« In Defense of Our Rights and Actions | Main | Happy Second Day of Spring »

Friday, 21 March 2008


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

My Bessa L has a REALLY noisy shutter and will give me away at the worst times even though i'm shooting from the hip. I have cultivated a cough that i use just as i release the shutter. Works every time.

If cops confront me i am extremely sympathetic to their job and working conditions. This isn't fake. It's very sincere. I engage them in conversation that distracts them entirely from whatever it was i was supposed to be doing wrong. I also like to ask them how we would know anything about how people lived a long time ago if there were no photographs. Since Latinos are generally very traditional and warm people this always makes them sympathetic to what i'm doing.

The people that are the real challenge are security guards. Crime is huge here and so the guards are just about everywhere and they're armed to the teeth. Thieves are known to photograph a future hit to get the lay of the land and the security guards are expressly instructed to not allow photographers. They can and will lose their jobs for the slightest infraction. I don't know any way to talk them down and don't usually try. They're low-paid guys who need their jobs and have families to support. I just move on.

The editor made me do it! It was the dev... editor! :)

I try to explain that I have a job to do as well, while being as polite and helpful as possible. Having a "huge" camera also helps (mount a flash, put on a tele) with security, who are often harder to talk to (they understand big, they don't understand words).

I take pictures of buildings in NYC - not kidding here, so as you can imagine I've been stopped by the law many a time. I find that just being honest and not putting up a defensive wall works. Showing your work ID helps as well as it provides a sense of legitimacy.

Once I was taking pics of a building through the parking lot at midnight in Red Hook Brooklyn. Some people apparently called 311 to report "suspicious activity". These cops came by in a van to question me and after about 5 minutes of chat actually told me to resume shooting!

Is it illegal to take pics of bldgs. from a public corner? No. Can I honestly expect not to be questioned from time to time in a post 911 NYC? Not really. Glad I ain't livin' in the UK though after seeing yesterday's post.

Keep up the good work.

I've used the student routine many times as well

I tell people that I'm testing a new lens to study its diffraction properties across the light spectrum and its sensitivity to reflective edges of different colors. They raise an eye brow and walk away.

I'm fortunate enough never to have been stopped (perhaps females are seen as less of a threat?), but if I'm aware that I'm receiving funny looks from people who might be in frame, I take the camera away from my eye, look as if I'm studying a point beyond or above them, put the camera back up and take the picture. I'd have to be using a 500mm lens to be able to include whatever it is I'm apparently shooting, but I suspect lens coverage isn't top of the list of most people's general knowledge.

Despite being an amateur, I've gotten past security at events by simply wearing my work badge, and holding up my camera with it's large flash and dashing around like I'm racing to get a shot.

I once ended up inside a secure building that way. Shooting the crowd through the windows, then the execs watching the crowds. It was peaceful protest and no one was trying actually trying to get in, except the spokesperson who handed the exec a petititon.

No one ever looked at me askance or asked if I was authorized. Considering I was wearing a Lotus employee badge, in a Microsoft building, while the Linux "Refund Day" protest occured outside, they should have.

After few minutes of speeches outside, I finally asked the receptionist if there was side door I could use.

What has always worked for me so far, with even the most grumpy people, is simply giving them a huge disarming smile. I haven't had much trouble with authorities yet, here in the Netherlands (nor in the States, but perhaps there I was an obvious tourist?).
But when I shoot street (especially on public transport) and people notice me taking photographs, after releasing the shutter I put the camera down and smile. Usually the sweet smile contradicts so much with their idea that I might have bad intentions with the photos that it confuses them and they smile back and let it go. It might help though that I'm a girl. And shooting with a camera from the 70's, which I think most people find less threatening than a dslr.

I did the art student thing a couple of times too! Especially when walking up to interesting people on the street asking them for a portrait. It kinda make me feel a little bad though, but also quite powerful, haha.

Well, I shoot rocks, trees, sea, etc. They usually don't question me ;)

I shoot most of my "street" photos with a little lumix TZ3. It does a nice job and no one seems to notice or care since everyone has a little point and shoot these days. My OM-1 attracts little or not attention as well. I usually leave the winder behind these days for the sake of weight, size and noise.

The cameras I notice are the large large DSLRs and of course any vintage Leica.

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.

I've used the "look like a dork tourist" approach, and I've never been bothered. I still have one of those wild, multi-colored camera straps from the 80's that helps me look anything but competent and professional. Any kind of "Great Smoky Mountains" t-shirt works around here. If you look a little goofy and harmless, I guess most people figure you are. At age 49, I'm way past caring about what people think of how I look dress anyway. I'll be going to Washington, DC next month; that will be a true test of my technique.

