Thomas Hawk Versus Rent-a-Cops

An art museum just issued a statement condemning the "harassing" and "inappropriate" manner of Thomas Hawk's photographing of a museum employee Friday, and defended a staffer who confronted and ejected Hawk to "ensure the safety" of the employee.

But how was the employee's safety jeopardized? What was the harassment, and what was inappropriate about it?

The six-sentence statement on their web site "is the only comment that the museum is making on this matter," the museum's Communications Director told me minutes after posting the announcement. The employee at the center of the controversy was out of the office, but it's his normal day off, the museum assured me.

Has he been fired? I asked.

"Oh, no no no..."

I also spoke with a security guard who was fired after a confrontation with Thomas Hawk in 2006, an unwilling participant in the war over photographer's rights giving his first interview. Is there a new controversy over photography itself — and the blogger at the center of the issue? And has Friday's incident snowballed into a larger debate about technology, privacy, and the conduct of security guards?

"I realized how insane this was," one user posted on FriendFeed, "when people found the guy's Facebook profile and implored everyone to harass him there, and when people charted the vacation schedules of the guy's bosses."


For years San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art has maintained a "no photographs" policy for their permanent collection, according to Hawk's popular blog — but he's been taking photographs there anyways. "I've actually got a bunch more of what I'm calling renegade photography... I believe that as a non-profit for the general public's artistic enlightenment, that the SF MOMA should have a more tolerant photography policy and I believe that renegade photography is a good thing and will create a more vibrant and beautiful world for us all to share in."

Ironically, that visit in November was without incident, according to Hawk's blog. ("Several times I was asked not to photograph and I'd comply when asked only to whip out the camera and begin shooting again in the next gallery...") Instead it was Friday — after the museum lifted their ban — that Hawk reported an altercation. And within 24 hours, Hawk's story about the visit had made the front page of Digg, receiving a whopping 4,000 votes. ("After purchasing my family membership and visiting the museum today I was forcibly thrown out of the museum by two museum security guards at the direction of the Director of Visitor Relations Simon Blint.")

Blint told Hawk he needed to protect his employees, according to Hawk's post about the events. ("He accused me of using a 'telephoto' lens to spy on his staff from the public staircase on the second floor," Hawk elaborated in the comments on BoingBoing.) An anonymous comment on his blog post claimed a female ticket employee "was sitting directly below where he was taking pictures and that she felt uncomfortable (especially when other VISITORS of the museum notice)." Another (also anonymous) commenter argued that "He was repeatedly asked to stop taking pictures of her (at least 10 that I counted) and was then walked out by my co-worker and I. We didn't even touch him."

"I offered to show my photographs to Blint and he refused to examine them," Hawk responded in the comments. "[A] simple review of my photographs which I offered would have easily cleared up any confusion. I was not provided this opportunity as I requested. I was simply ejected from the museum." Hawk added that he asked to speak to Blint's superior — and was refused. "I told him he was going to look foolish when I published the photo that I was taking, and gave him every opportunity to take a more rational approach to the situation."

It soon morphed from an incident to a full-blown internet phenomenon. Digg's commenters had located the email address for the museum's director (noting she was apparently on vacation, and speculating that "Mr Blint was acting out while the bosses where gone.") Five more email addresses were posted for the museum's PR staff (in a comment which got 37 Diggs) — and then someone located his Facebook profile. The comments capture the excited response.

"I'd like to wipe that smile off his face,"

"I just wrote him a nice little note: 'Looks like you F'd with the wrong guest...'"

"Wow, he's going to feel like crap the next time he Googles himself..."

The "Travel/Places" section of Digg had become ground zero for a discussion about ways to respond. "I probably would've snapped a picture of him just to piss him off, but that's how I roll," one user suggested. And Hawk seemed to be considering something similar while addressing an anonymous commenter on his blog.
By the way anonymous security guard, are you the one that made the "jerk off" gesture at me after evicting me from the museum or was that the other goon working with you? Maybe I should publish the photo of that. Not a nice gesture for a security guard to make to a paying member. I've largely left you two out of it because as far as I was concerned you two were just following Blint's orders. I'd be happy to publish photographs of you both as well though if you'd like me to.


Hawk was accused of mean-spirited vengefulness by an anonymous commenter, who remembered Hawk's 2006 run-in with another San Francisco 24-year-old security guard which led to the guard's firing. In his first interview, the security guard describes being on the receiving end.

