Freedom is a snap for photographers of federal buildings

Feb 22 2012 - 6:29pm


Charles Trentelman
Charles Trentelman


You will be happy to know you can take pictures of any federal building in the nation, including in Utah, as long as you are standing on a public street, sidewalk or other public place.

You don't need permission. If you can see it from the sidewalk, you can shoot it.

You may think, "Duh!" but this is not a given.

After 9/11 the nation went on an orgy of security restrictions. People were prohibited from taking pictures of public buildings on the theory that these images helped terrorists. Film and memory cards were confiscated.

The photo prohibition was a huge overreaction.

These are not military installations. People on public streets can see them. Google Earth and Street View show them. In 2010, common sense prevailed and the no-photo rule was done away with.

But not every federal guard got the word, so they still try to stop photography. The problem is, the world is awash in cameras. Every cell phone is one. Digital cameras fit on thumb drives.

Guards can't stop such cameras from being used, so the prohibition really only hurt serious photographers, like my friend Chris Bojanower.

On Saturday, Chris was taking pictures of a roller derby player he posed on the sidewalk in front of the old Scowcroft Building at Wall Avenue and 23rd Street in Ogden.

Chris liked the old brick wall for a background. He didn't care the Internal Revenue Service uses the building, but an IRS guard driving by did.

"He said, 'You can't shoot here. You can shoot from here, but you can't shoot at the building,' and I said, 'There's no blanket ban on shooting buildings,' but he said there was."

No, there isn't.

Chris did a quick Internet search. On Aug. 2, 2010, the Office of Homeland Security issued a directive to all federal protective service agencies ordering that, absent reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, federal officers "must allow individuals to photograph the exterior of federally owned or leased facilities from publicly accessible places."

Chris showed the order to the guard. He still didn't let Chris shoot, but "he was decent about it. We actually stood there and talked for half an hour."

The guard gets his orders from the General Services Administration, which manages all federal buildings.

A GSA receptionist in Salt Lake said, "Usually our standard answer is you cannot take pictures of a federal facility. I know any of the IRS facilities, you cannot."

What about the Homeland Security notice? She referred me to GSA Region 8 Security Manager Mike Ortega, .

I'd barely gotten my question out before Ortega said, "Pictures of public buildings you paid for with your taxes?"

"Uh, yeah," I said.

"If you are not on federal property, you absolutely can take pictures of the buildings."

That was easy.

There are some rules. If you are in the building, or on its grounds, you need a permit, "but the permits are pretty easy to get," Ortega said. Don't take pictures of security features in the building.

That's it. And standing on a public sidewalk, "You can take pictures of whatever you want," no permit necessary.

Ortega said he'll make sure Utah's GSA office knows the new rules.

This is important.

Ogden has many federal buildings downtown. Historians and artists need to be free to work.

Some buildings, like the Scowcroft, are both historic and photogenic. Whole websites are dedicated to the Scowcroft's innovative renovation, for example, with dozens of pictures.

And you can shoot it, too. If you have trouble, I'll get you a copy of the Homeland Security notice.

Wasatch Rambler is the opinion of Charles Trentelman. You can call him at 801-625-4232 or email He also blogs at

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