2008 (11:52 am)

    No one likes to have someone lurking about. Its not polite or professional. In my Photo class from college we had many projects that required us to take photos out in public places. Our teacher said if we took a photo of a child it was “polite” (& just the right thing to do) to ask the parent if the photo could be used for a project or be “published.” Sometimes as the photographer you want to capture a moment that you see unfolding infront of you. That is, at times, just instinct. However, it is inportant to ask permition of the parent or owner of the car/ house/ect afterwards. If you used a digital cam its friendly to show the image to the people. If a house or fancy are is going to be the subject you really should ask permition before you start shooting.

  • OP May 7, 2008 (12:53 pm)

    mc: You did the right thing in calling the police. In no way did you or your husband over react. I, however, would not have been so polite or tactful to the person.

  • ace May 7, 2008 (1:30 pm)

    I think it’s really odd, and would have come out of the house w/ my camera to take their pictures. :-) There is alot of weird stuff going on tho’ we just had 2 pairs of rainboots stolen from our front porch.

  • rich May 7, 2008 (1:54 pm)

    I can see no difference between walking through a neighbor hood and admiring houses and gardens vs the same activity with camera in hand.

    Photography is a fun hobby for all, and every photographer has his or her own style – and they each have a different story to tell.

    I’ll be happy to stop and chat while I’m out with my camera, but don’t expect that I’m going to come and knock on your door before I take a picture of your house, your car or anything else that is clearly visible from the street or sidewalk.

    If you happen to have a cutesy vanity license plate, or perhaps one of those little propellers on the back of your pickup tow hitch, then you can expect that it will draw extra attention too.

    And also keep in mind that that same law abiding citizen out touring / photographing for fun might just be the same person who deters some “bad person” who happens to notice the photographer.

    And on a slightly different twist, with gas prices continuing to rise like they are we may see more folks taking to the streets on foot to explore the neighborhoods that they used to formerly just drive by or through in the past.

  • changing times May 7, 2008 (4:06 pm)

    a few months ago i came out of my moms house on the top of queen ann hill and found a guy taking pictures of her house from her front bush, he saw me and went up the street stopping to take pics of my mothers neighbors house, then proceded up the street to take pics of my daughters elementary school. I called the police and they asked for a discription but of course being the seattle police no officer showed up and the guy ended up leaving. I told all the neighbors to be on the look out for the guy, but nothing ever happened….yet. Still the feeling was being violated and way creeped out!

  • jissy May 7, 2008 (4:21 pm)

    Flipjack — I would guess your photographer was a house appraiser photographing local, recent “comps”.

  • LStephens May 7, 2008 (6:07 pm)

    Funny, I got a different feeling about the post about the kids on swings being photographed. From a photographer’s viewpoint, what a great shot – sunny day, smiling and happy kids swinging their hearts out. Instead the seemingly aggressive and accusatory Mom over-protectively confronts a man who was likely out for a walk with his dog and camera who might have just thought “What a happy picture.”

  • wsgeek May 8, 2008 (9:52 am)

    I’m the mom that wrote the 2nd story. I may be overly protective but after thinking about the whole incident I felt that he had two chances of courtesy when he thought “What a happy picture”. First, before he starting taking pictures 5 feet away he could have said “Hey, they look like they are having fun, it is a beautiful day, can I take a picture?” and second, after I said something, “he could have come up to me and said, I’m sorry, I should’ve asked” or “I’m sorry, it is for a class project” etc. but he didn’t and that makes me feel that I may have stopped something that was of no good. Regardless, I don’t think I caused harm by saying something and maybe at least prevented my kid’s picture to be “PhotoShopped” and put on the internet. (By the way, I probably would have said something if he was taking a photo of me, without my kid)

  • WSHS Photo Teacher May 8, 2008 (10:54 am)

    I am one of 2 photography teachers at West Seattle High.
    We do ask our students to take landscape and portrait pictures that they find beautiful, so if you see students wandering and taking pictures of each other, random people or pets (they should ask first), bushes, trees, pretty houses, architecture, they may very well be doing their coursework. However, the story of the mother taking pictures of a car is not in line with any assignments I am aware of, and just sounds weird. Students shooting pics during the school day should have a signed note from one of their teachers, indicating permission for them to be outside shooting: you can ask to see this if you feel they are acting inappropriately, and please, contact the school with their name and location if they are. Students with inappropriate behaviors of any kind should be reported immediately to the WSHS Main Office.

  • lstephens May 8, 2008 (1:25 pm)

    wsgeek Mom,

    First and foremost, you should always trust your gut instinct if you felt the situation was odd or weird. I meant no disrespect for your parenting, but just looked at the situation from another angle. My husband and I have been at many kid activities (school plays, soccer games etc.) where we have taken pictures but certainly didn’t ask permission from every parent who might have had a kid on the field or in a performance.

    Again, trust your instincts. You may well have stopped someone who was up to no good or at least made him aware that others were aware of him. Keep up the good work!

  • acemotel May 10, 2008 (9:46 am)

    Just another perspective: In my business we design and build structures of all kinds, from single-family homes to large multi-use public facilities. I always have a camera, and it’s not unusual for me to pull over, stop my car and take pics of an unusual or interesting design feature. If it’s on a SFR, I knock on the door to ask first (I prefer to see someone in the yard) and invariably, homeowners are proud and honored to share the beauty of their homes. Just last week I photographed a beautiful cornice on a house near White Center, and the whole family came outside and told me the entire history of their home which had been lovingly remodeled over a number of years. Please don’t assume that all photographers are nefarious. Some gorgeous landscaping in the Delridge district was the inspiration for one of our first houses on contract in eastern Oregon twenty years ago, and I still have those photos. and p.s. beauty can be found everywhere and anywhere.

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