Mount a pez dispenser in your hotshoe:


The student excuse works a lot, and I'm not sure why. Something about knowing that you're shooting because you were forced to by some draconian instructor, rather that shooting because you're just some weirdo that likes to take pictures, gets people on your side.

I tried the coughing/hip shot thing for a while. Then I realized that hip shots are generally horrible and started concentrating on shooting from the face. Once you do it a bunch, it gets easy.

I like the "bore them to death" tactic. I'm going to use that.

I mentioned this on a recent comment to another of your provocative posts but like an updated version of the Joel Meyerowitz book technique I now carry a healthy selection of my photos on my iPhone so that I can show people (police who stop and question me, suspicious shop keepers who confront me) what I do. That helps (ie they think I'm weird but no longer dangerous). And of course they get a bit wowed by the iPhone and the diversion is useful. As is smiling a lot.

I've occasionally gotten some interesting street shots by using an ultrawide lens and putting the subject--who is usually within 3 feet of the lens--at the edge of the frame, which is often compositionally more interesting anyway.

Lately when I've been out shooting large format, I usually have a small Kolo album in my bag with about half a dozen albumen prints, for people who ask me questions.

I'm also in NYC, but I don't seem to get stopped too often. I don't usually shoot with a tripod in areas that have a lot of pedestrian traffic. Park police have always been touchy about photographing with tripods or "unusual" cameras in the Battery Park area and the other parks in lower Manhattan along the river, but before 9/11 it was always about commercial use, which requires a permit. You just had to explain that you had no commercial interests, and they would leave you alone.

After 9/11 (around 2003-4) I was observed very closely by two NYC Park Police officers while using a handheld 6x9 folding camera made in the 1950s (Voigtlander Bessa II with 105mm Color-Heliar) to make this photograph of our vital port infrastructure--


They didn't question me, and when I was finished, we went our separate ways.

Don't be rude and hand them a business card. Not that my card indicates that I am a "professional" It just has 63images (same logo as my site) my name and contact info.

Much cheaper than a book and way easier to carry. Of course it's not nearly as impressive as a book.

It's all in the attitude. Reading these past few posts on TOP reminds me of a similar dynamic that goes on regarding bicycles and bicyclists. If you are aggressive about your cause you have a higher chance of being arrested and or hassled by the police. If you have a calmer demeanor and represent yourself in a non threatening way you will generally make out better.

Them again if you are Black or Muslim all bets are off.

I've been way laid by cops plenty of times here at home. The Aussie larakin humour comes to the fore and every one leaves happy. The last time I was stopped in my small country town I was photographing star trails up on the hill that overlooks the town. The 2 cops were amiable enough and eventually they admitted they used the parking bay at the top of the hill where I was parked as a place to pull over and have a kip. They were hoping I'd move on if they they started asking questions. After my exposure finished about a half hour later I wished them good night and left them to it. But when the first comment is "Stand too. Lie face down on the ground or we will Tazer you" then you're past any rapport. The police in England have nothing but my contempt. To pull that stunt on an obviously disabled person you've got some serious psychological problems. The fact that the desk sergeant was prepared to cover up for him was also despicable.

I'm going to London on Thursday. Was going to take a 40d with 2 lenses, but now I'll just take the little G9 with that "Mickey Mouse" Pez dispenser in the hot shoe. - Rich

"My Bessa L has a REALLY noisy shutter"
Strange, my Bessa L had a quiet shutter but I often got odd looks from folks who wondered about the little top mounted viewfinder.
As a UK resident I must put the other side of the story and say I have never been challenged about taking a photo - odd looks occasionally but more often people are very polite and and wait for me to take the shot before walking into the field of view.
The only time I got questioned about my camera was last autumn when trying out a Yashica TLR, lots of people just wanted to chat about how they used to use a TLR and how things are different now......

Cheers, Robin

Easy Mike. Wear a Tee shirt printed "Dangerous Terrorist Photographing Potential Targets"

(Photoshopped pic of Bin Laden brandishing a Box Brownie)

I sometimes dress up as a tourist; I even have a Batik short-sleeved shirt that I use only for that purpose. It's loud enough to scream "harmless dork" in a National Convention for the Blind. Combine it with a floppy sun hat and sandals, then carry fairly small DSLR and a small prime lens. It takes five seconds for people to decide I'm an utter nonentity; I've even had Yakuza insist they pose for me on the street...

