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A Safe Harbor: Being Viewed as a Creep When Out as a Photographer

The schooner Lucy Evelyn as I knew it- a museum and souvenir shop

Most years around this time we take a road trip to visit my family in New Jersey. There are always a couple of camera bags in the back seat, as there will be tomorrow night when we saddle up and head south once again. And most years around this time I think back to something that happened on another hot summer night less than two months before the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

For photographers, a lot has changed since then, but we have to remember that most of it started changing well before 9/11. When my students complain about the hassles of trying to make photographs in public places, I tell them that it’s something they’re just going to have to get used to. And then sometimes I tell them this story.


My grandmother at her 90th birthday party, Berlin, NJ 2001

My grandmother at her 90th birthday party, Berlin, NJ 2001

A month or so before the world changed I decided to spend a perfect summer night “down the shore”. I had traveled by train the day before from Boston to my childhood home in South Jersey to help celebrate my Grandmother’s 90th birthday, and since I planned to spend the long weekend with her and the rest of my family, I didn’t feel at all guilty about borrowing my mother’s car and taking off by myself for one evening.

A typical scene in the heart of the Pine Barrens on the way to the shore

A typical scene in the heart of the Pine Barrens on the way to the shore

The eerie drive through the Pine Barrens only took about an hour, and before I knew it I was slowly cruising the central boulevard on the barrier island where I had spent so many happy days as a kid. I sat smiling at a traffic light and stared at what had once been my grandfather’s pink vacation bungalow on East 24th Street. Just yards away from the crashing surf, whoever owned it now had painted it white with black trim.

The light changed, and after driving south for another few minutes I spotted a bright and bustling amusement park and victorian-looking shopping village coming up on the right. The amusement complex had been built in the 1980‘s, well after my time on the island, but what surprised me was what appeared to be the triple masts of an old schooner rising above the small shops across the street.

The aftermath of the fire that destroyed the Lucy Evelyn in 1972. © Historical Society of Riverton, NJ

The aftermath of the fire that destroyed the Lucy Evelyn in 1972. © Historical Society of Riverton, NJ http://rivertonhistory.com

The Lucy Evelyn, beached at this site sometime in the 1940‘s and converted to a museum and beach souvenir store, had been a tourist destination for decades until it was destroyed by fire in 1972. Whenever we would visit, my grandfather would bring my sisters and me here for fudge and seashell necklaces and beach toys. More than just a little curious about the ship’s apparent resurrection, I parked the car, grabbed my camera and set out in search of photographs and memories.

It didn’t take long before I noticed that things had changed a bit in the years I’d been away. While the fudge shop was still doing the same booming business it always had, the new “schooner” turned out to be nothing more than a cinder-block building with a boat-shape built around it and a couple of poles stuck on top as masts. It now housed a lingerie shop instead of the old five-and-ten that sold slingshots, pea shooters, flip flops and skim boards (all of which, at one time or another, my grandfather had bought for me with a gleam in his eye).

As I walked past one of the other shops, a place filled with overpriced T-shirts, hats and beach blankets, a sweatshirt tacked up on the wall caught my eye. It was nearly identical to one that my Grandfather bought for me one summer in the late 60′s. It even looked old and beat up; the printing on it was faded and cracked, but closer inspection revealed that it had been designed that way. My ratty old sweatshirt had had to endure a couple of seasons’ worth of real adventure to acquire the patina that $40 bought one of today’s kids instantly. I wanted to believe that my sweatshirt had somehow been more admirable, but if I could have spared the 40 bucks, I probably would have gotten one for myself.

I crossed the street to the amusement park at the far end of the complex which looked, literally, perfect. The place was packed with people, and the roar of the roller coaster under its high harmony of screams and shrieks drew me in. Amusement parks and circuses are almost universally favorite environments for photographers, and some of my own best photographs were made in places like this in Australia, Europe and around the US. Even though this new place lacked the seediness and authenticity that comes with age and neglect (like that sweatshirt, come to think of it), I was looking forward to finding out if there was a shot or two for me here.

