Sunday, February 13, 2011

Photographing Along The River Rouge: Detroit's Industrial Mecca

Zug Island
Being a Detroit-based photographer, I have always been attracted to the architectural and industrial subjects the city has to offer. While studying photography at Detroit's Center for Creative Studies in the early 90's I spent much of my time documenting Detroit's historical churches for a project called "The Threatened Legacy." I also often found myself in and around the heavily industrialized River Rouge area which is famous for Henry Ford's Rouge Complex.

When The Rouge was built in the 1920's it was the largest integrated industrial complex in the world. Most of it was designed by Albert Kahn, known as the "Architect of Detroit" and was studied by such notable artists and photographers as Diego Rivera, Charles Scheeler and Michael Kenna. The River Rouge area also has several other large industrial complexes including Marathon's oil refinery and the U.S. Steel mill on Zug Island, located at the mouth of the River Rouge where it empties into the Detroit River.

Rouge Remnants: Study II
In the early 90's I photographed all over this area and I don't recall ever running into any trouble with security. I definitely don't condone trespassing, but I do remember driving onto the grounds of a cement factory and making photographs with a large format view camera while workers drove around me with heavy equipment not seeming to care one bit. I also remember driving on to Zug Island, which requires you to cross a dual purpose bridge for vehicles and rail cars. Due to the very large "Photography Prohibited" signs at the entrance to the facility, I opted to forgo the tripod and large format camera, instead sneaking shots out my drivers side window with my SLR. I don't even remember any presence of a security station and was able to drive around a fairly significant portion of the island.

My main subject these days is primarily shooting long exposure water scapes of The Great Lakes. When I can't find the time to get to the lakes, I have recently found myself revisiting the heavily industrialized River Rouge area, which is conveniently very close to my place of work in Dearborn. Things seem to have dramatically changed in the post 911 era. I have found it difficult and sometimes impossible to access most of the areas of The Rouge that I would like to photograph.

Critical Infrastructure I
The Marathon Oil Refinery is currently undergoing a $2.2 billion heavy oil project and some of the structures they are constructing on site have really caught my eye. On a lunch break one day I decided to head out and take some shots. I parked my car in the street and headed down the sidewalk towards a tower they are building, looking for the best angle to shoot from. I chose a place on the sidewalk across the street from the site and set up my tripod and camera. Within a minute or so a security truck pulled up and asked if I was taking pictures. It seemed pretty obvious to me that I was, standing there with a camera on a tripod. Trying to be somewhat cordial, I said that I had no idea what that structure was they were building across the street, but it certainly was very interesting. He immediately responded, "That there is Critical Infrastructure!" At the time I had no idea what that meant, so I just responded saying, "OK, thanks! Just going to be taking some pictures of it." He drove off and pulled into a driveway just behind me and watched me make my exposures. After all, I was on a public sidewalk so I figured I have every right to be doing what I was doing. When I was done I packed up and started heading back to my car. The security vehicle slowly followed me to my vehicle and as I was putting my gear away, I noticed he was taking down my license plate number.

Back at my desk at work, I decided to find out more about what Critical Infrastructure is. According to The U.S. Department of Homeland Security website, Critical Infrastructure is defines as:

"…the assets, systems, and networks, whether physical or virtual, so vital to the United States that their incapacitation or destruction would have a debilitating effect on security, national economic security, public health or safety, or any combination thereof."

Some sectors that are considered Critical Infrastructure are electricity, oil and gas production facilities, transportation systems, emergency systems, communications, financial systems, agriculture and food, and even national monuments.

Each time I returned to the River Rouge area to take photographs, I was almost immediately approached by Homeland Security. Not knowing my full rights, I was careful not to trespass on private property. While photographing the Marathon construction project again, I was told that I was not allowed to take photographs of the Marathon facility. I kindly stated that I was under the assumption that I had every right to take photographs from a public sidewalk. He seemed to stumble a bit but then said that although he can't do anything to force me to leave, Marathon Oil really does not want photographs taken of their facility and asked that he would prefer that I moved on. By that time I had already taken the exposures I wanted so I decided to honor his request. While I was packing up I noticed my license plate number was being recorded again.

On another outing, I went to a city park on the Detroit riverfront and had to register with a Homeland Security officer to enter the park. My driver's license and vehicle information was recorded. At this point I really was starting to wonder if I was going to be flagged as some sort of risk to our national security.

