Sadly, I've lost the link in my huge email stack, but somebody the other day sent me a link to an article about photographers taking portraits on railroad tracks.
Photographers taking...um, what?
You know those times when you didn't know a thing was a thing? Well, I had no idea that taking portraits on railroad tracks was a thing. But just Google "portraits on railroad tracks" and hit "image," and you'll find out what I did:
There are thousands of 'em. It's a big thing. Portraits taken on railroad tracks.
Who knew? I didn't.
The article I can no longer locate quoted a Union Pacific representative, I believe, saying, in effect: stop that.
Several reasons: first, all train tracks, whether active or not, are private property. They can't even legally be crossed on foot except at designated crossings. Police officers can not only give you a ticket and a fine for doing so, but can actually arrest you and haul you in. And the railroads have their own police, who are authorized to do the same.
The fines can be stiff, too. One outraged blogger learned her $6,000 fine was part of a media event surrounding the little-known International Level Crossing Awareness Day, but even ordinary average run-of-the-mill fines can run up to $2,000.
Second, it can be dangerous. In 2012, 52-year-old Sacramento, California high school photography teacher Kathy Carlisle was killed on the train tracks. She was photographing one train approaching her and was struck by another coming the other way. Kathy must have assumed that the horns and ground vibration she heard were coming from the train in front of her, not another one behind her.
While people evidently feel that a train is too big to miss and thus can't be a danger, an accident involving a train and a person or a vehicle happens every three hours in the United States. I was actually on board a train once that struck someone. The train blew its horn repeatedly, braking till it shuddered, then stopped on the tracks for a long time. Along with others, I got off to find out what was going on. It turned out the train had struck a teenager walking on the tracks. He was hard of hearing, and had been listening to earphones—turned up loud, the only way he could hear the music (I learned all this from a newspaper article a couple of days later). The accident happened very close to a station. Despite people screaming at him and the train sounding its horn, he had no warning when he was struck from behind. He later died.
Also, if you have the misfortune to be killed by a train, you'll be suspected of suicide. As many as 50% of them might be; the real number is probably closer to 30%, but no one knows for sure. Irish-born U.K. photographer Bob Carlos Clarke committed suicide by train in 2006. But many deaths that aren't suicides are assumed to be by members of the public hearing the news. It's the same problem that caused the accidents in the first place: people really don't believe that train-to-pedestrian accidents can happen accidentally.
But they do. Between four and five hundred U.S. Americans are killed every year by trains, almost double the number killed in train-vehicle collisions of all kinds. (Many vehicle deaths are the result of the car hitting the train rather than the other way around, another fact that seems counter-intutive to most. The great book illustrator N.C. Wyeth, father of the late artist Andrew, was killed when he ran into a train in his car. [UPDATE: At least the way I heard the story. Several commenters believe otherwise. —MJ]
Both outstrip the number of people killed while on trains, in accidents such as derailments. Train-pedestrian accidents are the leading cause of death involving trains.
The final reason not to use train tracks as a portrait setting is that it encourages the very problem that causes the accidents, by presenting the setting as benign—an appropriate place to put a child or to use as a footpath. You wouldn't pose a kid in the middle of a highway or perched on the ledge of a high building, would you?
So: if you take portraits on train tracks: better stop that. Not a good idea.
(Thanks to Andre Moreau)
UPDATE: The reader who sent the link was Mike Plews, and here is the link. Thanks Mike!
ADDENDUM: I'm not sure I made this clear enough. I'm not really talking about photographers being on railroad tracks...if you know it's against the law and you're aware of the dangers, then the dumb illegal things you do to get a picture are up to you. I've trespassed to get pictures a time or two. Maybe I shouldn't have mentioned Kathy Carlisle, who was not shooting portraits as far as I know.
The post is really more about posing your clients, including minors, on railroad tracks. That's what got to me when I first saw that first link. It clearly sends the wrong message both to kids in the pictures and kids who look at the pictures. It's what seems really wrong to me. Sorry for not making that more upfront. —MJ
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Dmitriy Kostyuchenko: "For what it's worth, when I got ticketed for trespassing while taking photos near a rail line, the fine was only about $200.... No, the photos didn't turn out."
Oskar Ojala: "I've seen such photos, but always felt that the tracks as a setting were a bit of a cliché. The screen capture that illustrates this article doesn't make me think otherwise."
Mike replies: Right. Senior portraits, for instance...the graduate is "on the right track," headed off toward the horizon, etc., etc. You know.
Hugh Crawford: "When I was child this sort of thing happened all the time, or at least three or four times a summer. The brakes on the tomato and lettuce trucks were really bad, and The Western Pacific trains would take about a half mile to stop, and it was a real mess sometimes.
"I think that kid in the white sweatshirt is me. We had a slide tray of train wrecks from a grade crossing a mile down the road. In high school I knew a half dozen kids that got killed in train wrecks."
John Camp (partial comment): "When I was a newspaper columnist, I did a column about a Twin Cities lawyer who every summer would (illegally) hop a freight at the switchyards there and ride all over the country, jumping on and off trains, wherever he felt like it, and dodging the railroad cops. The column really upset the railroad people, and I went off to do a second column about how illegal and stupid train-hopping is.
"One thing they showed me is that often, in switchyards, you literally cannot hear a boxcar coming. That's because trains are (or were, anyway, and probably still are) made up with the least amount of power. They do that by having one powered engine push a line of boxcars, all going to a variety of destinations, up a rise in the track. As each car gets to the top of the rise, it is cut loose and begins rolling on its own down the other side. A guy in a switch booth will throw switches to get that boxcar to the correct train to take the boxcar to its destination. Those cars are often moving quite some distance through the switchyard, and almost silently. If you're trespassing in the night (which is most often the case, because you're sneaking around a forbidden area, and in the daytime, the railroad cops will spot you and arrest you) you can be hit and killed by one of these silently moving box cars, which, since they're often dark colors, you can't either see or hear coming.
"On the other hand, life is too short not to shoot around cars and trains. You just have to take care."