"Because of 9/11, everybody was afraid of people taking pictures of their buildings, especially in the financial district," he remembers. He was told repeatedly during his training to tell visitors that pictures were not allowed. "It's just the policy of the company," he says. "You should approach the person and tell him that you're not allowed to take pictures of the building. Can you please stop? And that's exactly what I did about three times at least before he started going off on me."

Tim Gallen, a spokesperson for the building's owner, makes the same argument. "We all learned a lot of lessons after 9/11 and one of the ways you keep it safer is to try to discourage people taking pictures of the security installations that you've made to make it safer." Though the confrontation occured in April of 2006, "There's still a very big fear today that people come around and snap pictures of buildings that have been securitized."

There's just one problem. "You can't stop people from taking pictures of a building," says Neville L. Johnson, a lawyer specializing in media and privacy at the Beverly Hills law firm of Johnson & Johnson. "We can take a picture of the CIA's headquarters." The building may have its own policies, but "If there was no trespass, I don't see anything involved in taking the picture."

But the security guard was uncomfortable for another reason. "He was not taking pictures of the building. He was taking pictures of me."

Hawk has said that he hopes to take a million pictures over his lifetime — and he's leery of those who impose restrictions. "Increasingly we are living in a world where photographers are routinely harassed again and again by authority figures overstepping their authority..." Hawk argued on his blog. "While the 'photography steals your soul,' superstition seems to be long gone, a whole litany of replacements have taken it's place. I've seen people branded as pedophiles for shooting at public parks or their neighborhood swimming pool. I've seen people claiming 9/11 makes checking photography necessary..."

There was a heated discussion, remembers the security guard, when he spotted Hawk taking pictures. "I asked him not to, and then he started talking smack to me," says the security guard, whose first name is Alex. 'Don't tell me what to do. I'm going to do this anyways, and take pictures of you and the building and some other stuff.' I can't remember everything about it right, but at some point he got so angry that he used profanity, too. 'I'm going to fucking put your picture online and you're going to get in trouble and I'm telling you just go back into your building.' I don't remember exactly how he said it. The F-word was there."

The 24-year-old security guard had immigrated to America from Eastern Europe in 2002, and then learned the language — but in this situation, he felt helpless. "I knew I couldn't leave the premises of the building, so I got real angry. I just felt like a dog on a leash." Hawk captured the moment when the angry security guard flipped him the bird. "I know that I was not supposed to do it," says Alex. "It was wrong on my side. But I was kind of provoked into doing that."

Alex says that within 24 hours, the pictures were online, and Hawk had emailed the links to his employers. He was fired, and "I was out of a job after that for almost a year. I did part-time jobs, but I wasn't able to get a full-time job at the time. Plus, I had a lot of studying to do."

With his accent, he explained that he's never told his story "Because after reading the blog I understood that everyone that blogged was against me. There was not one word defending or saying something — 'Hey, maybe he's not right. Maybe this guy's defending himself'... There were at least two or three other cases where this or maybe some other photographers were taking pictures of security guards on purpose and making fun of them."

Eventually Alex obtained his degree, and got an IT job doing networking. He says now that "The security industry is not the best job if there's others. These other people try to make you look bad... I don't think it's right."

Thomas Hawk didn't return our request for a comment on the incident, but on BoingBoing he posted a response to one of Alex's friends.

"I'm sorry your friend got fired. Maybe next time he'll think twice about flipping off a photographer and trying to challenge their right to shoot in public. I suppose the better thing in your opinion to have done would have simply been to allow him to dictate where public photography can take place and where it can't because security guards deserve that power in our society.

"By the way, I later ended up with an apology from building management over that issue."

The building's current manager was also out of the office Wednesday, but calling their guard today, you get a more accommodating answer. "If you're not on our property, you can snap photos.

"We can't control that."


Alex says he even thought about suing Hawk, but "I was overwhelmed with stuff going on in my own life — school, trying to pay my bills, the usual stuff... I don't have family here who help me out with money or anything else." Attorney Neville Johnson thinks it's a pretty weak case. "The rule is there has to be an expectation of privacy. Was there a reasonable expectation of privacy, and was the conduct basically outrageous? But with respect to somebody in the business world, that's not applicable." He says if Hawk antagonized the guard, he could be "castigated morally" but "It does not appear that there is any legal claim."

Though he adds that "It sounds like they both could use some schooling in etiquette."

