Be careful where you point your camera abroad

Katia Evans
Saturday 03 May 2003 00:00 BST

On Avenida Balboa, the chaotic main street of Panama City, we found an imposing edifice where the Stars and Stripes flag was flying at half-mast. The tragic loss of the seven astronauts aboard Columbia was still fresh news on everyone's lips. My husband Michael stopped and raised his camera to immortalise a moment in American history.

Two policemen clad in military-green uniforms and peaked caps approached us. They wanted to remove the film. Last week on this page, the perils of photography behind the Iron Curtain and at Stansted airport were revealed. It is now also apparently forbidden to take pictures of US embassies.

Rather than losing 35 pictures of our holiday for the sake of one unfortunate snap of the American flag, we asked to speak to someone in English. They pointed at the embassy, stopped the traffic and escorted us across the road.

The front of the embassy has a portal with swinging, thick glass doors. A young man approached: tall, clean cut, very American. We felt some relief at the chance to explain ourselves. As Michael stepped forward, the man yelled, "Stand back. Don't enter."

We stood back. Michael said "These two policemen seem very eager to confiscate my film."

"That's right," the man barked. "It's because I've sent them. I'm head of security here and they are following my orders."

Suddenly, my years of sweet-talking and appeasing fractious school pupils became an asset. I explained that we felt the flag at half-mast was a touching tribute to the astronauts." His taut features softened. He said gruffly, "You must understand that in this situation with Iraq our security is on very high alert." Then he smiled, said "Have a good day", turned smartly on his heels and went back through the glass door.

Michael decided not to make a similarly quick exit, and instead asked the pair of policemen to pose for him. "For goodness sake, Michael," I hissed, but the officers happily stood to attention.

"Muchas gracias." Michael clicked and waved, and we walked away from the two men.

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