10.05.2009

The irrational fear of people in public places.

Image from Rome. The Pantheon in the background. Circa 1994 ©2009 Kirk Tuck

My wife will tell you that I spend too much time reading photo fora on the web. I've begun to see that she's right because I keep reading the same stuff in new disguises. This morning a fellow posted a photo at the Strobist Discussion group. He was amazed to find that Cabella's sporting good store might have used an off camera flash to create one of their ads. Amazing. As though we advertising photographers had never used an off camera flash or taken lights outdoors!!!

But the thing that struck me recently is how cowardly people have become about their gear. I've seen ten or fifteen posts in the last week from (mostly Americans) people who want to know how to safeguard their equipment in such dangerous places as: Paris, France and Rome, Italy and even, gasp, Copenhagen, Denmark. The thing that strikes me as funny is that each of these places has a much lower violent crime rate than just about any major city in the U.S. And each of these cities is a pedestrian city where, even in the unlikely event of a crime being perpetrated, you are surrounded by helpful people ready to jump in and help ensure social stability.

The idea that your Canon Rebel needs be locked in a hotel safe or secured to your body with a special strap containing unbreakable wires (what a good way to be decapitated should your camera get stuck in a train door......) is laughable. If you are dragging that much paranoia along on your vacation you may need to invest in other things. Therapy comes to mind. More wide ranging travel is another.

The second kind of post that seems to come up, with annoying regularity, is the idea that, to shoot in the street, you must become a stealthy ninja and your camera should be so small that it becomes all but invisible at any distance beyond five feet. The idea being, I guess, that a hulking American, complete with baggy cargo shorts, a promotional T-shirt for their favorite NFL team, white athletic socks, and day-glo Nike running shoes (never used for that purpose), topped with a baseball cap, will be able to sneak through a crowd of well dressed Europeans and will be able to position themselves in just the right way to SECRETLY take startling good photographs.

Their ideal camera is silent with an incredible zoom lens and a very small foot print. Either that or a Canon/Nikon/Sony/Olympus coupled with a bag full of lenses. Which they are deathly afraid some grandmother from Provencal will slit their throat to own.

Face it. You'll probably stick out. Face it. People will see that you have a camera in your hand. And unless you are doing your tourism in the Sudan you'll see when you look around that almost everyone else has a camera or a cellphone with a camera, or a video camera. They're everywhere. They are ubiquitous. Believe me, people in the European community also buy and use cameras.

Back in 1994 Belinda and I headed to Rome for a few weeks of vacation and photography. I brought along one camera. A Hasselblad 500c/m and a 100 mm f3.5 planar lens. That, and a few one gallon ziploc bags of tri-x 120 film. I spent most of my time walking along shooting whatever caught my attention. If a person looked interesting I'd ask them to pose. Sometimes I'd just smile, nod and shoot.

Books on travel caution newbies to be constantly aware of their surroundings. Hypervigilant if you will. I discarded all that advice out of necessity. After every twelve frames I'd have to stop and reload the 120 back on the camera. Since I was using a waist level finder I often had to stop as the light changed and take incident meter readings. No one cared. Every once in a while an older gentleman would ask about the camera. Younger people ignored it.

After a long morning and the better part of an afternoon spent poking into the nocks and crannies of Rome (and there are many) I sat down for a moment,at an outside table, at the closest food vendor with a direct view of the Pantheon. The restaurant was a McDonalds. The couple in front of me was having an animated conversation. I looked into my viewfinder, framed the shot, adjusted the exposure and fired the shutter. It was not a silent camera given the size of the moving mirror..... The couple turned to look and I smiled and nodded. They smiled back and with their tacit approval I shot several more images where they looked into the lens.

No one was fearful. There was no conflict or even a hint of animosity or aggression from either side. And this is the way it has gone for me and other street shooters for decades and decades. If someone doesn't want to be photographed they'll let you know. If you don't push it they won't either.

I like the image above. With billions and billions of images swirling around out in the attention-o-sphere there is a very small percentage that are relational. I like images that either speak directly to the viewer or show relationships.

The first (and probably only) step is to conquer your irrational fears that: A. Someone is always trying to rip you off. B. That everyone who is photographed instantly turns into a serial killer and they are aimed at you. C. You won't have people's willing complicity.

If you are calm, relaxed and see other people as, well, just other people, you'll probably do just fine. You might want to practice photographing strangers by becoming a tourist in your own town. I find that a nice weekend of street shooting in nearby San Antonio is just the right "warm up" before a trip abroad.

Get comfortable outside your comfort zone!

Bon Voyage. Kirk

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

I had no idea people were so worried about getting robbed in Europe. I worry about losing camera gear on trips, but it's more a worry about putting it down someplace and forgetting to pick it back up again.

kirk tuck said...

I'm sure it's a small fraction of people but I seem to read this more and more on popular photography forums. Kind of like people who pack canned tuna fish and pop tarts for their trip to Paris because they are certain that either they won't like the food or that it will be too expensive....

Bill Beebe said...

Thanks. That's one of the funniest posts I've read in a while, and it was great for a Monday.

kirk tuck said...

Thanks Bill. I think I meant for it to be funny, but I'm not sure....

David Ingram said...

Good one Kirk. I was in France last summer, traveling with Nikon D300 and people reacted well to someone taking pictures with a full size camera. I'll bet your Hasselblad definitely had that effect!

Janne Morén said...

Agree on all counts. Of course, safety is relative. I live in Osaka, which is (somewhat unfairly) considered the most dangerous city in Japan. Thing is, I can go to the Tennoji district at night, alone, and I'm still much safer than I'd be anywhere in central Stockholm, Sweden. Yes, compared to, say, Kobe I'm probably "unsafe" but in any absolute sense there's simply nothing to worry about.