Hawk is a CEO of (a competitor to Flickr) but this latest high-profile incident has provoked a discussion about photography's changing role in an increasingly technological world. "[O]ne possible reason people are jumpy is the way that photographs routinely wind up widely circulated online," wrote one commenter. "I won't be surprised if within a year or two 'no video - no photography' signs are much more prevalent. Which is sad because a few of the jerks may ruin it for everyone who can photograph responsibly." Hawk himself has even posted his memory of a sidewalk debate with a cigar store owner in Los Angeles who didn't want his shop photographed.

But according to Hawk's latest blog post, his confrontation at the museum also included a discussion about the specific the type of lens he was using — and a commenter on Digg sees a bias against specific equipment. "As a Nikon D80 DSLR user, I find so many people consider a pro-looking camera a threat, while the point and shooters have no problems usually getting their cameras into concerts for example, or shooting people out on the street..." Attorney Neville Johnson notes that there are some specific anti-photography laws that only apply to certain types of photographic equipment. "There is a law in California that prohibits the taking of pictures with the use of a telephoto lens if someone is engaged in some personal or family-type activity... But you could use a regular lens."

Last month Thomas Hawk's photography led to yet-another confrontation with a security guard — this time at a Hyatt Hotel in Bellevue. "My wife and I were taking a few photographs in the lobby when we were approached by hotel security who informed me that taking photographs in the hotel was not allowed," Hawk wrote on his blog. "I argued with him a bit and told him that I was only taking pictures of bamboo. He still pressed on with his no photography policy. I finally got him to relent that if my wife were in the photo that I could still take the photo. As soon as he went the other way I started taking pictures again. Illegal, renegade photography."

Hawk titled the post "Boycott Hyatt Hotels," demanding an apology and a change in policy.

So I placed a call to Richard Walter, the hotel's Director of Rooms. "I read the blog, and certainly we apologize for what seems to be the overassertiveness of the security person," he told me. Professional photographers do have to get advance permission from the hotel — and to sign an agreement — and Walter argues that the appearance of the camera may also have contributed to the incident. "But I've spoken with the director of security at the hotel, and he's going to be conducting some sensitivity training in making sure his staff recognize the difference between recreational and professional photographers."

The photography controversy has stirred up strong feelings ("Photography is the skateboarding of the new millennium," one commeter joked on Digg — responding to Hawk's headline that "Photography is not a crime.") And the incident at the Museum of Modern Art prompted at least one particularly aggresive response: "My company is a big institutional donor to SF MOMA and I'm going to recommend they reconsider."

Hawk is not without his detractors. ("You are trying to carve out special rights for yourself," one commenter argued on Flickr, "because you feel entitled to do whatever you want whenever you want to do it.") But according to his blog, Hawk makes no apologies about using his platform on the internet to highlight obstacles in his way while practicing the art of photography.

"When I asked Blint for his last name his response to me was 'Why, so you can blog it?" to which I answered 'yes.'"

See Also:
Is Yahoo/Flickr DMCA Policy Censorship?
Steve Wozniak v. Stephen Colbert — and Other Pranks
Art or Bioterrorism: Who Cares?
Should YouTube Hear Me?
Twittering the Twitter Revolution

28 thoughts on “Thomas Hawk Versus Rent-a-Cops

  1. It gets harder and harder to respect boundaries these days. There I was at a PetSmart with a grandchild. An employee had a lizard crawling on his shoulder. The kid said, Take a picture, Bubbie! And they almost called the police.

    But theirs was fear of PETA

  2. It sounds like Mr. Hawk is guilty of being rude, and nothing more. The museum allows photography now – but they tried to prevent Hawk from taking pictures when everyone else was? I would be rude, too. And trying to draw distinctions between the equipment – saying he was using a “telephoto” lens – actually a wide angle. That sucks. State what equipment is allowed in your policy, then.

    That doesn’t make me feel any better; I just bought an DSLR camera. If I’m going to get harassed for using it….

    And quoting the people on digg- Hawk can’t police their actions if they’re behaving badly (it sounds like they are). Quoting them as a reflection of him is unfair to him.

  3. “Because of 9/11, everybody was afraid of people taking pictures of their buildings, especially in the financial district,”

    Yeah because we all know that it was a flying camera that took the WTC down.

  4. Has this snowballed into a larger debate about technology, privacy, and the conduct of security guards? No. This is a guy acting like an ass, annoying museum patrons, possibly violating the privacy and personality rights of employee, and getting ejected for it.

    There have been legitimate issues of people being unfairly or illegally harassed for taking photographs in public places. This isn’t one of them.

