Wednesday, June 24, 2009

American Strength

(or "What is it about Mexicans and Borders?")
American Strength

Here's another long tale of my trip...

Leaving the lovely and talented Katie West in Toronto around 8am, I headed off to Lansing, MI as fast as I could to meet up with a fun model named Leyna. While Neff was with me a few days previous, we had crossed the US/Canadian border in Maine/Nova Scotia with little to no hassle. Since we had gotten through even though Neff had forgotten his passport, I didn't expect much of a problem this time since I had all my important paperwork. To remain consistent with the previous twenty seven days I'd been traveling, I took photos of the "Welcome to Michigan" sign while driving across the bridge that eventually led to the official border guard post. After waiting in line for a while, when it was my turn the guard gave me a hand sign to stop where I was in line rather than advance like everyone else. After a few minutes of being confused, I was relieved when he finally waved me forward. I shouldn't have been.

When I pulled up, the officer looked far more stern and no-nonsense than the previous guards I had dealt with. The first things he asked were for my ID and if I had taken photos "coming in", to which I answered "no" because I thought he meant coming into the border post. He immediately put on that authoritative "gotcha" tone of voice, saying they had surveillance footage of me taking photos on the bridge and asked for my truck keys and for me to "stay put." While trying to remain calm and in good cheer, I complied without hesitation.

He walked behind my truck and got frustrated when he was unable to open the latches on my camper shell. I yelled out which key it was to unlock it, and after rummaging through my various suitcases and duffle bags, he came back to his kiosk, still with my passport and keys in hand, slammed the door closed and got on his walkie-talkie. I watched nervously as he mouthed heavily articulated words for several minutes before he wrote something down. He came out, handed me a slip of paper, along with my passport and keys, then directed me to pull off to the side for further inspection. My heart began pounding unsteadily.

My dad always says if you've got nothing to hide you should feel confident when questioned by the authorities. In this case that gave me very little comfort. I parked where directed, being greeted by three other agents, and was told to leave my phone and all my other belongings in the truck except for any identification papers. Inside I stood amongst several Canadians, East Indians and Germans talking in various languages, guessing that they were saying all the frustrating, nerve-racking things that were on my own mind. I finally looked down at the slip that had been handed to me. On it was written "Two points: Check out his story. Women's clothes in bags." Uh oh.

When called, I was greeted by a new investigating officer who looked younger than the last, about twenty five years old. His demeanor was slightly more relaxed and jovial than the previous agent's, the difference being the same between a glacier and an iceberg. He asked me several questions about where I had just come from, where I was going, where I had been, etc., often asking me the same questions over again in different order, obviously in hopes of tripping me up somehow. Unfortunately, it seems the more answers I gave, the more questions he had:

"Why are you driving across the country shooting models? Who are these women? Is this a hobby or a business? How could you take a month off of work? You work in a restaurant? I thought you just said you were a photographer? How can you afford this? How long were you in Canada? Why were you in Canada a few days ago and are now back? Why are you on the move every other day? Traveling alone? Who was with you?" And on and on. I remember jokingly telling him that even though my way of life might sound a bit weird to him, even some of my closest friends don't get it. No reaction. Uh oh again.

I was still fighting a cold that started last week, hadn't really slept well since then, and was feeling the strain of being gone so long from home these last few days. All of this only added to my confusion over exact dates and times on the road, which of course added to their disbelief of my story. I showed my business cards, offered to go grab my journal with polaroids from my fully documented trip and more. They reviewed my websites, then Neff's website, then our site, all in an attempt to catch me up on some lie. I was asked to sit down and then come back up to the counter to answer more questions about four times over the course of the hour, along with being asked to go out to my truck to retrieve my camera and any cash I had in the vehicle. When I went outside, supervised of course, I almost laughed at seeing the entire contents of the back of my truck being rifled through by two men wearing latex gloves. I can only image what they were thinking while sorting through the odd combination of clown noses, a straight jacket, various styles of panties and knee high socks, my dirty laundry and lighting equipment.

