mobile photography technology, culture and community

Boston Marathon snapshots take on new meaning

I took this photo at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Everywhere you looked, people were taking photos with phones, point-and-shoots and DSLRs.

When I was snapping photos at the finish line for the Boston Marathon, I had no idea that there could be bombs at my feet. 

It was my last day in Boston after a long weekend and I was three hours away from getting on a plane to head back to San Francisco. I decided to check out the event after hearing my Bostonian friends and family rave about the Patriot Day activities.

I used my iPhone to snap a few photos of my Boston observations: a gorgeous church at the finish line, a little girl on her mother’s shoulders as she took photos with mommy’s smartphone, and finally, a wide panorama shot from my spot at the race’s final stretch.

The first two photos went to my Instagram feed, but the last panorama didn’t resonate with me. It was a sloppy shot, with weird stitching and unclean borders. I had taken it in haste right before heading back on the subway. I even considered deleting it, but I didn’t. And two days later, I was sending it to the FBI. 

What I didn’t know about that panoramic photo at the time was I was capturing it just a few yards from the site of the second bomb that exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday. I didn’t know that I could possibly be taking photos of the person who dropped off a hacked pressure cooker bomb that was set to go off at 2:50 p.m. — just one hour and 20 minutes after I took the photo. I also had no idea that I could be taking photos of people that could end up being among the 3 dead and more than 170 injured from the bombings, nor that I was risking being one of them myself.

I learned of the bombings after I got to the airport. I had already gone through security when my friends started texting and calling me — frantic after seeing my recent Instagram photo from the finish line. I spent the remaining time before my flight staring at one of the many CNN-blaring television sets in Logan airport, praying that TSA would do an extra security check before I boarded my flight to LAX. (They didn’t, by the way.) 

After six and a half long, news-free hours, I landed in California, spending my 30-minute layover calling and texting the people who had left me messages while I was in the air.

This photo was taken just past the finish line at the Boston Marathon.

It wasn’t until Tuesday that it occurred to me that I had taken a photo that could be helpful to the FBI investigation. I skimmed a few articles about how the FBI was collecting photos and video as evidence and could not find an easy email to send my photos to. Instead, I dropped a “tip” on the FBI website, telling them to email me if they wanted my photo.

The next morning, I got an email from a counter terrorism agent based in San Francisco. I sent him my photo and shortly after, I received a call from him. He asked me a few questions about where I took the photo in relation to the blast. At the time, I wasn’t sure. I was gone by the time the bombs exploded and I hadn’t watched near enough cable news to memorize the blast maps. (I now know that the blast was to the left of me.) 

After explaining that I wasn’t there when the bomb when off, the agent’s questions turned to whether I had seen anything suspicious. I hadn’t. In fact, I was having a lovely morning. The atmosphere was buzzing with joy and celebration as the elite runners made it to the finish line. There was nothing to indicate the carnage that was about to take place. That was part of what made it so shocking.

The agent wanted all of the photos I had taken that day and I gladly sent him them, including that panorama I had almost deleted. (The FBI is still asking for Boston Marathon spectators to submit their photos to assist in the investigation -- if you have photos taken at the scene, you can send them to

My panoramic photo from the finish line of the Boston Marathon Monday, taken a little over an hour before two bombs exploded nearby.

I was very hesitant to share this photo with the public. While I was quick to use it to help with the investigation, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to publish it. It is by far the creepiest photo that I’ve ever taken. Looking into the faces of the people watching the marathon, you see unsuspecting victims. (Not to mention the fact that the stitching in the iOS panoramic feature made it look like some runners didn’t have legs -- especially spooky considering the gruesome effect the bombs would have when they exploded at ankle-height.)

