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The Curious Incident of the Photographer in the Nighttime
by David Callen

At 4:30 on a Thursday afternoon, a strange knock came upon my door. My girlfriend, Laura, went to answer it.

We live in a Berkeley apartment that's part of a larger house. The front door to the apartment is at the back of the house. It is very uncommon for us to have an unannounced visitor, so simply hearing the knock was unexpected. Even stranger were the two men standing at the door. Their country club outfit, khaki pants, loafers, and button down shirts, was very out of place in Berkeley. Stranger yet, they asked Laura if I was home.

They announced themselves as Coast Guard special agents. Like a scene from a movie, they flashed their identification. Expecting to be impressed by big, shiny badges, Laura was disappointed to see only business cards. They had tracked me down through the license plate on the car I was driving. For a moment, Laura felt panicked and confused. The Coast Guard? Had I been injured . . . in a boating accident? Was I doing something illega . . . in the San Francisco Bay?

About a month before their visit, the special agents explained, they had seen me in a car at night parked under the Bay Bridge. That location sounded familiar. Then Laura realized that I must have been there doing night photography. She explained everything to the special agents.

The night in question, I had played a late indoor soccer game in South San Francisco. It ended at midnight. Wide awake and dressed in my sweaty, all black soccer uniform, I decided to take advantage of my drive home by photographing from Treasure Island. I started by taking pictures looking towards San Francisco from a spot where many tour buses stop. In search of more unique vantage points, I drove around looking for other places and perspectives to shoot. Being new to night photography, I connected with the peaceful and yet mysterious aspects of exploring in the dark.

My curiosity led me down streets I did not know existed. Eventually I found myself in a dirt parking lot under the Bay Bridge. The parking lot was in front of a fenced-off gate to the Treasure Island Coast Guard base. It was also the end of the road for civilians like me. I was happy where I was, so I decided to set up my tripod and photograph towards the Port of Oakland and underneath the bridge. I thought it would be unwise to photograph the Coast Guard, plus there were all sorts of glaring lights near the gate. At the time, I figured I was safe since I was on a public road and had not seen any signs or information indicating I was trespassing. I looked toward the gate to find someone, so I could tell them I meant no harm. It appeared to be unmanned.

After finishing my shots, I made my way home. Two weeks later, I showed my work in class. I was taking Tim Baskerville's class at U.C.Berkeley Extension (Spring 2004). Everyone agreed that two shots from under the bridge were worth returning to get better exposure times. My final class project drew me elsewhere, however, so I left Treasure Island behind me. Or so I thought. I received a phone call from my girlfriend that Thursday afternoon. She reported that two men from the Coast Guard were looking for me and they had left their business cards. They wanted me to call them as soon as possible. Being the good citizen that I am, I called immediately. Even though I knew I had done nothing wrong, I was leery of what could become of this.

Special Agent Smith asked me nearly twenty questions. He wanted to know my background, why I was at Treasure Island, and details about the class, school, and professor. I answered all the questions, calmly and thoroughly. When I asked if he needed to meet me in person or if there was going to be any sort of follow up, he assured me that this was simply a routine security check. Since 9/11, he wanted to make sure that I wasn't with "them Osama guys." He also told me that if I wanted to do more photography at that hour, I should check in with the person at the gate. It turns out, the Coast Guard did follow up. They called the school to find out if my answers were legit.

The following week, I told my class about this. We discussed how 9/11 and America's new approach to homeland security has changed the experience of night photography. Now a permit is required in order to photograph in many places. Some of the clandestine techniques some photographers would have used to get that perfect perspective, now have greater consequences. Hopping a fence could lead to a terrorist interrogation.

I wonder why it took so long for them to locate me. If I had been a terrorist, taking a month to follow up seems odd. I also wonder how they found me in the first place. On that night at Treasure Island I was driving Laura's car. My name was not associated in any way with her vehicle.

"I always feel that somebody's watchin' me . . ." (Rockwell)

David Callen, 2004