Critical Infrastructure II
Things got worse one night when I was making some night exposures on a dark street. A security vehicle drove by, turned around and then stopped just down the street. I kept on taking exposures, watching out of the corner of my eye, as two more security vehicles approached. Suddenly I was surrounded by three Homeland Security vehicles on a dark street in Detroit with nobody else in sight. One of the security officers then pulled up right in front of me and aggressively said that I could not take pictures here. I responded that I was on a public street and have every right to take photos from where I was standing. He immediately shined his flashlight directly in my face and told me not to get smart with him and that if I did not leave he would call the police to have me removed. I told him to go ahead and call the police and that really pissed him off. He didn't call the police but started really yelling at me telling me not to get smart with him. I was getting a bit nervous by his reaction at this point so decided not to aggravate him any further and headed back to my car. I very slowly packed up my gear and then got in my car but did not drive away. The three security vehicles did not move. I wanted to just keep sitting there to see what they would do but eventually decided there was no point in staying any longer.

Rouge Remnants: Study I
After my late night confrontation, I decided to stay away from the oil refinery for a while and found myself on the banks of The River Rouge across from Zug Island. I made a few exposures and was there quite a while before I heard someone approaching. It was a Homeland Security officer dressed in combat boots, flak jacket and carrying a sidearm. He asked if I was aware that I wasn't allowed to be taking photographs from this location. I played dumb and told him I thought I was on public property, which was actually true. He was a really nice guy and said that he personally understands why people want to photograph here, that what he sees around him make him want to take pictures, but that this is an international port and photography is prohibited. He asked me to delete the photos I had taken from my memory card and he needed to confirm that they were deleted. I asked him what would happen if I denied his request. He told me that he is required to file a police report for all situations like this and that it would be noted on the police report that I did not cooperate. Again, I decided to comply with his request and deleted the photos. He asked me to show him that they were deleted so I looped through the remaining shots of my kids that were still on my memory card. The agent was a real nice guy so I took the opportunity to ask him all kinds of questions, which he was happy to answer. When I got home I used data recovery software and was able to recover all the images I deleted from my memory card.

Transmission Grid
Although I sometimes feel more like a terrorist than I photographer, I have learned quite a bit from these experiences with Homeland Security. First and foremost play by the rules and stay on public property. These guys mean business and I can't imagine what kind of legal trouble you may get into if you are actually trespassing on property that is being guarded by Homeland Security. Second, try to be as polite and honest with them as you can. This has been difficult for me at times but feel as though it is the best approach. You aren't going to get any further with them by getting aggressive with them, it will only piss them off and not get you any more time to photograph. Remember, these guys are only doing their job. Also, keep a second memory card on hand for a quick swap if needed, and find yourself some really good data recovery software.


  1. Beautiful high quality work man. Did u ever try to make contacts to get into the facilities?

  2. I've been talking with someone else about this and he informed me that these "Swat" looking guys that bothered you on public property were actually US steel security guards they just really look like police officers. Ask THEM for ID. If they are not a cop, tell THEM to move on or YOU will call the police. The same exact thing happened to me.

    1. That's a great point Chris.. I'll make sure to do that next time I run in to trouble!

  3. I had a similar situation occur just yesterday. As soon as I took my camera out and started taking photos of the industrial zone near Zug Island, I heard a vehicle slow to a stop behind me. No one got out, but as I was on bicycle and not trying to disturb anyone, I put the camera away and moved along. Next thing I know, there were two pick-ups reading "Marathon Detroit Refinery" and "Critical Infrastructure Protection" simultaneously following me and zipping ahead to photograph me. This continued for about a mile including me stopping several times and watching them come to complete stops not more than a few hundred feet away only to start up again when I did (Note: their driving style was particularly worrisome for me as I was on a bike and have been hit and seriously injured by a careless driver before). Finally, I attempted to confront them to ask why they were photographing and following me and they drove off quickly just as a police siren went off behind me. I was dumbfounded and still a little shaken, so I stopped. Cops were generally quite polite while they took my name and address, telling me several times I had done "nothing wrong". I mentioned that I had been considering calling them because of the harassing Marathon truck drivers, and they nodded but didn't seem to think it worth their time to look into. I wasn't looking for trouble and was still shaken by what had happened, so I let it drop and moved on into the city.

    Also, nice photos. Glad you were able to hold onto them.