While it’s not surprising that civilian photos are being used in an FBI investigation, the potential amount of raw footage under review may be unprecedented. The general public has collectively captured the event in high resolution and can send the data instantly to the authorities. The ubiquitous camera phone and the popularity of the social networks we use to share our photographs has us all recording and broadcasting more than ever before. The advent of new life logging devices and wearable tech like Google Glass is sure to increase this even further. And though we often question and consider what these advances mean for photography and our society in terms of personal privacy, recent events also highlight their potential role in public security.

Lauren Crabbe, @lcrabbe, is a freelance technology writer and photographer, specializing in photography technology and trends. You can find her biking around San Francisco, drinking a lot of coffee and capturing her daily observations with her iPhone on whatever app she is testing that day.


Total comments: 24

Beware of feeling "morally superior" to anyone....what a terrible comment. It's this type of feeling that has given Americans a bad name throughout the world. America is one of the most violent societies in the world but you will never hear this in America.

1 upvote
By (unknown member) (Apr 22, 2013)

I said a "sense of moral superiority" not that we actually are morally superior. With our free press and many laws designed to protect people or ensure equality we are way ahead of many societies, but that doesn't mean we have a monopoly on morality. We just try to be moral more than some other societies. And America is one of the most violent societies in the world? What an incredibly ignorant thing to say. First of all, this is one of the most peaceful eras in all of human history. If previous levels of violence were maintained as the population goes over 8 billion there would be constant and horrible wars today. Secondly, our crime rate has dropped like a rock in thirty years especially in the violent crime areas. Secondly, have you actually looked at stats for other countries? And third, if you consider lack of human rights in your violence numbers, look at all of the countries with government imposed violence (e.g. China aborting 8 month old fetuses to enforce 1 child laws).

Edited 2 times; latest 2 minutes since posting
By (unknown member) (Apr 22, 2013)

And we make our violence known to all, unlike most other countries where honor killings, violence against women, and child labor (etc.) are kept behind closed doors. Things seem worse because we know about every single bad thing that happens in this country. Other countries just have ongoing civil wars or genocide on a monthly basis or people starving because of corrupt governments using oil money to buy themselves mansions. Get real, man.


It looks like photos were useful in this investigation. However, photos of the marathon were also used to slander a number of innocent people, especially in online forums.

The problem with photo evidence is that it doesn't come with a narrative. Whoever looks at the photo creates their own narrative. That doesn't happen only in online forums, but also in law enforcement. It's like those contests they run sometimes asking participants to caption a photo. If one such a contest were serious, and challenged people to caption a photo with their best guess as to what REALLY was going on in the photo, the answers would vary wildly, based on the world view of the captioners. Many participants would be strongly convinced of their answers, even when proven wrong by subsequent events or evidence.


I know the author is trying to be helpful. But sending useless photos to the FBI hinter their works instead of helping them. If thousands of people send in 100 snapshots, the FBI will take a longer time to sort out the pictures and find the suspect. If people really want to help, they should look through their pictures and look for suspicious characters with large bag that could hold a pressure cooker. If such a person exist in their pictures, they should send the relevant picture to the FBI.

Edited 1 minute after posting

I can't agree with this at all. Any photo at all could be helpful. For example, AFTER dropping off the backpacks, photos of the bombers would have been useful to establish where they were at certain times and places. From there the F.B.I. would have known what video camera footage to focus on, to get better pictures, see if they were interacting with other people, etc. So actually, ALL photos would have been useful. That's why they repeatedly said that no evidence was too small to submit.


The FBI has experts with years of training who can decide which photos are useful and which are not. That's why they asked people to send any pictures they had, not waste time trying to play amateur detective. "Hinter" is supposed to be hinders.

Edited 52 seconds after posting

Duh, and who are we to decide what is relevant to the investigation and what is not alpha??


I can only hope surveillance goes off the charts after this and that the elite overplay their hand and put in place a serious police state apparatus. America's Black population has been talking about the police state for decades but it has fallen on deaf ears. Maybe you all will see it when you can no longer go anywhere outside your home without monitoring. Here's to the police state.