My favorite photograph from that night, The Rainbow of Happiness

My favorite photograph from that night, The Rainbow of Happiness

Pictures were everywhere — the lights, the rides, the shelves of kewpie-doll prizes, the odd row of people leaning on their elbows, butts-out, steadying their aim at the shooting gallery. I worked quickly but not hurriedly, patiently waiting for a telling moment, or moving around to find an interesting angle. It was like sketching with a camera, a simple process that filled me with excitement and satisfaction. This was what was missing in my job, what I crave in my life, and what I kept forgetting was available to me anytime and anywhere I was able to just empty my mind and let it all in. And even though I knew better, it really wasn’t hard to pretend that this was the same place I had frequented as a child.

I saw the cop as I was walking away from the merry-go-round after unsuccessfully trying to find a way to photograph the reflections in its convex mirrors as they spun around. He was a young guy, an early Ed Harris type with a blond buzzcut and short uniform pants. He was with a couple of other older cops, and had been laughing with them about something just before our eyes met and locked. I thought to myself “Oh, great” as he fell in behind me, then suddenly stepped out to block my way as I turned to the right.

“Excuse me, sir. Are you with the newspaper?” His manner was friendly but firm.

“No.”

“…because some people have noticed you here taking pictures, so we have to check it out.” His eyes were fixed on mine.

“I’m just a photographer down from Boston… this is what I do.” I tried to sound polite but professionally perturbed, since I was expecting a lecture about private-property rights and location fees.

“…because we have a lot of children here, and when we see a man walking around by himself taking pictures, well, we have to check it out.”

My shoulders slumped a little.

They all thought I was a pervert.

“You have nothing to worry about,” I said quietly.

“Yeah, when I saw your camera I figured you were probably OK. But you should have checked in with us first.”

“Oh.”

policefeet

I couldn’t think of anything else to say. A moment before, this confrontation would have been the farthest thing from my mind, so I wasn’t prepared to defend myself. I suppose I could have asked him if it was standard procedure to hassle someone for taking pictures at a tourist trap. Or I could have turned on the charm and congratulated him for recognizing that my Leica M6 was not just any old camera. I could have risked real trouble by raising the constitutional issue — surely, in America, even the worst unconvicted Internet-lurking pedophile taking pictures at an amusement park hasn’t done anything wrong…yet.

Or I could have said what I really felt, that I was simply enjoying what I was doing so much that it never occurred to me that people might find my presence alarming.

I could have said any of that, but I turned away from him instead. This cop and these people didn’t care about me or my nostalgia, about long-gone souvenir shops that sold sling shots and pea-shooters or the long-gone Grandfather who paid for them with a smile, or about a time and an attitude toward childhood that suddenly seemed as distant and irrelevant as the old schooner that used to rest in its safe harbor right over there.

I tried to regain my interest in photographing the place, but all I could feel now were hundreds of pairs of suspicious eyes (and probably more than just a few security cameras) burning holes in my back and venting my earlier enthusiasm. I went through the motions of scanning for pictures one more time, but I couldn’t see past the scores of perfect parents and perfect children wearing perfect artificially-distressed and adventureless sweatshirts. They were all safe once again in their sanitized new amusement park, safe from the man walking around by himself taking pictures.

So I left the place that I thought had once been my own, but which had long since ceased to be. I walked not too slowly out to the street, past rows of oversized Suburban Ubiquity Vehicles with their side impact airbags and satellite navigation systems and rear-facing child safety seats, past another gaggle of laughing cops, and found my mother’s old car parked at the curb. I got in, turned the key, and drove away.


Image credit: Day 72 – West Midlands Police – Officer patrolling around Merry Hill, Wolverhampton by West Midlands Police


 
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  • Mike

    So you all take photos of EVERYTHING with your stupid smartphones. But the guy with the BIG, EXTREMELY NOTICABLE camera is the pervert, terrorist and overall creep?

  • Nicholas Dunning

    Woah this story is really sad! I can imagine how deflated you must have felt. As a male, one of my biggest fears is that someone might think that I’m using my camera for perverted reasons.

  • Number 9 Fashion

    How do ppl go from camera to paedophile? I don’t get the logic leap…… maybe crusty old dude in raincoat feverishly masturbating behind a bush….

