I recently wrote a post on The Online Photographer (TOP) called Giving Us a Power We Don’t Have, about the new anti-photographer laws in the United Kingdom. The post drew a great many thoughtful comments from TOP readers, but I thought it might also be apropos to impart a few tips of a more immediately practical nature concerning photographing in public. These are just a few of the ways I know of or have heard of over the years to avoid attracting attention, and of dealing with trouble when it arises.
Use either a very big camera, or a very small camera. People seldom feel threatened by a tiny camera the size of the Sigma DP-1 or Panasonic LX3, but they also don’t feel very threatened by a giant, clumsy view camera on a tripod (they are also seldom aware of “the moment it clicks” with a big view camera, since you’re not looking through the camera when you take the picture). I suspect that setting up a big camera makes you less of a threat because it immobilizes you; you can’t go sneaking about with one of those. You’re also given an opportunity to confidently pretend that you have every right to be doing what you’re doing. Of course, you’re subject to tripod restrictions in very public places such as crowded city sidewalks and tourist attractions, so do your homework ahead of time and be sure you have a permit if you need one.
Have examples of your work with you. I heard that Joel Meyerowitz used to carry a copy of his book Cape Light with him when he was working on his book Redheads, as a way of explaining himself. In his case, it was mainly for the benefit of the people he was trying to photograph, not to get out of jams with rent-a-cops, but it might be useful for all sorts of people who might challenge you. By showing them what you do and what you’re after, they should be able to infer that you’re not after something else more sinister.
Carry a business card and give it away freely. If you’re stopped or threatened, a card goes a long way toward explaining who you are and implies that you have nothing to hide.
Have a rap and have it ready. You’ll be more prepared if you go out assuming you’ll be challenged. Be ready, don’t take it personally, and have a spiel ready to go that emphasizes that you’re a hobbyist, tourist, or shutterbug—or that most indeterminate sort of slacker, an artist!
When a Dwight Schrute yells at you, approach him with your hand out, and introduce yourself. Rent-a-cops and other security types aren’t used to having bad guys come toward them; they’re used to having bad guys run away or retreat. Give ‘em a little respect and act forthrightly. A little respect doesn’t always work, but it sometimes does, and it can’t hurt. It’s cheap to you.
Ask them for help. Asking someone for help changes your relationship to them. This works with potential thieves—you turn yourself from their prey into their beneficiary, and them from predators into good Samaritans—and it works with cops and guards too, whose job it often is to help people, after all. Have a question ready to go for when someone approaches you or hassles you.
Be aware that many civilians who hassle you are exhibiting guilty consciences. They’re nervous about something and they’re worried you’re getting the scoop on them. Try photographing around active private construction and see if you don’t find this out lightning-fast! Ordinary citizens break all kinds of laws all the time. A snoop with a camera represents a threat to a guy who is hiding a car from the repo man or has recently burned a pile of branches and leaves in violation of village ordinances. This sort of thing, in infinite variety, is more widespread than you might think. So just try to be aware of what might be motivating the other person, and you’ll know better how to defuse them.
Have an escape plan when you trespass! And be aware that you’re the one breaking the law.
Use a disguise. I’m sort of kidding, but from what I hear, Elliott Erwitt often dresses rather extravagantly like the stereotype of a tourist. Your photo vest and Nikon cap and your big bag chock-full of never-used lenses might make you feel all like the big pro, but this can backfire. If you want to be taken for no threat, look the part.
Use a decoy. Speaking of Erwitt, he would often pretend to photograph a family member posing in front of him while he was actually photographing past them with a telephoto lens. Also speaking of Erwitt, take a look through his books sometime and think about how many of the pictures would have to put him in a position where he really shouldn’t be taking pictures. It’s a knack, folks.
Hang around. You’ll look like a threat if you stop suddenly, stare at a stranger, and take ten pictures. But if you stop and hang out in a spot for twenty minutes, everyone who’s curious will have already checked you out, and you’ll become background. Then you can take your ten pictures and nobody will pay any attention. I used to do this on boardwalks on the East Coast. It works. You could also try paying a few local loiterers to be escorts or tour-guides. I never tried this because I never had enough extra money, but I always wanted to.
Lie. For years I carried a simple piece of paper in an envelope that said something like, “To Whom It May Concern, Mike Johnston has permission to photograph here. Please offer him every assistance.” You’d be amazed. I also once convinced a citizen that I was an official from Washington by holding up my open wallet at him, police-style, as I approached, putting it away before he had a chance to see what it was. This might not seem very ethical, but look, a lot of the people who are hassling you have utterly no right or authority to hassle you. It’s not the worst sin in the world to return the favor. You could also consider trying to get real credentials from some official or quasi-official organization.
Work on your camera skills! Good shooters work fast. Cartier-Bresson could reportedly get his Leica to his eye and back almost literally faster than people could notice. If you want to avoid attracting attention, don’t stand there like a big dork futzing endlessly with your camera controls and staring through the viewfinder for minutes on end. Waist-level finders help with this too, because when you look through an eye-level finder, people feel like you’re looking at them, whereas when you look down at some device you’re apparently fiddling with, people assume you’re looking at the device and not at them.
Adjust the camera while looking in a different direction. Then take the picture you want to take as though it were an afterthought, and do it quickly. A bored bouncer at a bar doesn’t have an excuse to stride across the street and hassle you if you’re pointing the camera down the street and not at his bar; and if you take one shot in his direction and then turn and leave, you remove his opportunity to challenge you.
Of course, the most important thing is to be comfortable with how you decide to work. Personally, I don’t practice any of the “tricks” named above; I’ve discovered I work best when I have permission, either explicit or implicit, to photograph. It simply makes me more comfortable and helps me do better work. So now I just get permission, and if I don’t have it, I don’t take pictures. Simple and clean. Similarly, I’d urge you to stay within your own “comfort zone”—once you find out what that is.
In any event, good luck. And to quote the Sarge on the great old cop show Hill Street Blues, “Let’s be careful out there.”
About the Author
Mike Johnston has written more than 250 magazine articles and many columns for photo.net. He now edits the popular blog The Online Photographer.
About the Intro Image
“Intimate, intense, and imperfect,” one writer said of this photo, the first big break for André Friedman, in 1932. No cameras were allowed in the hall where Leon Trotsky spoke, so Friedman smuggled a tiny Leica in under his coat (people weren’t so accustomed to small cameras in those days). The imperative has stayed the same for photojournalists ever since: First, get the shot. Friedman later changed his name to “Capa,” Hungarian for “shark.”