That photo is in real bad taste. Lots of missing limbs from runners at the center of the panorama.

1 upvote

I found it emotionally creepy as well but totally disagree on the bad taste comment. The author has an honorable reason for posting it, as the text more than explains to my satisfaction.

Thank you for the post Lauren.


I think that was an accident. Taking a panorama while people are in motion is the reason the runners have missing limbs. I doubt he put it out there for jokes. He probably just posted his panorama, not thinking about the overlaps and such. Just an innocent mistake, probably. Besides, the pic was taken BEFORE the explosions.


Yea, well like he addressed that stitching issue, it is a reality he had to deal with, lots of reality here, perhaps you should not view.

By (unknown member) (Apr 18, 2013)

At one time public places offered some level of privacy, anonymity, and the ability to hide in plane sight. Now digital imaging and video is too wide spread and cheap for anyone to have those illusions persist any longer. There is no reason public spaces shouldn't be recorded constantly. Everyone should behave in public as though there were thousands of witnesses staring at them because that's how most public spaces usually are. Funny that some people in some areas, say security people in subways, make such a huge deal about regular citizens taking photographs for their own personal use when in reality someone could easily take high definition video and high res stills covertly if they so desired. THOSE are the people that should be suspected, but they're not the most obvious targets so the incompetent and lazy concentrate solely on them. There are too many of us now with too many options for devastating, cheap, and simple methods of violence available at the local grocery store.

Edited 53 seconds after posting

There is no reason why public spaces shouldn't be recorded ?
Are we guilty until proven innocent these days ?

Never mind that all those cameras still did nothing to stop the criminals from executing their operation.

By (unknown member) (Apr 19, 2013)

Reductio ad absurdum de jour it seems. People volunteer by the millions to be tracked every single day. You give your social security number to anyone who asks though it is rarely a legal requirement. Your face is on record if you have a driver's license, not to mention your finger print(s). Every time you use the phone, a credit card, public transit, a private business, a government building, a museum, a gas are being monitored and recorded. All of this has nothing to do with guilt, it has to do with cheap technology and the willingness to use it. We like to pretend that our rights are absolute, that nobody infringes on our big freedoms like speech and religion but every day our rights are infinged like crazy. Why don't we notice? Becasue rights only exist up until the point they hurt others. It is human nature to understand this. It is criminal nature not to. Go on pretending you control your life and have unlimited freedoms. Or wake up and recognize the truth.

Edited 2 times; latest 4 minutes since posting
By (unknown member) (Apr 19, 2013)

You give your phone number or zip code to Bath and Body Works. You go onto Facebook and tell a BUSINESS how to sell things to not only you, but your friends and family and random strangers you went do highschool with for a day twenty years ago. Your patterns and relationships are being used right now to get you to spend money, and when those patterns are used for security people shout "Big Brother!" and take up arms against the tyrants that are keeping them down. Fools who say background checks for guns infringe on their Constitutional rights go buy a gun with a credit card, that information is sold to the highest bidder, and in a month they get an NRA membership form and a gun catalog....yet they don't ever cry "my privacy has been stolen and sold" because they're too busy writing a check to an organization that's sole purpose is selling guns under the auspice of protecting rights. Americans are such suckers. We don't think propoganda controls us like authoritarian regimes. Ha!

Edited 2 times; latest 5 minutes since posting

The thing is, we have certain obligations if we choose to live in the USA. One thing I learned at an early age is that nobody questions you when leaving this nation. The first time I left the USA (to Mexico) I was 15. My friends and I drove right in. No American authorities questioned our leaving. Coming back, of course, we went through checkpoints. My point is that everyone here in the USA is free to go. So for those who choose to stay we need to accept a certain level of responsibilty and duty. Security cameras in public places are not a threat to anyone's liberty.