  • Fuzztographer

    Another reason (one of many) America is on its way out: the subtle onslaught of anti-creativity by means of fear mongering. The kind of creativity that makes the art defining our culture, that spurs innovation and builds futures.

  • Fred

    Gee, he was easily put off.

  • Jay Scott

    I’ve had my momentum interrupted, while on the job at event coverage, by one grouchy individual. It was the first time I was seriously asked to delete a photo of someone. Everyone there was enjoying their time, work and the surroundings. At first, I honestly thought she was joking but then realized that she was serious. I simply stated that it would not be published but I did not offer anything in the way of significant apology or humility. I was being paid to be there and photograph so that is what I did.

    For the record, this was in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. Though, I don’t feel we are much better than the US in this regard. Perhaps a little bit less suspicious than your average American, but that is just my perception. I understand people wanting to protect their children but I also think that if you want to be wary of someone be wary of the person supposedly looking at their cell phone while they actually video you entering your pin number at the store. The person with a truly professional looking camera who is on the job shouldn’t concern you.

    I really hate to pull out the “it’s my right” card but sometimes you cannot back down or the growing trend of photographers worldwide will be viewed as borderline terrorists instead of curious artists just looking for that right angle, shadow or detail, will only hasten.

  • RBM

    The freedom to freely photograph in a public space is long gone. One takes pictures without the threat of interference only when there’s no “authority” around to challenge that presumed freedom.

    Society as a whole still defends the right to photograph in public, especially once something controversial has a published photo (or video) as evidence……but history tells us they go after the paper (or online) press next…….you know, to stop “the terrorists”.

    Every big government constantly needs new “Moriarty’s”, and photographers are currently filling the roll nicely.

  • Jude I⚡caяiot

    Until you’ve had security at a fair on a public street drag you out of the fair with your hands behind your back, yelling the entire time to “STOP RESISTING”, and having everybody in the area stare, all because you took a picture that they didn’t like… You don’t know what being put off of photography is.

  • gochugogi

    Luckily my interest mainly lies in landscape, macro and abstracts. It would be difficult to stomach such treatment and attitudes without getting extremely angry and in their face (& subsequently being taken away).

  • harumph

    “…check in with us first.”

    What a crock of authoritarian bulls@#! Like I’m going to check in with a cop everytime I take some pictures. Maybe I should start harassing cops by “checking in” with them for all sorts of nonsense. “Sir, I’d just like you to know that I’m going to do some grocery shopping, and there may be some children present in the store. Not a pedophile.”
    “Sir, it’s my duty as a law abiding citizen to inform you that I’m about to go sit down on that public park bench over there. A child may accidentally walk into my field of vision, but that does not mean I’m a pedophile.”
    “Sir, this small child holding my hand right here is the fruit of my own loins. Here is copy of her birth certificate and my driver’s license. Our physical contact is entirely appropriate and I kiss her goodnight on the forehead only. Just checking in.”

  • http://www.bostonstreetphotography.com/ Joe Harrington

    Cops have harassed me twice while out photographing. It’s part of the deal if you plan on being out on the streets actively using a camera. It doesn’t mean I like it, or appreciate it, but it’s not going to stop anytime soon.

  • Ivor Wilson

    It’s one of the main reasons 99.9% of my photography contains no people. They’re either ultra-paranoid, overly self-important, or have “precious” complex”… the Jeremy Kyle factor. Only once have I taken a photo where someone actually requested I delete the photo, and I simply navigated the menu on the camera until the selector was hovering over “delete image”, and asked them to press “OK”. I said, “There, you’re gone”, and walked away. The alternative was to waste my time standing my ground, but neither they nor the photograph merited such.

  • alice9527

    I’d like to share a nice dating site for you.It’s safe and really works.__ElderMeet.com__Elder people know how to treat others.All the best,hope you find the perfect one.

  • Steve

    Will be interesting to see what will happen if Google glass and its equivalants become popular. Will photographers with a big camera get some respect then?

