Snapshot of a ‘terrorist’ photographer

Incident on train leads to New York City art gallery exhibit.

By: David Campbell
   Princeton photographer Nick Barberio is no terrorist, but New Jersey Transit authorities weren’t taking any chances last March when they hauled the photographer in for questioning.
   While riding the train into New York City, the commercial photographer and clothing historian was snapping a handful of pictures of industrial sites along the Northeast Corridor between New Brunswick and Metuchen.
   A fellow passenger thought he was doing reconnaissance for Al Qaeda and warned the conductor, and police pulled Mr. Barberio off the train in Newark to interrogate him. The photographer was released shortly afterward when authorities determined he wasn’t a threat to national security.
   Now, Mr. Barberio has channeled that experience — along with what he refers to as his "perverse interest" in factories, waste dumps and construction sites — into a new gallery exhibit in New York titled, appropriately enough, "Reconnaissance."
   The photographer has described his first-ever show, which is set to run Nov. 4 to 28 at Steven Harris Architects at 120 Chambers St. in the TriBeCa district of Manhattan, as "my own personal spying on the world" from different modes of transportation such as trains, buses and planes.
   It features images shot in locales "from Rome to the Rockies, from Alsace to the Bronx," of "landscapes overlooked and persons captured unawares."
   Mr. Barberio, who lives on Cherry Hill Road and commutes by train to New York frequently, is a clothing historian with a master’s degree from New York University. He has worked in production for McCarter Theatre as a draper and milliner and has done academic research with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute and for clothing historians.
   He has done photography work for the art museum at Princeton University and for food-and-wine magazines — one of which, an Italian wine magazine called "Gamero Rosso," brought him to New York City in March for a photo shoot, he said.
   "I had just come back from England on a trip," continued Mr. Barberio. "I was on my way from Princeton to New York City to do a shoot, and I was taking pictures from my train window to get rid of some black-and-white film I had left over. The person seated next to me thought I was gathering information for terrorists, I guess."
   The passenger slipped off for a while, and when the train pulled into the station in Newark, he continued, two police officers boarded the train and asked him to come with them.
   "They asked me if I was taking pictures of buildings, I said yes, and they told me I shouldn’t be taking pictures during a code orange," the photographer said, referring to the Department of Homeland Security’s color-coded terrorism alert system.
   Authorities quickly determined he wasn’t a threat and he boarded the next train into New York.
   Mr. Barberio said the experience, while not exactly frightening, was an eye-opening one.
   "I wasn’t arrested, it didn’t feel like it was a harrowing experience, but it did make me realize how our civil liberties are really eroding," he said. "It really opened my eyes. I feel we should be able to take pictures in public."
   He said the exhibit and its theme emerged partly as protest, but he was quick to add of his brush with homeland security, "I feel like it’s sort of a success story in a roundabout way. This may have turned into a career-changing event."