By (unknown member) (Apr 19, 2013)

If anyone goes to a foreign country it quickly becomes apparent why America has earned its place in the world: work is rewarded here and given free reign more than anywhere else in the world. We're a young country but we chose to make ingenuity and freedom the grease on the gears of society. A lazy American would be considered a highly productive member of many other societies. Our bureaucracy is a breeze compared to other governments. Our bad is their good. We have made some poor decisions in dealing with the outside world, angering some with our overuse of power...but it's hard not to overdo it when you have so much of it. It's hard not to feel morally superior to countries that actively brainwash and keep their populations ignorant. Many of us are arrogant because of this. No matter what our fault, many hate us and even many of our own aren't trustworthy...not everyone was given the same upbringing and advantages. But the free market isn't there to be concerned with our rights.



People work hard elsewhere in the world, even 14 hour days in sweatshops and like, with very little recompense.

Also, didn't 90+ percent of Americans believe that Iraq had WMD when the U.S.A. went to war with Iraq? How is that not the result of a regime that actively brainwashes its population?

The Stockholm Syndrome proved that with a couple of days in the hands of anybody at all, hostages begin to sympathize with their aims. Yet you seem to think that Americans are not influenced in their thoughts by a lifetime spent in the U.S.A., passing through the public school system, etc.

Maybe you can answer a question that the President's spokesperson refused to answer the other day. How are drone strikes that kill civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan different from this attack? It may seem obvious to you, but people elsewhere in the world have trouble understanding the difference objectively, when subjective love of country is taken out of the mix.

By (unknown member) (Apr 20, 2013)

The problem with sweatshops is they destroy the human spirit and turn the people into meaningless, dispensible robots. The society in those cases are just as doomed as those societies that don't work hard enough. There are far ends of the spectrum, but imagine how unstoppable a huge, ancient society would be if they were offered freedom. At the same time, look at the chaos of India and see what hard work and an inadequate government leads to....overcrowding, poverty, class inequality, sexual inequality.
No, 90% of Americans didn't believe there were WMD's in Iraq...but again, we have power and a sense of moral superiority, so things get out of hand easily. As for drone attacks, I'm sure some civilians are killed, but a government that lies to its own people....well, what do you think they would do when speaking to the world? Suddenly become honest and forthright world citizens? Of course we are influence by our surroundings, but our information is more reliable and open.

Edited 58 seconds after posting
By (unknown member) (Apr 20, 2013)

Our government may be full of liars, but at least we have a free press to make an attempt to keep them honest. They use more manipulation that outright lies most of the time, and most of Americans are pretty gullible and easy to convince into a certain course of action without much real fact to support it. Politicians are there to make you afraid and tell you who to blame for your fear. The new 24 hour media is just as guilty....the more afraid you are, the better their ratings. The more extreme you are, the more you'll be tied to them. I've seen some news programs that contain almost zero news, and I've seen hosts get extremely angry over things that hadn't even happened. And then I can only pity in silence the person showing me the video agreeing with someone with such a tenuous grasp on reality. Most humans on this planet have very little intelligence or ability to think; Americans have a slight edge, but few ever learn how to think for themselves.



You're right, it was much less than 90% of Americans that believed that Saddam Hussein had WMD. I'm seeing numbers like 50% to 70% on the Internet. I may have been confused by a poll that said that 90% of Americans think that Saddam Hussein would have made WMD if he had a chance.

As for America, we probably agree more than we disagree. Your point about it being easier to do business is well taken. The trains run on time for the most part.

However, it's easy to make a case that our vigilance and security apparatus are out of control. Innocent people are slandered in the same we saw on the Internet with the Boston marathon case, but at round table meetings in fusion centers where people throw out wild ideas about what citizens "may" be doing based on photographs, sketchy psychoanalysis, and the like.

Pre-9/11, there was enough spying to identify the suspects--it just wasn't acted on. With the huge increase in spying, nothing much positive has been accomplished.

Edited 2 times; latest 6 minutes since posting

This was already discussed in a thread from right after the incident:
and more specifically:

Total comments: 24
About us