Bury the Railroad Track Shots

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The railroad track shot is uncool and dead. I challenge you to bury it.

It wasn’t very long after the first rail was hammered into the earth, when a photographer spotted the metaphor. Since then, tracks have been dramatized in billions of photos, artwork, commercials, and movies. Add the popularity and ease of entry into photography, over-posting to social media, and less creativity; railroad track shots have become a worn-out cliche’.

In the United States, it is ILLEGAL to shoot on them and near them. You are guilty of TRESPASSING on private property. When you snap a photo, you’re providing the evidence. Law enforcement thanks you.

Hold on. This is where those who don’t get it will react. It will be rapid revolt, denial of facts or simple apathy. I’m okay if you stop reading because I won’t change your mind anyway. To the others, please continue.

I am a professional Location Scout for commercials, movies, and commercial photography. I worked on a movie which involved a scene on the track and on a national commercial for a railroad company. On both of the projects, proper protocol was in play (permission asked and granted, safety meetings held, railroad company personnel were present while shooting, proper PPE worn, etc.). These steps are a professional, legal, and safe process.

Shooting on private property without permission is called “stealing a shot.”

Often, I am asked – “Do we need permission to shoot at location X versus shoot without asking?” I simply reply:  Would you be okay if a photo or film crew shot on your property (front lawn, backyard, dining room, or any of the land you own) or perhaps your place of business – without asking?

SAFETY.  You can get hit by a train easier then you think but most human beings are injured (almost daily) by being around tracks. They slip off the rail (which you should NEVER EVER be on) or fall against the steel or loose it off a bridge or are hurt in many other ways. Some of those people die.

Photo galleries of your local hobbyist-turned-photographer are cringeworthy! Teens, families, and babies are draped across active railroad tracks. By the way, does child protection services know about these people?

And if you are a Liker who thinks it’s ‘cute’ or ‘awesome’ – you’re an enabler.

After seeing local shooter’s websites, I reached out politely to inform them that it’s illegal and unsafe. Their reactions were negative: “I am offended you would accuse me of…”, “Oh that was when I first started” (but I’m not taking the photos down), “Who do you think you are?”, and I got at least one “F you.”

By the way, it doesn’t matter if the line is “dead” or that you’re shooting from the break in the track. The viewer of the photo doesn’t know that… It is the PERCEPTION – you are promoting it as okay.  Ironically, it’s still illegal.

If you are a model or subject or you hired a Photographer to take photos of you or your family, why would you agree to be led into a dangerous situation? I am baffled at parents that say OK to a photographer who says, “Let’s put your baby on the railroad tracks.”

Honestly, I too have taken railroad photographs. But years ago, when more photographers began to appear (including way too many amateurs) a change in thinking came to me. I began to feel odd, guilty, and trite when looking at the railroad shot. I began to say NO to clients that asked.

Then Sarah was killed.

Sarah Jones was a young camera assistant and a colleague, ordered to follow trespassers – to “steal a shot.”  After I cried, with everybody else who cared, I grew angry at how standard procedures were not followed. I was embarrassed at the black mark the horrible tragedy placed on true professionals in the industry that get it and are safe – all the time.

If you call yourself a professional filmmaker or photographer, I challenge you to bury the railroad track shot. STOP putting people in unsafe and illegal positions. Think harder. Find an alternative location.

To those who don’t care about breaking the law or putting themselves and their subjects in harm’s way, I am pleading to you – to STOP.  If you’re a hobbyist or enjoy posting the next photo to social media – PLEASE DON’T.

Be smart. Be safe. Have fun and live.

Want more information or prefer to get involved with Railroad Safety?  Engage with Operation Lifesaver.

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See offenders?  Report them to local law enforcement or the railroad police (yes, there’s such a thing).

Are you at the early stages of your film or photo career?  Read my Open Letter to you about being safe and not being afraid to say NO.

Content COPYRIGHT Jamie Vesay    ANY USE requires permission.

An Open Letter to Young Filmmakers & Photographers

Silouette crewEdited – August, 2020

Dear Young and “New” Filmmakers, Photographers –

A terrible thing happened on a movie set. Somebody died.

Her name was Sarah. She was a Camera Assistant in a Union. She was young but experienced.

