Photo student draws attention of authorities

On Monday night, the volume of Internet traffic to Ian Spiers' Web site — — crashed his server. Strangers from Chicago and New Zealand offered him space on their servers to get his story back online.

Spiers, a Seattle freelance graphic designer and amateur photographer, has been amazed at the outpouring of international support he's received since posting a tale of two run-ins, the first with Seattle police and the second with agents from the Department of Homeland Security, for taking photos at the Ballard Locks, one of the most popular tourist spots in Seattle.

Spiers gave this account:

He was taking landscape photos at the Locks on April 5. Someone apparently thought he was suspicious and called Seattle police, giving them Spiers' license-plate number. Two officers later showed up on Spiers' Ballard doorstep to question him.

Spiers showed the officers his notebook — which included a list of shutter speeds and subjects — and explained he had been working on an assignment for an introductory photography class at Shoreline Community College. An officer asked to see his identification, and Spiers complied.

On May 26, Spiers was again at the Locks, this time hoping to photograph boats as a train passed over the trestle in the background. As he was setting up his tripod, he was approached by a man he thought was a security guard.

Spiers says he politely explained that he was a student photographer and showed a copy of his class assignment. The man asked to see Spiers' ID but when pressed, admitted Spiers had no legal obligation to hand it over. Irritated, Spiers this time refused to comply and the man left, but soon returned with seven others, all with guns holstered on their hips. They questioned Spiers and again demanded his ID. One of them snapped a photo of him.

Spiers, 37, who describes himself as half black and half Scottish, suspects he was singled out because of his skin color, adding that other visitors at the Locks were taking photos but no one else was being questioned or detained.

What upsets Spiers most is that during the second incident, after he'd answered a slew of questions and had been told he could go, an agent with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a branch of Homeland Security, asked to take Spiers' photograph. When Spiers said 'no,' "he told me, 'You really don't have a choice,' " Spiers said.

"I'm still like everybody else, trying to ask all kinds of questions, wondering why somebody needs to see my ID just for being down there with a camera," said Spiers. "As for the photo of me, I don't know if I should be concerned about getting on a plane. Am I now on some no-fly list or something?"

The American Civil Liberties Union is investigating the incidents, questioning officials on Spiers' behalf. In a June 21 letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that manages the Ballard Locks, ACLU attorney Aaron Caplan wrote that at the end of the May 26 questioning, "Special Agent Daniel McNamara of the Department of Homeland Security told Mr. Spiers that he was not allowed to take photographs at the Locks, and that he was not to return to the Locks without advance notice and permission."

ACLU spokesman Doug Honig said yesterday that he is not aware of any law that prohibits taking photographs of government buildings or federal facilities such as the Ballard Locks.

"You've got to wonder why Ian was singled out," Honig said. "The government says somebody made a complaint about Ian. It made sense they would talk to him, but it's quickly obvious he poses no security risk."

Spiers was told he had violated the Patriot Act, but there's nothing in the legislation that prohibits his actions, Honig said. The ACLU wants an explanation for what happened.

"You'd think government officials should be able to distinguish between a student and a spy, or a tourist and a terrorist, when it comes to taking photos at the Ballard Locks," Honig said.

Corps spokeswoman Patricia Graesser said her agency wasn't involved in either incident. "Any member of the public is welcome to come on the grounds of the Locks and take pictures," she said.

ICE Special Agent in Charge Leigh Winchell said yesterday he wasn't aware of either incident; he also declined a reporter's request to interview McNamara, saying that, as a matter of policy, agents don't answer media questions.

Though he declined to discuss protocol for questioning and photographing people, Winchell said "our security, particularly in and around our waterways in the Puget Sound area, is paramount at this time. ... we address all those situations seriously."

Seattle police spokeswoman Deanna Nollette also declined to comment on the incidents, saying she hadn't known about officers' contact with Spiers until reporters started calling about it.

Chris Simons, who taught Spiers' photography class, believes Spiers was racially profiled.

When Spiers showed up in class soon after the May 26 incident, "he was in shock — he was upset, confused and didn't know what to do; he was a little bit afraid, but it hadn't really hit him yet that he was being profiled," Simons said.

"That photograph (the agent took) is going to be attached to a file somewhere, and that's a little scary. When it comes to police photographing you, that's serious because they don't photograph you just for fun."

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or