  • Dave

    Here is how I became a creep photographer: I have had a camera of one sort or another at the end of my arm for over 30 years. I take a lot of pictures. One day years ago I decided to go out and do some walking around on Halloween in the town I live. It was in the evening when some of the more creative costumes would be seen. I walked the streets and ducked into a bar every now and then, mostly for the photography. In one of the more colorful bars I saw two flamingos playing pool. Of course it was a perfect photo op, one of many that night. Fast forward weeks later when I was at a different local bar and grill having a cold one when I recognized the female bartender that was a flamingo not that long ago. I introduced myself and mentioned I had been doing some photography some time back and got some OK photos of her playing pool with another flamingo, would she like some prints of the images? She said sure, enthusiastically. When I got around to it I made a couple 8X10′s and swung by her work and gave them to her. I will add in right now, I had no interest in this woman. She poured an OK beer but that was about where my attraction to her ended. Some time later (months, maybe a year) I started dating a different bartender at the same establishment. After we had been seeing each other for a while she told me her coworker cautioned her about me: “He’s a creep, he took photos of me”

    People.

  • Brian the chef

    that sucks… But normal people are idiots generally…

  • Jennifer

    I took my boyfriend to a beach I worked at when I was younger. The view at the end of the pier had a perfect view for miles up and down the coastline, where many towns would shoot their July 4th fireworks. It was always busy, so we got there early with our cameras. We sat around photographing the sky, boats, and birds to pass the time. I had the telephoto lens, and my boyfriend had the wide angle. One of the teenagers working at the beach came over to investigate, and started saying things to him about not shooting there. My boyfriend was a foreigner, so he wasn’t entirely sure about American laws .

    The teenager implied it was creepy because he could be taking pictures of children swimming at the beach. It pissed me off, because he was only telling my boyfriend off and not me…Because he was a male with a large camera, he automatically qualified as creepy. Also, it was a public beach and the teenager was outside his job description (there are higher ranking people for handling actual threats). I got the beach employee to go away by interrupting, saying it was a public place and promising we weren’t photographing children.

    There is a fear of people who photograph in public, but it seems worse for men. A security guard questioned him at Buckingham Fountain as well, and (again) they weren’t too interested in what I was doing. I’m happy to say a simple change in equipment seemed to solve his problem for him. When he pulls out his 4×5 camera, people only stare and say good things :P

  • Mike Burchard

    ‘The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.’ – H.L. Mencken
    …sometimes, that hapless ‘hobgoblin’ is just a photography enthusiast out and about in public, lawfully and non-threateningly engaged in his hobby.

  • Mike

    Let’s start doing so!!!

  • Mike

    Use a smartphone, it’ll stop.

  • Mike

    It’s terribly sad that they get to be “normal”.

  • Andrew Iverson

    You know the reasons they shout that? There is usually never any resistance going on, but they can then claim you resisted and any injuries you suffered were because of that. It’s also why when they take down suspects they tend to surround them so no video or images of them using too much force can be captured.

  • Ed Lehming

    I know this feeling. Especially when it happens for the first time and you are left dumbfounded. I do a lot of landscape photography from the roadside, so I’m not trespassing. Twice this spring I have had people walk up to me and ask what I was doing. The camera on a tripod should be a giveaway. They then ask what the photographs are for. My response is that intake the photos for my own enjoyment and am trying to capture the beautiful scenery. Both told me I was photographing their property and should have asked permission? I’m not even sure why this bothers me. The one guy asked me to delete the photos and took the stance that I was shooting from the roadside and had no interest in his property, just the general landscape. I packed up and moved to another location. I guess that’s the world we live in.

  • Geoff

    This was 2001. Less than half of people had cell phones at all. Camera phones, if they even existed, were utterly uncommon and extreme luxury items.

    The low cost of digital photography and especially the ubiquity of smartphones, as you mention, have done much to erase the issue this article describes. But in 2001, people were using 35mm cameras and this being a lot more selective with what they shot. So they really noticed when they were being photographed. It was unusual then in a way it isn’t now.