At some point I was informed that taking photos while on the bridge was illegal and that I had lied to the original border officer. By this time the original agent was inside helping process other "offenders", and when I tried to say I misunderstood what he had meant, things got even more tense. I said that I had assumed that I was being asked if I had taken photos of the border post itself, which immediately prompted the original guard two stalls down to lean back and say defiantly "NO! I SPECIFICALLY ASKED HIM if he had taken photos on the bridge, and HE SAID 'NO'!" Upon saying this he immediately returned to what he had been doing and didn't look back at me the rest of the morning. I started to feel a bead of sweat trickle down the back of my neck, which if seen by them would have confirmed any last doubt of my guilt.

Tom's Take Out Mark Velasquez Photography
My young inquisitor, obviously a military man, began shuffling through the business cards I had provided him, and when he got to my "American Justice" image, he looked at me quite frustrated. "You think its okay to put American flag hoods over the heads of half-naked women?" he asked angrily. I hesitated for a moment debating the repercussions of my possible answers, then I finally just said "Um...yeah." His silence and look of disdain told me I was treading on thin ice. We reviewed together the ten or so images on my camera that were taken on the bridge, mainly various wide and narrow shots of the Michigan sign with the scaffolding behind it. I offered and he commanded me to delete those images, but I refused to delete the whole CF card like he originally suggested. He said "You've heard of September 11th, right?", which I all but ignored. When I brought up that there were no signs saying it was illegal to take photos on the bridge, he ignored me right back.

At this point I had been there about forty-five minutes and could feel myself getting much more frustrated and vocal with this guy. My patience was dancing on that fine line between defending my rights and not sounding like a confrontational ass. In a moment of clarity I smiled to myself, remembering the blog I'd written wondering what kinds of authority figures I would have to have patience for on this trip before I left.

Finally, after sitting back down for another few minutes, he called me back up to his counter, saying that I was in fact guilty of lying to a border officer, which is a federal crime. He was giving me the benefit of the doubt because the rest of my far-fetched story checked out, handing me back my edited camera and passport. Lastly, he got out a slip of paper and wrote three words I was very happy to see: "Free to go." I handed the slip to the officer guarding the door, got in my truck and left.

I realize it is better to have our border be too secure than not enough, so I'm trying not to hold a grudge, and I'm not. That said, not only did they cost me an hour of my drive, but later in the afternoon I found that they had cracked the rim of my ring flash, a $500 studio light. Again, the flash is still functional and fine, so not that big of a deal. At least it is a great story to tell and I'm sure I will retell it for years to come, but from now on I will definitely be far more cautious when entering or leaving a border. Sheesh.


  1. It is still beyond me exactly what part of your story sounds far fetched? It all makes sense to me.
    I'm sorry you had to go through that. If I didn't know you so well, I'd wonder if it was exaggerated because it sounds so ridiclous. But I know you better than that.
    ...rolled out of the door....

  2. This story was worth the hastle! I'm glad they let you through.

  3. Holy poo! I'm glad you are safe!

  4. ridic'lus, like my spelling.

  5. It's entirely too common that Border Control is willing to harass photographers, usually above and beyond the grilling they give a normal person crossing the border.

    To the best of my knowledge, it's not illegal to photograph the border buildings, let alone to take a snapshot of the "Welcome to.." sign.

    What you went through isn't security at all, it does nothing to make anyone feel safer, and it's never actually done more than catch the casual smuggler.

    Glad you're through safe, Mark. Looking forward to more posts from you.

  6. Great story! you'll appreciate this one - my dad is a sculptor living most of the year in Puerto Vallarta. On his return trip to the states he always drives, stopping to visit various clients and deliver commissioned works. One particular trip he agreed to carry with him the work of another sculptor - a large bronze whale - in a crate. When he went through the border he was stopped and nearly arrested for carrying an illegal animal...they simply could not grasp the concept of a bronze sculpture of a whale! It took DAYS of harrassment, they x-rayed the crate, and fined him a bunch of money for some trumped up excuse before he was allowed to go. crazy!!!

  7. its good to see that you have a good sense of humor about the ordeal. ive seen stragne stuff happen traveling with my friends. When i(i'm white) travel with them i take all thier stuff like laptops, extra luggage, or anything that would make them be "red-flagged" and yet still they get "detained/questioned". one time, guards were saying my frined had something in her flip flop. It's not right and sucks having to act like were not together jsut to get thru boarders.

  8. its good to see that you have a good sense of humor about the ordeal. ive seen some strange stuff when my friends an i go thru boarders. im a white female, so we've learned that its best if i take all thier laptops, other stuff that might "red-flag" them. But stucks to have to act like i'm not with them just in hopes they or we all wont be "detained" on trips.