  5. As a street photographer who also has run-ins with security guards, I have been following this story with a lot of interest.

    I am not as confrontational as Mr. Hawk, so I don’t get into these situations to the degree that he does. However, I really appreciate that he is willing to stand up for his legal rights, and I use his experiences as a framework when I have my own security difficulties.

    However, the thing that has struck me most about the hundreds of comments left here-and-there is that so many non-photographers just don’t understand what is involved in serious photography. And this misunderstanding comes across as fear.

    People are afraid of a fancy camera being pointed in their direction. It doesn’t matter what the situation is, it doesn’t matter that the photographer is likely taking a picture of something completely unrelated. People get scared. And they respond by accusing the photographer of some sort of misbehavior.

    In my experience, if someone comes up to me and asks what I am doing, I will gladly explain to them. I will tell them what I am shooting at, offer to let them see. If they listen, I’ll even start going into serious detail about things and have to shut myself up. Most people don’t care about long exposures and kelvin white balance.

    However, when someone comes up and tells me “You can’t shoot here” or “you need to stop shooting this’ or “don’t take pictures of me”. When I know that I can, or I don’t have to, or I am not shooting pictures of you… well, that’s not a very nice approach, is it?

    Unfortunately, it seems to be very common. And a lot of commenters think that the photographer is at fault, not the uneducated public.

  6. More and more photographers are having this issue and it is a real problem.

    My wife and I are photographers in Fort Myers Florida and you would think that taking pictures of vacationers on the beach or an engagement photo shoot would be as benign as possible. Here are some recent examples However, we too have had people say similar things, on a public beach!

  7. By the way, don’t you think it would be fairer if you removed the photo of the SF MOMA fellow and at least find one of Hawk that shows his face?

    That poor guy has his name and photo everywhere and Thomas hides behind a pen name and a camera.

  8. People think the world owes them something. Fact is, anyone can take your picture in public and circulate it online. It’s not “fair” at all to say, you should probably take his photo down. What for? Frankly, I wouldn’t have been nearly as nice as Hawk was. Photography is not a crime. And any private space open to the public falls under the same laws regarding photography as a public space. There is no “we don’t allow that policy.” All the more reason to fight these morons. Americans in general are such uneducated, self-centered, self-entitling, whiners… it is truly pathetic. When one of the world’s (so called anyway) art centers doesn’t allow photos at the risk of hurting someone’s feelings – you know America is screwed. I so see myself leaving this shite country… everywhere else I’ve been in the world is preferable to the USA circa 2008.

  9. it seems mr hawk was loudly and persistently accused by mr blint, in front of dozens of other visitors, of “downblousing” a female museum worker with a telephoto lens. when he tried to show that this wasn’t the case (and hawk also provides at least one witness for this scenario), mr blint repeatedly refused to view the pictures. anyone watching hawk being escorted from the building might reasonably conclude that he’d done something _naughty_.

    i’ve been in a very similar situation, accused of stalking women at a train station when i was photographing _everyone_ on the platform, and my self-righteous accuser turning away with disgust when i tried to show him the camera’s LCD screen – his mind was made up about me, and he just wanted to publically expose me for what he _thought_ i was.

    it feels horrible, to be unjustly accused of what is, essentially, a sex crime. when accusations like this are made publically, ignorant of any evidence to the contrary, they become slander. SFMOMA and mr blint are lucky they’re not being sued for large amounts of money. because of his self-rightously ignorant handling of the situation, i’d say mr blint deserves everything he gets. SFMOMA, too, for parroting his accusation of illegally perverted behaviour in their official response ( ).

    that’s not to say hawk isn’t a cocky, arrogant man … but that’s not illegal, and is even desirable in many situations.

  10. One thing that stands true about TH

    1 – He knows the law and how it pertains to photographers
    2 – He’s not ‘sheeple’
    3 – He doesn’t take any crap and stands up for his rights when they’re clearly being violated

    In other words, when a person of low self-esteem, low intelligence and in a position of authority tries to push TH around on a whim (i.e. ‘I don’t like him taking pictures just because I don’t like it’) and TH knows he’s in the right, he stands firm. Granted, despite written policy Blint has every right in his position to ask people not to take pictures but as it was stated he didn’t even want to look at the pictures when TH OFFERED to show him (backed up by multiple witnesses) and instead Blint kept ranting and wanted to throw him out based only on his extremely limited knowledge (or how about ‘lack of’) of camera equipment and his miss-guided perception that TH was taking ‘cleavage shots’ of one of MOMA’s employees (which was disproven with the pictures posted). That’s piss poor customer relations at its best.

