tom atwood photography

Tom Atwood’s photography

Tom Atwood was treated like a terrorist after taking pictures of models in front of the Wood River Refinery in Roxana, Illinois.

The threats made by police officers to Atwood, who was stopped and questioned by officers and security guards about six times, included arrest in the name of special Homeland Security laws, placing his name on a national security risk list, and confiscation of his camera under the PATRIOT Act. Atwood also received a phone call from police at his home warning him about taking photographs.

Atwood, a former TV reporter and documentary filmmaker, knew his rights, and refused to back down.

Atwood told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “I felt I had the legal right to take pictures from public property so long as I was not interfering with traffic or raising a safety issue, and considering that photographs from almost every angle of that refinery — including from above — could already be found on Google Earth, the whole security threat warning was ridiculous.”

Refinery spokeswoman Melissa Erker said Atwood’s project qualified as “suspicious activity” under the Maritime Transportation Security Act. “Under this act, we are required to report any suspicious activities, which includes Atwood taking pictures of the facility,” Erker said this week. “Unfortunately, post 9/11, that’s the way we have to act in this world.”

Atwood’s suspicious activity consisted solely of Atwood photographing attractive models in artful ways in front of the refinery. Relying on common sense, instead of fear, would help any rational person see that taking pictures of beautiful women in dresses on a public street is not a security threat.

Nonetheless, Roxana’s police chief, Will Cunningham, defended his department’s repeated harassment of Atwood, saying “If it’s worthy enough for someone to call police, it’s worthy to check out. What about a guy walking down the street in Boston wearing a backpack today? You think he’d be more likely to be contacted this year versus last year?” South Roxana Police chief Bob Coles was even more obtuse, stating “It is absolutely illegal for him to stand on a street and take pictures. What if someone turned off Madison Street and didn’t see him or his models?”

With the help of Bill Atwood, Tom’s brother, dozens of free-speech supporters called the refinery with complaints. After being deluged with phone calls, the new position at the refinery is that police and guards will not be called if Atwood gives advance notification of any shoot and where and when he would take pictures.

For the sake of his models, Tom Atwood has agreed to give advance notice. “There were times when I told myself that I should just man up and force them to arrest me,” Atwood said. “I stood down because my models did not deserve to be drawn into that kind of drama.”