And I'm not at all surprised about the sticker. I've suggested only half in jest that I'd love a pink Hello Kitty version of my K10D; it'd disarm people completely.

When Bruce Davidson was working on his Subway project he carried a small format portfolio of his work. A quick way to show potential subjects (and busybodies) what he was doing.

1. Run.

2. I was out yesterday, "shooting street." I was right behind a corner, had everything composed and exposed just right, just waiting for people to round the bend so I could make my exposure. I shot about 7 frames, and most people apologized for "walking into my shot." Little did they know...

I like the idea of saying "there's no film in here!"... my FM2 is so beat up I usually have to convince people that is actually *works*...

I'm remarkably invisible for a 6'2" street photographer, but on the rare occasions when I see someone noticing me as I take their picture, I like to stare above their head as I take the camera down from my face. Generally they'll turn around to see what it was I was shooting.

This rarely works on window-lickers and other street crazies, though.

Also, it pays to know your rights when you're accosted by a rentacop, like this guy hassling me: http://www.noise-to-signal.com/2007/04/this_morning_on.html

I shoot with a hasselblad on the street, it's big, loud and hard to hide, so I just try to be as obvious as possible. People often spot me as I shoot, which is fine by me since I like a bit of eye contact. I shoot first, then look them in the eye, smile, nod affirmatively and sometimes say thanks if there's an opportunity to do so.

I find if you look like you're doing what you're supposed to be doing, as if you own the sidewalk, then people generally don't give you any BS. If you act sneaky or tentative, then people will eat you alive. You really have to believe in what you are doing, then everyone else will also.

I've never been stopped by the police in public, but I will defer to rent-a-cops when I'm on private property. I have been yelled at a few times by people who were not happy about be photographed, but it was always after the image was made. If someone asks me not to photograph them before I shoot, I will honor their request. You need to pick your battles carefully, I'm not interested in fist fights or lunatics with lawyers.

I guess what we seem to be forgetting is that we are supposed to be free in this country. When I was young, the idea was that if there was not evidence that you had committed a crime, then you were not to be bothered by authorities. For example, in a traffic stop, the police could not question or even engage the passenger in a car becasue, since he was not driving, he had not committed a crime.

Two things have happened to change all this. First, almost everything is a crime these days, and more laws are passed everyday leading to the criminalization of almost anything you can do. If there is not a specific law, there are all encompassing ones like "creating a nuisance," or "disorderly conduct," or "resisting arrest."

The other thing that has changed and which is really responsible for the above change is that for some reason, the people and the press now consider "authorities" to be their friends. No matter what police do, it is considered justified (and the courts agree these days).

This country was founded on the idea that the government and authorities were the biggest threat to both democracy and to our freedom. The constitution does not really give us rights, it takes away rights from the government. It states what the government is NOT allowed to do.

Americans are supposed to be risk takers. We decided we would take risks in order to be free. We did not decide to be safe at the expense of our freedom, though that is what we seem to have agreed to today. We could save many tens of thousands of lives just by making the speed limit 25mph everywhere, but we do not because we want the freedom to travel more quickly. However, we give up our freedom to try to save the much smaller number of people who could conceivably die in a terrorist attack.

The irony is that we are actually making our country and the world less safe and giving up our quality of life and freedom in the process.

After 911,I would have expected that we, as a nation, would have done the brave thing and asserted our American vision and supported our constitution like never before, but instead, because of the fear purposely transmitted to us by our government, we allowed the government to take away many of the very freedoms that generations of brave Americans had fought and died for. We now allow police searches and warrantless wiretaps and imprisonment of civilians without charges and with no access to legal counsel. How did we go from the home of the brave to the home of the fearful? How could we willingly trade freedom for this false sense of security? Ben Franklin said, “The man who trades freedom for security does not deserve nor will he ever receive either.” This could not be truer today. Patrick Henry said “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! … Give me liberty or give me death!” This country was founded by courageous risk takers who were willing to trade not only their security, but their lives for the kind of freedom we have enjoyed. I believe America is still made up of such people. Even if giving up our constitutional rights could protect us, is it not worth risking a terrorist attack to remain a free society, unencumbered by government intrusion in our lives? Our forefathers said, “live free or die,” not “forget freedom and be safe.” Have we forgotten what is important about America? Have we lost our fortitude?

About street photography ... Well, I am actually an ex-paratrooper, and I look mean even when I smile. I think it works :) But normally I don't think about my past. I just pretend I am taking pictures of something further away. Some times I pretend there is something wrong with my camera and I am just checking it out. If there is only one other person around, and I am the one who took a picture then I smile.