  9. Enrique from MexicoJune 25, 2009 at 9:18 AM

    Now imagine how they treat foreigners...

  10. This totally pisses me off. Just reading it made me angry, (except for the part about the half-naked women with American flag hoods. That cracked me up.)
    I, too, have experience being harassed at the border as a photographer, as do all of my photographer friends.
    I agree with jb above...this is not about security.

    I am having fun reading about your adventures and love seeing your work.
    I hope you continue to have an amazing time!

  11. Don't shoot on that card any more and send it to me. I'll get your welcome sign pictures back. "Deleted" is a total misnomer.

  12. This is absolute crap. What's worse is nothing they are doing is really make the border safer. Anybody dumb enough to openly take pictures of a target in full view of security obviously isn't that bright nor much of a threat. Not to mention all of the places where you could simply walk across the border without passing through a security check point.

    Between overzelous border guards and the joke that is the TSA, we are no safer now than we were prior to 911.

    Further JB is right. There are no restrictions on taking pictures of bridges, signs or border checkpoints. The last time I looked into it, the only places that were illegal to photograph are military installations, nuclear power plants, and places where people had an expectation of privacy. Everything else is fair game. The following is a good guide. I keep a copy in my camera bag, just in case.

  13. My god you americans are weird.. Stop someone carrying a camera at the border.. but a semi automatic weapon they will be waved on through.

  14. Hi Mark, I had a much less, but still retched experience coming back from Canada Labor Day Weekend 2006 with my brother and a friend. You see, it was still legal to cross with just your drivers license as ID. We were hassled on the way in by the Canadians. Then on the way back out my friend who is Asian, but not really, he is from Hayward, was asked questions to see if he would trip up and admit something or other.

  15. Great story and very well told.

  16. Paranoid feckwits
    Anyone who doesn't conform to their standard of conformity is a suspect.
    I saddens me to hear this story but as you say it only took an hour of your time and it is a good yarn.
    I'm really enjoying your trip which you obviously are.

    "Nil carparendum illigitemi desperandum"

    Don't let the bastards grind you down

  17. And with the many terrorist events that have happened or have been prevented, how many of the suspects were found to have taken pictures of their targets? None. Why would I need to take a picture of any of these bridges to plot an action of terror? I wouldn't, because there are already so many pictures already, or even blueprints, publicly available.

    Oh, well, as long as the masses are made to think we're safer because of all of these inane rules...

  18. That's the price ya pay for being subversive. At least they couldn't call you "long hair".

    Think of it as a complement. Many great Americans were hassled (or worse) by the government of the day.

    BTW- If you want to really get hassled,when asked about produce by the agricultural inspectors at the CA border say "Fresno, I am from Fresno" in the thickest Persian accent you can manage. Guaranteed to get you pulled over in the next few minutes.

  19. Wow, welcome to the police state. Let use an horrible event in 2001 to justify detaining a US citizen for taking photos of a bridge he help pay for. What an absolute crock and why we must ever vigilant in protecting our constitutional rights. The real tragedy on 9/11 was not the 3,000 lives lost that day, but the rights the remaining 225 million lost and continue to lose every day since...

  20. With those photos, our plans to overthrow America by bombing all border bridges will go better than planned! Yes!! Once we destroy the border bridges, we'll be able to shut down all international commerce! YES!

  21. i don't know, man. . . . i plan on taking over the world with tits.

    could be they were afraid of that very thing.

    glad you didn't have to endure much more hassle than that and, honestly, that you're the type of guy to roll with the bullshit if you can.

    glad to catch up on the blog as well. . . great stuff.

  22. as a european with a history of cold war struggle and all that stuff i have a real bad feeling about the us and its todays interpretation of security and human rights.
    meanwhile i understand better why us-interests clash all over the world with locals.
    the system of fear and thrill becomes selffullfilling. to protect the system of the 4 freedoms is turning to the opposite. the story about the flaghooded girls says it all.
    to be classified prior to any acting as a potential threat is evil and dark.
    good night - america.

  23. you're thankfull for this experience? you are an idiot.

    America is a police state at best.

    911 has nothing to do with taking a picture on a bridge dimwit.

    buffoon. complete ignorant buffon.