  • Mike

    I was an at outdoor mall to shoot a friend’s band which was playing that evening. I figured the kids splashing in the water fountain would be cool in the foreground. Then a woman accused me of being creepy and told me I had to leave or she would call the police. I presented a business card and told her I was photographing the band. I showed her some of my shots. She argued, so I told her go ahead and call the police. Shortly thereafter, three police arrived to talk to her. They explained the photographers’ rights(we were in a public place) and advised her that if she didn’t want her children photographed that she should leave. I can only imagine that to this day she believes that mall has a poor policy on photography. The fact is, 95% of the people sitting around that fountain had a camera with them, just not as conspicuous as my pro body with a 70-200 attached.

  • Mike

    The 2001 story shows the same treatment that a 2013 photographer gets. That’s why it was posted here in the first place.

  • Genkakuzai

    Real happy I don’t live in a country where it’s frowned upon to take random photos among people… at least not yet. The entire story is disturbing really. It’s strange… how a country where mass surveillance is the norm, people have the nerve to complain about a photographer walking around doing his job.

  • Genkakuzai

    Excellent point.

  • ayumex

    A similar thing happened to me when I was with my family and our friends and their kids. We were at a local park with a splash pad having a picnic. There were other kids around.

    Being the “photographer, I’m often the one taking the pictures of all the kids while my friends relaxed. After a few minutes taking photos of my kids and their friends playing in the water, I was approached by a woman who told me I shouldn’t be taking pictures. (She looked like a local volunteer. She and another person were wearing matching brightly coloured vests).

    I told her that I was taking photos of my kids, to which she replied something to the effect: “Okay, but only of *your* kids.”

    I quickly looked around and saw numerous other parents with their smart phones taking photos and videos. I’m the only one there with an SLR (D7000 + 24-70 f2.8 at the time).

    I felt like I was being singled out because of my camera and it irked me a little, but I just continued to take photos because I knew I was doing nothing wrong.

    Being a father I can understand and respect the need to protect kids, but this sort of discrimination and ignorance is disheartening.

  • DesertandSeas

    Happy 4th of July to everyone!

    It’s a good thing to know your rights as a photographer. Though it shouldn’t be this way-it is incumbent upon us to educate others about our rights. A smile, cool head and diplomacy help immensely.
    I have this one printed up and present it when there is a question:
    http://www.krages.com/phoright.htm
    Here’s another site that can help: http://www.aclu.org/free-speech/know-your-rights-photographers

  • Red Mercury

    Just security theatre and some light exercise for your obedience gland. Get used to it.

  • Eugene Chok

    i have had to del photos of a guest at a wedding…. some people are really odd

  • harumph

    I had that gland removed. Turns out it’s like an appendix…you don’t need it, and often you’re far better off without it.

  • Jsyms

    It looks like this goes with the territory these days. My husband was on a business trip and I was able to ride along. It was fun beeping a tourist. I love old architecture and spires. In one town a police actually took my drivers liscence because I was taking pictures. :(. Crazy! A couple weeks ago I went to watch a ball game my SIL was playing in and ended up taking some pictures of a little league game. No one said anything to me directly. But you could tell they were suspicious.

  • cirrostratus

    This is because most people get their views about ‘reality’ from TV and movie cliches. How many TV shows have had pedophiles, stalkers, rapists, serial killers, kidnappers, etc., collecting photos of their victims with professional looking SLRs? How many cop shows have had the cops finding a secret room obsessively plastered with photos of victims? In the minds of these dim bulbs, when they see someone with a professional looking camera, a tiny little light goes on and then, “hey, I remember seeing people like you on TV!”

  • Ivor Wilson

    So true… I was taking photographs of swans taking off from a lake a year or so ago, the lake being part of a popular nature reserve that tourists / families frequent. I was pointing my (then) 18-270mm lens out over the water, where the group of swans were clear to see, when I heard from over my shoulder “We’ll see you on Crimewatch tonight”. Crimewatch being a TV programme in the UK where crimes are reported, re-enacted and so on. It turned to see who had said this; a woman in her early 20′s, pushing a pram with (I assume) husband and other toddler child walking alongside.

    Nice one… Way to educate your kids to think of every photographer as being a potential paedo / perv. I can’t help but visualise her spending rather too much time in front of daytime TV.

