I have to apologize to people who've been reading my stuff for a long time and have already heard all of my stories at least once, but there was one time when I actually put one over on the police. I was asked to move along from a crime scene, and I blustered about how I was a member of the press and that the First Amendment gave me every right to take pictures, and the policeman backed down. Later, I looked it up, and it turned out he was right, not me—police do indeed have the right to clear a crime scene and move pedestrians along. So score one for our side.
Unfortunately it was a suicide, and I was so shaken by seeing the body and all the blood that I couldn't hold the camera steady. It was probably the only time I've gotten camera shake at 1/125th. No ice water in these veins.
Another excuse I often used to use when confronted was that I was a photo student out doing a class assignment. I'd extemporize, and I admit I liked hamming it up a bit.
"Oh, yeah, my teacher? Mr. Rodchenko? He said we were supposed to take eight pictures of shadows from interesting angles. So I'm just looking for interesting-looking shadows. They're supposed to have a 'strong graphic quality.' So the other day? I found this church railing. And it was casting a shadow on some steps. I thought it was a pretty graphic shadow. So anyway, that bridge over there? Well, once I saw a nice shadow from up there, and I was just trying to remember what time of year and what time of day that was...." Blah, blah, blah.
Yep, I admit it, I've responded to being accosted by trying to bore the person to death.
One time some guy yelled something at me and I yelled right back, "There's no film in the camera! I'm just playin' around." I don't know if that would work any more.
Elliott Erwitt sometimes uses a family member who pretends to pose six feet in front of him while he shoots right past them with a 200mm lens. Nobody questions you when you're taking a picture of loved one right there in front of their noses. They don't have to know you're actually taking pictures of scantily-clad young women in bikinis farther down the beach.
I hate to say this, but another thing that works is a smiley-face sticker on your camera. It's hard to feel threatened by a dork with a smiley-face on his camera. I'm not admitting to doing this myself.
Another trick I remember reading about was that Joel Meyerowitz would carry a copy of one of his books around in a paper bag. When people questioned why he was taking pictures, he'd pull out the book out of the bag and let them look at it. Once they could see what kind of thing he was up to (and that he was a serious enough photographer to have had a book published) they relaxed. That never seemed practical to me, but it occurred to me that in this day and age, with self-published, print-on-demand books so easy to make, a photographer could make up a reasonably impressive-looking book of fairly innocuous, arty photographs, and carry it around to show to people in order to disarm their objections. Like a wannabe Joel Meyerowitz....
Anybody got any other tricks they use to get out of awkward situations?
Featured Comment by John Camp: "Your suicide story reminded me of an incident when I was a reporter. I was doing a series of medical features at the St. Paul, Mn., trauma center, when a medevac helicopter brought in a farmer. His tractor had rolled on him, pinning him. The wheels were still in gear and one began cutting through his body, his hips. He would have bled to death except that the friction actually cauterized the gigantic wound as it cut through him. (He died a couple days later of shock.) In any case, I'd been working with the surgeon and he invited me in to watch the salvage operation. I had a young intern photographer with me and told her to come in; she came in, took one look, and left--not only the hospital, but the job. She'd realized that PJ work was not for her; which is a good thing to realize at that point in your career.
"I've always thought that the main characteristic of a good PJ was the willingness to stick your face into anything. If you've got that, you can figure out the camera."
Featured Comment by xtoph: "I don't mean to sound all moralistic and stuff, but I don't think it is a great idea to lie about what you're up to, or what you're photographing. For one thing, there is already a kind of ambient assumption that photographers, especially creepy ones, lie, and doing so feeds the stereotype and makes it all the more difficult for the rest of us, since we are by default assumed to be creeps.
"Besides, I frankly don't think it is very useful, since 'tricks' like using a telephoto for 'candids' don't generally result in worthwhile photographs (anyone who'd like to point me to a counterexample is welcome to do so).
"I've photographed on the streets of a lot of big cities for some time, and I've photographed a wide variety of subjects, including myriad illegal activities, riots, fights, you name it. In my experience, the worst thing you can do is to be furtive or dishonest about how you work. On the contrary, working completely openly, at close range with a wide or standard lens, displaying a ready smile and confidence that you aren't doing anything wrong is the best 'trick' to keep from being hassled, and coincidentally to have a shot at taking interesting photos. In fact I've even talked would-be muggers out of stealing and into mugging for the camera (gave them proofs the next day too). of course besides the posed shots, you can still grab less self-conscious ones in the process.
"Also, with digital, lots of people are more comfortable if they see the photo you took, and can tell that it is above-board. I generally offer to delete the photo if they still have a problem, and on rare occasions I have; why not? Not many of them are masterpieces anyway."
Mike replies: Well, you ask for counterexamples, and I could probably list them all day, from Capa's great photograph of Leon Trotsky lecturing in Copenhagen (taken on the sly with a Leica he hid inside his coat), to Erwitt's pictures of beachgoers in Buenos Aires*, many snapped with a tele lens, at least some of the time while he was pretending to photograph something else. Roman Vishniac's principled recording of the doomed shtetls before the Holocaust had to be made very discreetly to avoid drawing the notice of the authorities. But I see your point and it's still a fair one.
Featured Comment by Bill Bresler: "I have a recurring situation that I now look forward to, even though I'm a grizzled old newspaper photographer. I was shooting a college graduation and tried to enter the main floor, generally reserved for grads, faculty and dignitaries. An older nun, built like a linebacker, was handling security. I smiled and showed her my press pass. She was unmoved and demanded my invitation. I explained that I was on assignment for my paper, blah, blah, blah, and not only that, was a part-time photo instructor at the very same college, so technically I was faculty. She wasn't buying it. Then a small kid stepped in front of me and tried to dart past Sister Nancy. "SAAAYYYYY! Where do you think you're going?" she bellowed. Seeing my chance as she grabbed the little felon I stepped around her and disappeared into the crowd.
"The following year I went through the same scenario, without the little kid for distraction. Facing her straight on, I faked a move to the left, she stepped in front of me, then I made a quick lunge to the right, and muscled past her.
"I'd better come up with a good plan for the next graduation ceremony. I'm pretty sure she'll be ready for me."
*Sorry. I meant Rio. —MJ