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Confessions of a Frustrated Street Photographer in Denver

lollipop

My girlfriend gave me some great advice about photography. I was complaining to her about how asking for permission to take a photo of someone ruined the candidness of the moment. She told me, “Don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness.” Whenever I’m out in the streets with the intention of capturing candid moments I live by that creed. Today I ran into a person who mistakenly assumed I snapped a picture of him. He got in my face and said, “What are you taking pictures of people for?”

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His aggressive nature triggered an angry reaction in me. I took a breath and told him that I wasn’t actually taking a picture of him, I was intrigued by the giant lollipop on that truck that was passing through the intersection. Then he said this, “You are a lying little bitch, you’re camera was pointed right at me.” At this point my frontal cortex went dark and I turned into a crazy person, frothing at the mouth and spewing an expletive laden explanation of my rights as a photographer in a public space.

confrontational_person_2

He is the second person in less than a month to confront me like this. On each occasion I was not actually photographing the people who were so offended by the presence of my camera and I. Over the years I have developed a sense of the type of person I think wouldn’t like their picture taken. In a world with billions of people I have no problem avoiding confrontation by passing up a photo opportunity, I know there is another person who would love their picture taken just around the next corner. This person was one of those guys. I had absolutely zero interest in photographing him.

confrontational_person_1

In both instances I was harassed simply because I was carrying a camera around someone who doesn’t like cameras. Normally if someone questions me, I apologize and I tell them I’m a journalism student working on a project, but in these rare cases when someone basically attacks me for no reason I feel compelled to stand up for myself. I will not be intimidated by the guy flying a sign at the intersection begging for money because he got in my face for taking a picture I didn’t take. I’m sorry. I just won’t.

The other guy who did this to me actually rode up on a bike while I had my back turned, ran into me and actually started physically pushing me around. He was screaming at me, and accusing me of taking pictures of homeless people waiting outside a shelter in the middle of the night. Both of these times I tried to explain that I wasn’t doing what they thought I was, my explanations came across as sheepishly delivered excuses. When I heard myself sounding weak and meek that really made me angry and then I just started yelling back at them, standing my ground, trying to stand up to their “alpha-ness.”

As a photographer in the streets, I will be happy to delete a picture of any person who doesn’t want their picture taken. You don’t have to yell at me or get in my face or push me around, all you have to do is ask. I take thousands of pictures a day, losing one is no skin off my back. If you do push me around, that only will cause me to do the very thing you didn’t want in the first place. You get in my face, I’ll take your picture every time.

I’m just trying to tell the story of my life. I’m not out to ridicule people. I’m not out there doing undercover investigations of panhandlers. I don’t care that much about what you are doing. Just like it is this guy’s right to stand on the corner and make people feel uncomfortable every time they have to stop at the red light while he stares at them in their cars begging for cash, it is my right to take his picture while he is doing it. The truth of it is, I’ve been practicing street photography long enough that panhandlers and the homeless aren’t really my preferred subject for a photograph. Especially not a guy in a Superman hat.

I’m not a terrorist. I’m a Marine Corps Veteran. I’m not a pedophile. I’m a 40-year-old father of three, trying to make a new start in the world. Investing my time in the pursuit of a college education, trying to re-invent myself. I’m not proud of any arguments I have with my fellow humans. These type of confrontations make me sick to my stomach and I agonize over every cruel word I said in anger. So I’m sorry confrontational panhandler guy, you probably didn’t deserve to be the subject of my tirade. I felt disrespected and I reacted. It is a part of who I am.

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14 thoughts on “Confessions of a Frustrated Street Photographer in Denver

  1. That happened to me once as well. I was not even taking a picture of the guy who verbally assaulted me then followed me around town and demanded to take my camera. I, too, gave explanations until I realized that he was not going to leave me alone until I surrendered my camera. I then told him quietly that I didn’t take his fucking picture, he was not going to see my camera, and if he didn’t get out of my face I was going to knock his few remaining teeth down his throat. That worked, and I am not an aggressive guy at all.