In one of Brian Uhlrich's interview he said that when people questioned him taking photographs in the big box stores, he would act naive say something like, "I just bought this thing and I'm trying to figure out how to use it." (I'm paraphrasing).

Andy Frazer

As a preventative measure I sometimes adapt the "I just got this camera and what the heck are all these dials and gizmos for anyway?" persona. The last person someone wants to approach is someone who doesn't have a clue as to what their doing themselves- although... I must admit Mike, I quite fancy your open and free exchange of ideas (ie- monologue) between art student and authority figure. That's quite likely to leave them an indelible scar.

Too often I've found myself working in places where anyone standing by a roadside with a camera invites harassment in the form of shouted comments or blaring horns. Not because of safety issues - just people being a-holes.

One good way to avoid attention: wear dayglo clothing. My experience is that dayglo turns you part of the environment, not worthy of attention. I keep a safety vest and a hard hat in the trunk of the car for those moments when I want to look inconspicuous.

Talking of students, an architecture instructor at RISD once told me that he regularly received calls from the local terrorism task force, from detectives following up reports of suspicious behavior by his students.

I read about a guy who for one job had to put up a tripod in the middle of a street, so he got himself one of those greenish-yellow neon vests. And people suddenly started to treat him with great respect and kindness, because obviously he was there in an official capacity!

One of my successful pictures from when I was very young:

... was taken with the camera on the tabletop, not looking at the subject. You can see one of them is wondering what I'm doing. (28mm lens).

Xtoph, although I agree honesty is the best policy, I'm glad you weren't trying to be moralistic. Your "reward potential muggers with prints" approach might rub the morals crowd the wrong way.

Edward, it never ceases to amaze me how people seem to forget that this country was born from revolution, a revolution spawned from the denial of personal liberties.

The story about trying to get past the nun security guard reminded me of an incident back many years ago when I was working as a newspaper photographer. Our paper's chief photographer went to a local high school basketball game, but was denied entry to the gym by a clueless ticket taker. The next day our sports page had no photographs on it at all. In the center of the page in a black-bordered box was a story explaining the absence of photos, identifying the offending school and the individual. For years after that anyone with a $5 Instamatic could get free entry to any sports event in the county.


You hit the nail almost directly on the head. Your one section stated that:

"This country was founded on the idea that the government and authorities were the biggest threat to both democracy and to our freedom. The constitution does not really give us rights, it takes away rights from the government. It states what the government is NOT allowed to do."

While the founding principle is right, and you were very close on the mark about the Constitution, in that we are not given rights, and that it states what the government may not do...(it does lay down what the government CAN do too) but, most importantly, the Constitution states that unless otherwise specified, all remaining rights are retained by the people! So...in spirit you were right, but a tad bit off in your statement.

Specifically, it's the 9th and 10th Amendments (the last two of the Bill of Rights), that state:

"Amendment 9
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed
to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Amendment 10
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor
prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to
the people."

Since we don't have any beach here in Buenos Aires, I would love to see the Erwitt photos :-). Maybe it's Mar del Plata? (huge beach city, loved spot by Martin Parr?)
A link please!

"Mike, Since we don't have any beach here in Buenos Aires, I would love to see the Erwitt photos :-). Maybe it's Mar del Plata? (huge beach city, loved spot by Martin Parr?) A link please!"

My apologies. I meant Rio de Janiero and I typed Buenos Aires. Let's see, inability to read is illiteracy, inability to figure is innumeracy, then is this ilgeography? Er, sorry. The farthest south I've ever been is Bimini in the Bahamas.

The pictures in Erwitt's book "On the Beach" are actually taken all the over the world, from Trieste to Lagos to Bermuda to Enoshima Island to Key West to East Hampton to Blackpool to Amagansett. Just thumbing through, I would guess that more pictures are from St. Tropez than any other location.

I guess Erwitt just likes beaches.

Mike J.

Oh, Mike, don't worry. It's the typical mistake. We're several thousands miles away from Rio, speak different languages, have different roots, moods, climates, but for most first-worlders, south america is a messy, hot weather, tropical rainforest with beaches.
I guess it has to do with education, here at least we learn to differentiate Canada from USA (America for us is a whole continent) from Mexico. It seems its different in the first world, since this mistake is very common. Please don't take it personal, its just an observation based on experience....

The comments to this entry are closed.



Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 06/2007