No war on photography in Germany

Since 2001, the home front of the questionably-named "War on Terror" has devolved into what Bruce Schneier calls the war on the unexpected, in which anybody doing anything out of the ordinary risks being hassled by authorities, on the theory that activity that the person-in-authority does not understand might somehow be part of a terrorist plot.

A particular variant of this is the war on photography. It appears that in certain locales, photographing structures or buildings in public where the motives have no clear touristic interest, is considered particularly suspect. It makes a certain, tiny, bit of sense that a terrorist cell contemplating an attack might like to use photographs of the target and its surrounding in their planning. But it stretches my imagination to think that photographs would be such a sine qua non for a plan that banning photography would help much to prevent an attack by a determined group – at least when the photographs are of things that each would-be attacker could just walk up to and look at directly.

I am pleased to report that the war on photography has apparently not reached Germany.

I write this on the way home from a week's vacation in Frankfurt. My vacations are different from most because I have the rather weird hobby of collecting and understanding railway track layouts. There are quite a number of people who photograph, and otherwise obsess over, trains, but only few of us who lavish the same attention on the tracks the trains run on. In short, my idea of a good time is to go to a large station, hike out to the very ends of each of the platforms, taking lots of pictures of the surrounding trackage as I go. Then, if there are any public footbridges or streetbridges going over the track area, I go up on those and and repeat the exercise from there. Finally I take a train to another station, observing the neighboring tracks along the way, and either taking notes or photographing out the window. Repeat as long as daylight lasts.

This probably does not sound like fun to you, but it works for me. When I get home I sometimes get time to process all of the photos and notes into nice track diagrams for the areas in question; you can see some of the finished products at my website trackmap.net.

To get to the point, I've been doing this for a week – standing on the overgrown ends of platforms that are not being weeded because no trains stop that far out anyway, in plain sight of railway employees who didn't seem particularly busy (waiting for the train they are to work on), blatantly and obviously spying on their precious infrastructure. I even wear a terrorist beard. Yet, not once did anybody approach me to suggest that I shouldn't be doing what I did, or even to question what I was doing.

This is the same experience I had for a week in Vienna in 2007, a few days in Glasgow in 2006, and a week in Berlin in 2002. (Not quite true; in Berlin a couple of good-natured Bundesgrenzschutz officers did ask me what I was drawing – this was before good digital cameras became affordable to me, so I was using binoculars and a sketchpad instead. But they seemed to be more curious than suspicious, and ended up wishing me a nice stay after I explained in halting German what I was doing. In retrospect, perhaps they were just checking whether I would act hinky upon being asked).

The world isn't quite as bad a place as you would think reading about just the egregious blog-worthy extremes of the war-on-anything. Of course, that does not mean that the extremes don't deserve the publicity, ridicule and outrage they get. That is how we keep them from becoming the norm. But they are not yet normal, and that is a Good Thing.

Actually, they may or may not be the norm in America. I have read too many scary war-on-anything blog stories to dare go there and find out.

P.S. It just now occurs to me that one of the symbols I use in my hand-drawn sketches, a stylized tree meaning roughly "these tracks are visibly abandoned; shrubs and small trees growing between the rails", could easily be interpreted as a stylized mushroom cloud. Good thing my notes did not fall into the hands of an alarmist terrorist hunter. Except in 2007 I did foolishly forget a sketchpad in a train (and lost several days' worth of sketches). Wonder what happened to that ...


  1. Wow, what a great hobby! Thanks, I found your maps quite interesting.