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Edwardsville photographer's art project puts him at odds with Wood River Refinery, police
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Edwardsville photographer's art project puts him at odds with Wood River Refinery, police

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ROXANA • Documentary filmmaker and educator Tom Atwood, a former television reporter, set out to photograph the industrial grandeur of the Wood River refinery over time.

What he got were tense encounters with the owners and police, who he said have treated him like a potential terrorist.

And some interesting pictures anyway.

Atwood, 57, of Edwardsville, is in the final stages of “The Refinery Project,” a year-long effort that is scheduled to be on display July 18 through Aug. 22 at the Edwardsville Arts Center, 6165 Center Grove Road.

Atwood said the project had challenged his assumptions about freedom, authority and the rights of the public on public property. The massive oil refinery, owned by Phillips 66, and nearby police departments have defended their actions, citing what they call national security concerns.

Atwood is a professor of broadcast journalism at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville who has been married 33 years and has two grown children.

He traces his fascination with the refinery to a comment made 20 years ago by his now-grown son, Riley.

“I remember the first time that I drove past the refinery with my family and being shocked that an industrial plant of such magnitude was so close to suburban communities,” Atwood said.

Then Riley piped up from the back seat.

“Dad,” he said, “We’re really lucky to live here, aren’t we?”

“He loved it,” Atwood recalled. “But then again, he also liked junkyards.”

Riley’s fascination with the plant proved infectious.

Atwood found himself drawn to it, particularly on winter nights, when the plant’s lights sparkled through a haze of steam in the frigid air.

Taking photographs of the refinery grew out of a hobby, later a side job, as a portrait photographer that Atwood took up after he went back to school in 2006. He had enrolled at SIUE seeking a master’s degree in mass communications. It was part of an effort to reinvent himself as a teacher after jobs that included stints as Metro East bureau chief for KSDK (Channel 5) and as a filmmaker for an educational think-tank in Tennessee.

Many of Atwood’s pictures feature attractive women, often showing a fair amount of skin, set against the refinery’s imposing backdrop of soot-stained stacks, steam clouds and twinkling lights.

Atwood calls his pictures “an art effort.” If he has achieved art, it was not with the cooperation of the refinery and the police who patrol its boundaries.

Atwood said that he had been stopped and questioned — illegally, he asserts — about half a dozen times by refinery security guards and police officers, particularly those from Roxana and South Roxana.

His first shoot, in May, was typical of scenes that would play out over the course of the project at the complex, which sits in Roxana just north of the boundary with South Roxana.

“I was setting up for a shoot on a long, gravel parking lot along Madison Street in South Roxana,” Atwood said. “There was no sign on the lot; it looked like a public parking area.”

Within minutes, a police car pulled up.

“The officer told me, ‘You can’t do that here,’ ” Atwood said.

It turned out that the parking lot was private property, owned by the refinery. Atwood would come to learn that the refinery owns just about all the property that abuts the behemoth plant that is not a city street or sidewalk.

Atwood said he was careful from then on to shoot only from public streets and sidewalks.

But the confrontations continued.

At one point, he said, a South Roxana officer told him that the refinery had the power under the Patriot Act to confiscate his camera. He said other officers had threatened to arrest him in the name of special Homeland Security laws, and that plant guards, citing the terrorist attacks of 9/11, have threatened to have his name placed on a national list as a security risk.

He once received a phone call at home from police warning him about taking photographs.

The incidents raised Atwood’s First Amendment hackles.

“As a reporter, my first commandment was freedom of speech; 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,” Atwood said. “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.”

He said the matter struck him as an effort by the refinery to wield utter control of the entire area, even those places that were public property. He said police departments had been too quick to take the plant’s side. The villages and the cities around the plant rely heavily on the refinery for taxes and jobs.

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.”

Roxana’s police chief, Will Cunningham, said his department had responded to calls from the refinery to check out Atwood’s activities.

He said the police had not shown special preference to the plant in responding to its calls.

“If it’s worthy enough for someone to call police, it’s worthy to check out,” Cunningham said.

“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?” Cunningham said, alluding to last year’s Boston Marathon bombing.

Bob Coles, the new chief of the South Roxana Police Department, said he respected Atwood’s rights as a citizen, even if he did not appreciate his art.

“I’ve seen some of his pictures of half-naked, scantily clad women; not sure I’d call it art, but to each his own,” Coles said.

Still, Coles said, Atwood can be in the wrong even when shooting from a public place.

“It is absolutely illegal for him to stand on a street and take pictures,” Coles said. “What if someone turned off Madison Street and didn’t see him or his models?”

A national expert on the First Amendment said recently that Atwood had the law on his side.

Mickey Osterreicher, a lawyer, has represented scores of journalists and others on public photography rights and other issues. He said Atwood’s was a common complaint.

“Basically, the law says that if you can see it standing in a public place, you can photograph it,” Osterreicher said. “Nonetheless, many times I have dealt with this very issue in Washington, where security guards and police are telling people they can’t take a picture of this or that building.”

Osterreicher noted, however, that the First Amendment was “not absolute.”

“It’s subject to reasonable time, place and manner restrictions. If someone’s in the middle of the street, blocking oncoming traffic, an officer has a right to ask them to move to the sidewalk.”

Other than that, the public’s right is clear, he said.

“Fortunately, the federal government has issued very specific guidelines noting that police and guards can’t forbid people on public property from taking a photograph,” Osterreicher said.

Atwood said there was a marked change in his dynamic with the refinery after his brother, Bill Atwood, posted a complaint about the plant’s actions on his Facebook page.

Bill Atwood is executive director of the Illinois State Board of Investment. His post led scores of photographers, free-speech supporters and others to besiege the refinery with complaints.

Tom Atwood and the refinery recently reached a tenuous accord: The plant will not call in guards or police if Atwood notifies it ahead of any shoot to divulge when and where he would take pictures.

Atwood said he agreed for the sake of finishing the project and protecting the models. But he said the agreement did not sit well with him.

“There were times when I told myself that I should just man up and force them to arrest me. I stood down because my models did not deserve to be drawn into that kind of drama,” he said.

“But that doesn’t mean I like it.”

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Paul Hampel is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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