  • Scott

    I had a incident taking pictures of a “professional” taking pictures of a wedding party. I go to offer to send the pictures and they demand I delete any images that had them in a shot. I should have just called the cops but I really didn’t want any trouble and it seemed like more hassle than its worth. And BTW, the one who grabbed the camera from my hands (while surrounded and threatened by six in the wedding party) and deleted the photos was the “professional” photographer.

  • tomdavidsonjr

    No.

    I was taking pictures at the Veteran’s Cemetery in Leavenworth in 2009 (shooting the lines of the headstones and the small waving flags), when a Park Services cop approached me in his white SUV and got out. He asked me what I was doing. I told him I was taking pictures of the headstones and the flags, and threw in that I was a Marine Corps veteran (hoping that would carry some weight – it did not). He asked if he could see the images. It was standard operating procedure, he said – making me wonder what SOP would have been if I was shooting with my Leica M2 – open the back and look at the film? I asked him why he needed to see them (AS I compliantly showed them to him), and he said to make sure I wasn’t (as God is my Witness) an Identity Thief gathering information from headstones! He asked me to voluntarily delete any images that clearly showed the front of the headstone. Not certain of my rights, I complied as he watched. I also watched as a small group of people wandered around with their camera phones taking pictures of the headstones. I asked if he was going to make them delete their images. He said “phones have inferior cameras so they don’t pose a threat to the privacy of the veteran’s families”. I wish I could make this up. I left the cemetery, swearing that I would call someone at the VA or Park Service about this experience. I never did. I never went back to the cemetery in Leavenworth. I was cowed by someone in authority because I feared being detained, or having my equipment confiscated. And because I didn’t know my rights.

  • Jude I⚡caяiot

    Yep – everybody was staring at me like I was some sorta criminal. I wasn’t doing anything other than walking, while he pushed down on my arm behind my back. I couldn’t resist without pulling my arm out of my socket if I had wanted to. But it looks good for the public for him if he says I am!

  • oldmaven

    Photos of kids in public places are no threat–even if the photo inspired someone to go after the kid for some nefarious reason, and even if they recognized the spot, they’d have no assurance of when the kid might be back there, if ever.

  • Einar Johnson

    When my wife and I are out photographing in public places where there are children, we’ve seen some very interesting things happen depending on the country. Outside the US, we have never had any issues and often were encouraged by parents to take photos of them and their children. In the US we’ve experienced situations where I have been approached by parents about taking photos with children in them, and later she shot with the same camera/lens and parents came up and asked if they could get a copy of the photo. Sometimes even the same parents who challenged me previously. The irony is that many parents fail to realize how many photos they themselves are putting out of their children online. Every parent I know loves sending out photos of their kid on social media.

  • Pamela

    Wear sandals with socks and a flowered Hawaiian shirt and complain loudly about the price of everything. People will make a point to ignore you.

  • Trevor

    The theory is still valid today though: I’ve heard rumblings at my daughter’s ballet class about how most parents are uncomfortable with me taking pics during the recitals using a 7D, grip and a 2.8 lens. They think it’s uncalled for, perverted, and are concerned I’m not only taking pictures of THEIR kids, but posting them all over facebook too! Come on people, my daughter is in your daughter’s class, you’ve seen me here every Saturday for months. Why on God’s green Earth would I take pictures of YOUR kids? I’m sorry you’re jealous that my pictures will be immeasurably better than yours from your Galaxy/iPhone/iPad (yes, people even shooting movies with their iPad in the same group that complains about me using an actual camera), and in 30 years when I have a tear in my eye remembering my daughter’s special day, I now have to remember what I had to go through to get that picture.

  • Trevor

    Most people are, it’s human nature. If you’d feel comfortable tromping on ahead snapping away amid the very same people that pointed the finger of the law accusingly and squarely at you and you alone, then all the power to you.

  • Trevor

    It’s my opinion that if someone really wants their picture deleted that badly, they have something to hide. As non-confrontational as I am, that’d probably be my first question especially if I’m on contract. If the pictures are going to be the property of the person paying for them, I’d direct the offended individual to take the matter up with them.