FARGO – Kirk Ludwig stoked the fears of many area residents this week. Now he fears for his own safety.
The Fargo man has been presumed to be a pedophile by thousands online, banned from the city's public pools and physically threatened after taking some photographs here early Monday afternoon at the Island Park Pool. A local barber who saw him secretly shooting photos at the pool posted about it on Facebook, saying Ludwig was taking photos of kids in their swimsuits.
All of it, he says, is a misunderstanding. He insists he wasn't taking pictures of children.
"There was obviously nothing inappropriate," he told The Forum on Friday, five days after he was confronted while taking pictures of the pool.
After the initial post by Jed Felix, which had been shared on Facebook nearly 4,500 times as of Friday night, Ludwig was interviewed by police, banned from the city's pools and publicly condemned.
Ludwig, who has a wife and daughter, says he has changed his physical appearance after receiving death threats on Facebook.
Even a Clay County Sheriff's Department detective made a threatening comment about Ludwig, writing on Facebook that "someone should of stomped his guts out."
"This is completely destroying my life," Ludwig said. "And I'm very certain that I'm gonna lose my job."
He insists there was nothing sinister about his pictures and that there were no children at the pool when he was there Monday, from about 12:40 p.m. to 12:50 p.m.
"There were no kids in any of the pictures," he said. "I reviewed the photos and there were no kids, in any of them."
Fargo police conducted a forensic review of his camera, including deleted photos, and didn't find anything criminal, Ludwig said.
He was taking pictures of someone diving into the water, he said. He noted that he is a professional photographer who also shoots pictures in his spare time.
Roger Gress, executive director of the Fargo Parks District, said there were children's swimming lessons at the Island Park Pool on Monday until 12:45 p.m.
Regardless of whether children were photographed, Gress said, the important point is that Ludwig was "lurking around ... crouched down, taking pictures through a window," and it was right to ban him from the city's pools.
Gress confirmed that Ludwig was taking pictures of a female diver, though he said he didn't know if the diver was an adult or a child.
Ludwig and Gress met Friday morning, and Gress said Ludwig told him, "I understand that I looked like a creep."
In his interview with The Forum, Ludwig said he practices "candid street photography," in which subjects do not know they are being photographed. He said he "learned a hard lesson" this week.
"What might be OK and normal behavior in a big city is just interpreted as weird and creepy in a small city," he said.
Ludwig said he likes shooting all sorts of subjects, he said, including landscapes and buildings. But he has another, more unusual interest: expression photography.
He finds a subject – someone in public who does not notice him – and points his camera at the person.
"I wait for them to see me, and then I take the shot," he said. "I do want to be seen eventually. That's pretty much the only picture that's of value to me, is the one when they see me."
Ludwig was avoiding attention because he did not want the diver to see him – that way, he could capture a natural picture.
"I only get the photos I want from unaware subjects," he said.
He was then confronted by Felix, who said Ludwig calmly explained it was legal to shoot photos in public.
After Ludwig left, police opened an investigation and interviewed Ludwig. He was not charged with a crime for his photography, though he was charged for possession of marijuana when police say they found pot in his car when he drove to the downtown police station to be interviewed by officers.
Though his photography was not illegal, police still moved to ban Ludwig from the city's pools for 90 days, said Gress, who agreed with the decision.
When Ludwig met with Gress on Friday, he did not ask for the ban to be lifted. He simply wanted to explain himself.
Ludwig showed Gress some of his work. Gress said he told Ludwig the whole situation could have been avoided if Ludwig had given the Parks District a heads up that he was going to be taking pictures.
At the end of the meeting, Gress said he "felt sad" for Ludwig and the public vitriol he has received.
For Ludwig, the lesson was that his brand of photography is not welcome here.
"I'm not a courteous photographer. The lesson I learned is that I cannot be a discourteous photographer," he said.