    @ Steph Mineart – I’m pretty sure that if Blint approached TH in a professional and rational manner, things would have turned out completely different.

    @ lane hartwell – If you look, TH has plenty of pictures of himself and his wife

    @ Shanus – Amigo, you hit the nail square on the head

  11. @ Rob-L – Take a closer look at my pics on Flickr – I’m already in the ass end of the planet.

    Damn – even here every board has at lease one f**king troll

  12. He seems to be a troll to me. Public property? I would argue it’s my right to take shots too. But, there’s plenty of examples on his blog where he’s asked not to shoot *on private property*, says “OK” then starts shooting away anyway. He makes a point of taking photos of people that ask him not to. Buildings? Snap away. Someone that says “Don’t photograph me?” That’s asshole behavior.

    Regarding this incident, there’s also shots, hell, even one ON HIS BLOG, where he was in fact taking shots straight down at the receptionist. Like here: You can’t see any boob because of the cut of her shirt, but I can see why they’d ask him to stop. I’m sure given his general attitude, he refused to even change the angle he was using with the camera.

    You know, if he wants to go that extra step, he should start taking some shots in the bathroom, maybe lean right under the stall doors, and see how that goes for him. After all, photography is permitted in the building *rolls eyes*.

  13. At first I was outraged too but now having read several different accounts of this now my conclusion is this is just another pseudo controversy generated to publicize for Mr. Hawk and his company. that is the great thing about the internet. Distort discoverable facts and they’ll come back to bite you in the ass.

  14. And any private space open to the public falls under the same laws regarding photography as a public space.

    No, it does not. Sorry, but don’t say things that are simply untrue, because it makes you look like an idiot.

    You’re free to take photos while standing on private property until the owner or representative of that property tells you not to. After that, if you take a photo, then you are trespassing and can be prosecuted for it. And you will be found guilty, pay a fine, and possibly go to jail.

    When you are on private property, even property open to the public, then you have two choices: abide by the stated wishes of the owner of that property, or leave the property. Period. Failure to stick to one of those choices is the very definition of “trespass”.

    Taking photos from public space is legal. Do that all you want. But don’t be a complete ass and stand on your rights when you don’t actually have nay rights. It makes us all look like assholes.

  15. @hwertz:

    You can’t see any boob because of the cut of her shirt? I’d say you can’t see any boob because she looks like an ant through that 14mm lens.

    But I agree with some of your points – he whinges about people taking away his freedom to shoot public buildings and then talks about “renegade photography” – shooting where he’s specifically not allowed to. This does indeed make him something of an asshat.

    I am totally behind him shooting where permitted, whether some rent-a-cop disagrees or not. But shooting in places it’s not allowed is not renegade photography, it’s disrespectful.

  16. Rent-a-pricks are those wanna-be-bullies who were even too stupid to be hired as cops(and that’s some industrial strength stupid).
    I suggest a nice big lawsuit, or just set the place on fire….you’r choice!

  17. it’s funny how so many people who weren’t present can develop such complicated ideas and opinions — a definite sign of the media age

    well, as a present witness to blint’s behavior, let me reiterate TH’s original post title. blint was an ASSHOLE. end of story. he embarrassed EVERYONE with his behavior. he humiliated the “woman” in question. he humiliated himself. he harassed me, he hostilely verbally assaulted TH and was an idiot.

    the reason he kept asking TH to stop taking pictures was because TH kept asking him why he was being asked not to take pictures when the museum policy had just been changed and ALLOWED photos to be taken.

    blint acted like an idiot. end of story. no one was harmed, threatened, violated, endangered, or any other BS that has been claimed.

    when blint tried to throw me out, i just looked at him and said, “why exactly are you throwing me out and what is your name?” he thought about it and couldn’t come up with a reason to have me “forcibly ejected” from the museum. he also sneered at us and said, “why, are you going to blog about this.” well, TH said he would, and he did and the rest is just internet hysteria

    imo, the museum still owes me an apology for having their idiotic employee shout out through the foyer that we were perverts. so, as to whether blint is a jerk? he certainly acted like a first class idiot in the brief exposure i had of him. a power tripping weeney

  18. This photographer sounds like a real lady. Picking on security guards with no real power. Try and pull this stuff in a real city on a real cop. I promise you the results will be different.

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