As your elder brother and alumni of the old school, I am writing to you—asking, pleading to you — IF you EVER feel UNSAFE on a SET — please SPEAK UP!

Youth and new breeds passionate ambition and naiveté. It is too easy to be blinded by the flame. There are inherent pressures of being the new person on the crew and you want to prove worth. You don’t want to rock the boat or you think you need the job. You certainly want more work another day. Or maybe you just don’t know any better.

In your career you will be asked to work in dangerous places. Some will be glaringly unsafe while others may be not so obvious. A location shoot might be as crazy as setting up on an active railroad line! But more likely it will be near busy traffic, on the top of a building, over deep water, in bad weather, close to explosives, or craziest of all — shooting anything anywhere with a crew that has zero experience doing what they are about to do. Still, the worst are set leaders who simply don’t care… yep, they’re out there.

From the next indy film with three friends to a giant studio movie with a crew of a thousand to shooting french-fry grease for a cooking show — you WILL find yourself in the shadow of risk one day. My plea is not exclusively to moviemakers. I see too many photographers shooting local fashion or a music video, draping models on train tracks or having them swim in a polluted high-current river. Graduation and engagement pictures are snapped on rickety fire escapes or inside abandoned private properties that have weak floors, broken glass, and numerous environmental hazards. While we’re talking trespassing, I disagree emphatically with those who say, “It’s easier to apologize then to ask permission.” There is no amount of sorry that can repair the loss of life. Today’s trespasser is tomorrow’s unsafe set decision-maker.

Now here we are in 2020; a global pandemic thanks to COVID-19. As of this writing (editing of a ’14 post) we’ve been through months of an industry stop, economies being shut down internationally, lockdowns, shelters-in-place, events cancelled, health measures mandated, and guidelines put in place. Why? Basic SAFETY of human beings. Yet production crews are beginning to shoot again—during a pandemic.

This is indeed an extraordinary situation. ALL of us are in it. There are many reasons why people are saying yes to work and I understand most of them. But friends, newbies, “young” in the biz; this is NOT the time to jump on a job out of desperation or excitement. IF you are being offered work, best to accept it with crew you know and trust. Ask THEM about their feelings on working again (especially if you are the hirer). If ANY standard safety guidelines are not addressed PRIOR to booking a job – DO NOT book that job. If all seemed well at booking and you show up to an unsafe set — SAY NO. Walk away if you need to… Again, extraordinary times. It is literally life or death. Sadly, for every production company that is still holding a standards-bar high on all fronts (safety, insurance, permits, process) there are 10,000 who are not.

All of my old-school colleagues can tell you at least one story of being asked to do something UNSAFE. Many have said yes. I have, and I hate that I didn’t say NO.

Sets should be controlled environments where artists in filmmaking and photography can work comfortably and safely. Terms such as owned, permitted, and locked-up should mean, that you as a professional crew member are now safe to proceed to do what we all love. NEVER EVER should you be on any set, in fear of injury or by no means, working and waiting to escape from danger at a second’s notice.

If you ever need to shoot anything in a dangerous environment, SAFETY is always first. Many discussions should be had, permissions need to be granted, safety meetings should be held and those measures need to be applied, experienced professionals MUST be part of the crew, and ALL of your sets need to be CONTROLLED.

Sarah was killed on an uncontrolled set.

To all the Directors, Writers, and Producers with that vision for that shot – STOP!  Does it really have to be in a location that will put the crew in danger? If something is so obvious to your human nature that the shot has probable RISK of injury; THINK HARDER. Be more creative, not less. STOP putting people in harms way!

And frankly, if you are calling yourself a film or photography professional or company and not getting any of this or if you are an admitted unsafe set instigator, LEAVE this business immediately and stop saying you are one of us!

Doing what you’re doing is a privilege and an honor. We work in one of the most fantastic industries on the planet. The work can be dangerous. Please, be equally respectful of the gift and the danger within it. Work with like-minds and speak up — together. Always ask questions. Be smart.

Stay safe. And don’t ever be afraid to say no.

Jamie Vesay
Location Scout, Manager, Producer for commercial Motion Pictures.
Experienced in physical special effects, art department, scriptwriting.
Movies, commercials, documentaries, corporate films, branded content, etc.
Been doing it all for 30+ years.