Travelling Photographer = Security Threat?

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29/11/2008 – Travelling Photographer = Security Threat?

Over the past few years’ global security levels have reached an all-time high.  Spurred by terrorist attacks on a global level, new security actions have made being a photographer out on the streets challenging.  These challenges are faced not only by professional photographers, but also amateurs and families on vacation.

Having spent 3.5 years extensively documenting ‘homeland security’ stories, both in the United States and abroad (2001 to 2005), I am no stranger to being singled out as a photographer.

One of my ‘favourite’ incidents happened while photographing a business story, in New Haven, Connecticut. I was in plain site, on public property, wearing a Hawaiian shirt, with three cameras, including one very large lens, all taped in bright very visible tape (as you can see many times on Flying With Fish) and encountered nearly half-a-dozen police officers coming at me rapidly, one with his fire-arm out of his holster.  As the police officers approached me one was screaming ‘why are trying to hide from us?’

I stood in place a bit confused.  As I was approached, I kept thinking if was trying to hide, would I have stood in plain site with three cameras, wearing a Hawaiian shirt with press credentials around my neck?

It was eventually sorted out and I finished my assignment, but at what point did photographers become ‘security targets?’

Having travelled around the world as a photographer, usually at this point with no press credentials, navigating my assignments is a delicate balance.  I often need to work in areas that are under significant scrutiny by security, while also trying to blend in so I am not singled out.   Being able to confident and understanding the need to explain myself if approached by security, or law enforcement comes with years of experience.  There is a fine line between knowing when to stand my ground, find a new angle, or walk away.

Dealing with private security can be a challenge, as many private security guards do not know the extent of their authority. Dealing with law enforcement or the military can be stressful, but if you have no reason to be afraid, don’t be. Have a pleasant chat; most officers and soldiers around the world are polite, friendly and just checking up to see what’s going on. If an officer becomes aggressive, in most cases (except when covering hard news) I pack up and leave.  There is a split second in some instances when you need to judge what is about to happen and know when you need to say “thank you” and “goodbye.”

In the past year there have been a number of marketing campaigns that throw a new element into the challenge of travelling as a photographer.  These campaigns often depict photographers and cameras as potential threats.  These campaigns put the notion into citizens’ minds that anyone on the subway, on the dock, in front of a landmark with a camera may be a terrorist.

The most troubling of the ‘anti-terrorism’ advertising has been used throughout London, Manchester and the Midlands, in England, for the past year.   This advertising campaign shows row upon row of cameras, one camera is circled and the bold text reads “Thousands Of People Take Photos Every Day. What If One Of Them Seems Odd?”

What quantifies being ‘odd’?  A white man sitting on a bench for three hours shooting the same subject over and over on a tripod?  An Asian woman lying on her stomach in a park with a camera aimed at what appears to be the ground? A Middle-Eastern family shooting photos in front of a national landmark? A black man in the middle of traffic crouched with his lens aimed up between the cars?

To me, none of these seem odd. These all seem normal.   Not one of these situations stands out.   To over an over anxious general population these people may all seem ‘odd.’

So when traveling as a photographer, be aware of your surroundings.  While shooting, if possible, try and pay attention to who is watching you.  As I shoot I try and keep a constant watch on what is happening around me, not only for my safety and security, but to also see if should get ready to play a game of 20-questions.

If you are stopped, no matter what you are doing, or where you are, remember to be polite.  Being polite goes a lot further than being defensive and aggressive.

Below is an image of the UK’s Anti-Terrorist campaign that is currently running throughout England.

Happy Flying!

–Click Image Below To Enlarge It–

a red poster with a white square on it

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