When shooting people there's nothing worse than hiding, whether by sneaking about with a tiny camera or using some long tele lens from afar. That's about the only thing that is guaranteed to create suspicion and animosity. I use both a Yashica Mat and a Pentax 67 for street shooting, and I never get anything more than benign, vague interest (the Mat creates more attention despite being much smaller and silent). As you say, when people don't want their shot to be taken they'll show it.

Daniel Fealko said...

Kirk,

That was a most enjoyable, and funny, read. I'm guessing (hoping) it is a small fraction of individuals who feel this paranoid, but, just maybe, we Americans project our own insecurities about our society on others. I doubt I'd have this fear traveling in Europe, but there are definitely other places in the world where I'd have some reservations about being open.

John Ricard said...

On the topic of "protection", you should have mentioned the guys who walk around with a camera around their neck and a camera bag on their shoulder all day. The camera bag is empty, but its there to protect the camera, the minute the day's shooting is done. Heaven forbid they get a scratch on their camera....how will they sell it on ebay to get the new model, if the camera shows indication of actually being used?

tokyobling said...

Love these kind of posts Kirk! Having lived in (5) several countries I have seen countless examples of just that kind of Amrican tourist. I have also been on the recieving end of snap happy tourists in several countries (I dressed better when I was younger) and it never bothered me about the straight up honest shooters. I think we all agree on how much the "stealthy" shooters sucks.

I have seen plenty of purse snatchers in Europe but never a camera snatcher.

When you visit a new place, look at what other shooters are doing and how they approach (or not) their subjects. Some places or more open than others. It is always easier to shoot in places where even locals shoot (festivals etc).

I live in Tokyo now and I see some really bad examples of street photographers in action around the more touristy areas.

Robert said...

Excellent article. I've never experienced problems anywhere in the world. Only in my own city, where I've had one camera ripped out my hands by a camera snatcher, who was well known by the local gendarmerie, and once when I was mugged for my camera in an area I probably shouldn't have been in the first place. In my experience, residents in the major tourist cities don't even notice cameras anymore.

James Bland said...

Maybe people are projecting their fear of our own cities and people. I've been seeing some traffic on USA Wedding shooters losing gear while they're working.

kirk tuck said...

James, I just think, as a people, we're a bit more xeno.....nervous about situations outside our borders. We don't travel nearly as much as people in some of the EU and we tend to be a bit limited in our outlook.

I'm just as guilty as the next person. I should get out more...

Gordon Lewis said...

The irrational fear you describe includes other Americans and their neighborhoods, not just foreign countries. As a person of color, I can't tell you how many forum discussions I've seen where a fearful poster asks for opinions about the wisdom of photographing in inner-city neighborhoods. The underlying assumption seems to be that the mere presence of a white photographer in a "bad" neighborhood is provocative. In reality, the neighborhood is usually nowhere near as bad as the photographer thinks it is. It's his motives that are questionable.

Anonymous said...

Gordon: I was with you up until the last sentence, which contradicted everything before it. So there's nothing wrong with photographing there, and nobody will suspect he's up to something....but he's probably up to something?

Markus Mayer said...

What a great article! It really made me laugh!

I'm a european (Bavaria, Germany) and like photographying in the streets. I began about three years ago shooting with a Minox 35. Soon I switched to a Minolta XD-7 SLR. Now I'm often going out with a Mamiya 645. Guess what? Each of the cameras is treated the same by the surrounding people - ignorance or some interested looks. Sometimes a question. Sometimes I need a smile to calm a suspicious eye down. The smile works for all cameras, no matter how big they are :-)

And your observations on American tourists (especially their clothing style) are just perfect reflections of the real world. Never would have guessed an American could so truely reflect on that.

Best regards,
Markus

Gordon Lewis said...

"So there's nothing wrong with photographing there, and nobody will suspect he's up to something....but he's probably up to something?"

What I meant was that I sometime question the motives of a non-photojournalist who wants to photograph in a neighborhood he perceives as dangerous. Why that particular neighborhood? Is it to show how "brave" or socially aware he is?

This is not to say that everyone who takes pictures in inner-city or minority neighborhoods has questionable motives of course. The question we should all ask ourselves is what motivates us to take pictures, and if we're fearful, then what motivates the fear?

Spiny Norman said...

So funny, and really, very sad.

I've been wandering through good and bad neighborhoods, residential and industrial, in the U.S. and Mexico and Europe, for about two decades (since I was 15), and I've never had a problem, anywhere, or lost any of my gear. I have had a few people scowl when I've taken their pictures, and a couple of (harmless) run-ins with overly suspicious rent-a-cops -- never with real police, though.

John said...

Was in Paris in 2008, and the only attention my camera received was from camera curious passers-by; it seemed every young Parisian was interested in what model Nikon I was carrying and some were quite comical in their efforts to get a peak at it without appearing too obvious.

kirk tuck said...

There's nothing irrational about taking all the cameras off the back seat of your car when you park at the mall. But wearing that strap, tight across the chest, screams, "Total Paranoia".

LewLorton said...

I travel a fair amount and worry much more about my pictures than my camera - which can be replaced.
Your mention of the loudness of the Hassie reminded me when I was taking pictures in rural Austria with a Mamiya RB66 which has a huge complex shutter sound, almost like a pump shotgun being cycled. I took one picture and the shutter noise completely spooked a herd of goats which left me standing on the hillside amongst piles of goat-poo feeling silly.

neopavlik said...

The media has been pumping fear into us for a long time. I've never been fearful of someone messing with my gear, I'm afraid of being embarrassed by being with a model and being told that I can't shoot somewhere. I guess I don't want that photographer "infallibility" to be broken ;)