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  2. I can understand that some people do not want their picture taken, but there is this thing we call manners! I would just politely ask for you to not take mine if I didn’t like it. I don’t know why some people go off the deep end first like that. Too quick to judge and anger!

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  3. Midwestern Plant Girl says:

    I, perso nally, don’t like my photo taken and don’t post photos of myself. However, in your situation, it would not be a big deal as you don’t know my name and wouldn’t post them together.
    I do agree that is ok to ask afterwards, you can’t get a candid photo after the fact. These situations should never cause physical fights. .
    I *try* to understand that maybe the person has had a bad day (or life) and just needs to unleash at someone and today it was you. 😉
    I’ll be out that way end of December. . If I see ya, I’ll say “hey!”

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  4. I had a confrontation with a “lookout” for an illegal handbag seller. He saw me walk by with my camera in hand and accused me of taking a picture of him. I actually thought about it, but I felt the situation was not “safe”, and just continued to walk by. He grabbed me by my arm and was starting to get physical. I politely told him I could show him the images on my camera, but he continued to get physical. Luckily there was a policeman nearby on the corner. I told him that I would get the officer over here to settle this. He ran off.

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      • I think some cities or areas are worse than others. After years shooting on the street, you kinda get a feel when things might not be ok. I know here in NYC, certain areas are know for illegal sale and manufacture of counterfeit specialty items. In the end you have to decide if the image you’re trying to capture is going to be worth the hassle.

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  5. Some of America’s most famous images were taken by Lange and Bourke-White. They document the Great Depression and its affect on American life. Did these photographers endure abuse by their subjects? I’m sure there was some, but like you, these photographers were interested in truth and honesty, not in exploitation. The success of their images lies in their relationship with their subjects. It is impossible to have a relationship with a psychotic, which probably explains why this nutcase is out on the street begging for bread. Sad but true. I’m sorry you have endured these encounters and I admire your dogged determination to prevail in spite of the nastiness that sometimes comes your way.

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    • At least it’s only sometimes! I lob ethic comment. I bet Dorothea Lange had her fair share of people complaining. She really did know how to capture the emotion from her subjects. Migrant Mother is probably the most recognizable photo of all time, but her full body of work is amazing as well. I’ve heard similar stories from other street photographers who have had nasty encounters. I think in today’s world photographers are profiled. People see a camera and assume the worst. I blame it on websites like “the people of Wal-Mart” where candid pictures are taken and used to ridicule their subjects. Then there are just the sick and twisted people out there giving the rest of us a bad name. I don’t blame people for being wary of cameras, but some people just can’t help jumping to conclusions. Guys like this are the reason a lot of photographers shy away from capturing great images. They don’t want to deal with irrational people. I’m going to keep fighting against it and standing up for my rights. The other day I gave my daughter my GoPro and set it to take still photos. She walked around Wal-Mart and stuck that thing in everyone’s face and every single person LOVED it. They smiled and laughed with her, carried conversations, posed, etc. Penny had then all in the palm of her hand. Amazing the differences on people’s reaction to a camera. It’s a lot about the person behind the camera. A 40-yr-old blade guy with a big beard or a 4-yr- old cute little girl? No one was giving her snarky looks or rolling their eyes and making the disgusted face. Interesting experiment. 🙂

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      • Great curiosity is what carries you through the difficult times. You’re right about people jumping to conclusions, but I suspect the particular guy in your post has his share of mental issues on top of all that. …and I’m glad he didn’t have the opportunity to approve or disapprove of Penny’s approach! 🙂

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  6. I love this post because this has happened to every street photographer (or just any photographer) at one point, but not everyone will stand up for what they believe or share publicly the awkward, stressful confrontation. You’re right in that a lot of people think that they’ll end up on one of those embarrassing blogs like People of Walmart, and I commend you for still going out there each day and taking thousands of photos. Keep at it!

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