I get asked several times a year to have portrait sessions on Railroad Tracks. In fact, I have done them a handful of times in the past, and they were among some of my most popular images to date. I mean look at these for example. You not only get a great perspective shot, but it is a cute theme that represents you are headed somewhere in your life. A new beginning maybe? But both of these images within this post could have actually gotten me arrested! This location idea has been extremely popular nationwide, especially for HS Seniors, for several years, but now when I am asked to have a session at one of the many track locations in our area, I say, “no”, and here’s why.
First of all, it’s dangerous. Not just the fact that people twist their ankles or get caught in the rails all the time, but yes, what seems obvious to me, and I’m sure to you as well, is that you don’t stand on the tracks to have your picture taken with a train barreling down on you. But here’s the problem, most trains do not run on straight, completely visible tracks. There are bends, trees, hills, etc that obstruct the conductor’s view of you as well as your view and the sound of the train quickly coming your way. In fact, just late last year, a teacher who taught art and photography was struck and killed by a train while taking photos on the tracks.
Roughly every three hours in the U.S., a person or vehicle is hit by a train. -Operation Lifesaver
That’s not enough of a reason? How about this? Here are 6 reasons the FRA’s “Operation Lifesaver” lists as to why you should never have a Portrait Session on the Train Tracks.
- Trains can’t stop quickly to avoid people or vehicles on the tracks.
- An optical illusion makes it hard to determine a train’s distance from you – and its speed.
- The average train overhangs the track by at least three feet.
- Railroad tracks, trestles, yards, and rights-of-way are private property.
- No tracks should be assumed to be abandoned or inactive.
- People in your community mimic your behavior.
“Well, what about those tracks that aren’t being used by trains often or at all?”
Those are called DEAD tracks. And as it states on the FRA’s (Federal Railway Association) website, ALL tracks, live or dead, are PRIVATE PROPERTY and you are ILLEGALLY TRESPASSING by doing anything other than legally crossing tracks via a marked roadway, etc.
So you say you are willing to take your chances on a dead track since they are “safe”. Then I guess you won’t mind taking the risk to you AND your clients of each being fined “up to $10,000, and even possible arrest.” So now think again…. is that image really worth the risk?
Let’s backtrack (no pun intended)…
If there are so many photos out there of people on the tracks, then they must not be enforcing it, right? Wrong!
Before I knew it was illegal, I actually had a police officer pull up next to me at my last session at the RR tracks, and nicely say, “You know I can not only fine you, but actually take you in for doing that, right?”
WOW! Not only was I surprised, but I WAS LUCKY that he was so nice to me about it. I had no idea! After a short chat with the officer, I started looking into it more online. These property owners actually do call the police when they see trespassers. So you really are taking a big chance, just for an unoriginal, cliche of a portrait that has become no more creative than spot color. (But that’s another topic altogether.)
“We understand the passion that photographers have for their work; however, they may not realize that using train tracks as a backdrop for portraits of high school seniors, wedding parties, and families is not only dangerous, it is illegal trespassing,” -Operation Lifesaver President Helen M. Sramek
Top priority is safety, true, but as Professional Photographers, I would also think that each and every TRUE PROFESSIONAL should be offering our clients more CREATIVE and ORIGINAL options by now anyway, without the risk of a $10,000 fine and possible arrest to the photographer AND their clients.
Educating not only our potential clients but also our friends, families, fellow photographers, and especially HS seniors, that taking pictures on the tracks is not only terribly dangerous but also illegal! It’s time to think outside the box.
follow OLI on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, and Instagram! We also invite you to visit the Federal Railway Association’s website at http://www.fra.dot.gov/Page/P0001
and follow the FRA on Facebook and Twitter.
The most comment question I get asked is this one that I received from a fellow professional photographer in North Carolina just last week….
“… I see these photos online in Facebook, Instagram, Google and Pinterest all the time. I have shared your blog post and information, but not everyone is happy to receive it. They get defensive and claim that they will continue to do it. What is the next step when education isn’t working? Is there anything I can do to curb this kind of behavior?”
YES! TAKE ACTION!
Anyone can anonymously REPORT IT and here’s how…
- Start by locating your OLI State Coordinator for where the offending photo is from, by going to this page http://oli.org/state_coordinators/ .
- If your state’s OLI has a Facebook page, then send a private message asking them how they prefer to be notified of a photographer who is shooting on the tracks.
- Send the state coordinator a direct link to the photo’s location and any contact information you may have on the photographer or organization using the image. If your state coordinator does not have a Facebook page, then send an email as that should also be listed in the OLI link above. (Some coordinators prefer email, others don’t have a preference.)
- OLI will NOT reveal how or who reported the image. They will contact the photographer or organization directly, fully educate them on the dangers, legal issues, and how displaying such images encourages this behavior in others, and they may even choose to contact the railway company to let them make the decision on any action they would also like to take.
Prefer to APPROACH & EDUCATE them yourself?
Here are a few links that are easy for you to copy and paste to share with them and help back up your statement and reasons for concern.
- OLI article regarding Photography on Tracks: http://oli.org/news/view/operation-lifesaver-urges-professional-photographers-to-stay-safe-stay-away
- Railroad Safety for Photographers: http://digital-photography-school.com/railroad-safety-photographers
- BNSF Railway Co Targets Photographers: http://mtstandard.com/news/local/railroad-targets-trespassers/article_aff356ea-e8e0-11e1-b5ff-001a4bcf887a.html
- Amtrak’s Policy on Photography on Tracks: http://www.amtrak.com/photography-video-recording-policy
- Union Pacific’s Policy on Photography on Tracks: http://www.up.com/aboutup/community/safety/safety_policies/photo-video_policy/index.htm
- Pinterest Board of Rail Safety: http://www.pinterest.com/juli_bonell/rail-safety-no-portraits-on-tracks/
- And of course this blog post: http://bonellphotography.blogspot.com/2013/06/train-track-sessions-are-illegal.html
—> Ok… So you think “REPORT IT” sounds bad.
Read my post again, carefully this time… You will see that I am in no way telling people to call the police or federal government on those who shoot on tracks. That would be ridiculous. It is simply a choice between personally educating these people, or have OLI (Operation Lifesaver) educate them. That is what they do. Educate. Nothing more. OLI would make the decision if the individual has done anything extreme enough to warrant any further action.
Thank you, and keep spreading the word!