The Art of De-escalation in Street Photography

“Take another photo and I’m going to shove that camera up your a**.” Beware of small guys with big mouths. That’s the takeaway here.

Clearly he was not impressed, and although he was a head shorter than me, his steely-eyed glare exuded a level of confidence a full foot taller than his boyish, brown brush cut. Maybe he was well versed in the martial arts, with a quick karate chop to the cranium at the ready. Maybe his green Canada Goose coat concealed a weapon of the deadly variety. How I reacted to him would determine what came next. The Clint Eastwood quote, “You feelin’ lucky, punk?” came to mind. I wasn’t.

At the time, I was busy clickity clicking away with a Canon 5D Mark III sporting 16-35mm f/4 Canon L glass. It’s a killer camera/lens combo but it stands out in a crowd. I was loitering aimlessly out front of Toronto’s opulent Union Station. Its 22 towering 40-foot columns and solid limestone walls loomed above me oppressively — an invitation for any street photographer who appreciates the grandeur of impressive architecture from a bygone era. Constantly on the move, I snapped away with reckless abandon.

What I wasn’t doing was photographing him. In fact, before he opened his yap, I hadn’t even noticed him.

Of course, that matters not. In his mind, my camera and I must be up to something nefarious. Perhaps he’d had a negative experience with some other street photographer in the past, I don’t know. He might even have mental health issues. That’s not uncommon in any bustling downtown metropolis.

What I do know is that around my neck hung $4,500 bucks worth of camera gear. Behind my back, a medium-sized camera bag with more gear in it. I was clearly disadvantaged if this unpleasant confrontation turned physical. The risk of seeing my expensive camera in pieces on the pavement far outweighed my concern over taking a punch or two.

When it comes to the personal violence ubiquitous in the world, my theory is that most of it can be attributed to unchecked arrogance and petty pridefulness. In all my years on this planet, I’ve yet to meet anyone who enjoys losing face or has a hankering for humble pie. Being constantly prideful and easily triggered is no way to go through life.

I could have let my pride get the better of me and replied with, “What the f**k did you just say?” I could have laughed in his face. Or I could have taken a pre-emptive approach and introduced him to a flying dropkick to the frontal lobe, ala Karate Kid (but let’s face it, at my age, that’s an unlikely feat). My guess is that any of the above responses would have resulted in a full-on street scrap and even if I won there was a great chance my camera would have ended up damaged in the process. Sometimes you can win the battle yet still lose the war, as they say.

At least my little aggressor was courteous enough to express his lofty intentions involving my camera and my anus. Advanced warning is always appreciated. I know another Toronto street shooter who, while minding his beeswax on a busy downtown corner with his camera at his side, was sucker-punched from behind, resulting in an unexpected kiss with the concrete sidewalk. He ended up with an ego and an eye both bruised for the crime of doing nothing, but at least his camera came out of it unscathed.

Instead, the approach I took was to gulp down my pride and refrain from escalating the situation. Rather than responding in kind, I simply gave him a quick nod and casually meandered off. My spidey senses told me that there was pretty much nothing I could say, besides sorry (which I had no reason to be), that would not come off as defensive. A defensive reaction opens the door to more dialogue, which was something I had no interest in entertaining. I was out to take pictures, not get into arguments with strangers.

Annoyed more than rattled, I continued to shoot away while at the same time keeping my eye on him from a distance. A few minutes later his girlfriend exited Union Station and they both went on their merry way without so much as a glance in my direction.

I have no idea what his deal was, and I really don’t care. As a street shooter part of the job is to know how to handle situations like these when they arise. Sometimes the best course of action is no action.

“But the law is on your side,” some might argue. And yes, that’s indeed true (at least here in Canada). So what? Is he going to care? Pointing out the law would have been akin to extinguishing a brush fire with a bucket of butane.

Most “confrontations” in which I’ve been involved are far less volatile, for lack of a better word. They usually start with, “Did you just take my photo?” Or, “Why did you just take my photo?” Canadians are a polite bunch, even when they feel they’ve been wronged in some way.

My first rule around these interactions is never to lie; after all, I’ve done nothing wrong. I just assume I’ve been noticed, so there’s little to be gained by not being honest about it. If the person’s demeanor isn’t aggressive or threatening, I immediately offer to show them the photo I just made. I also explain why I was drawn to take the shot; there’s always a good reason behind it. I then offer my business card and tell them I’d be happy to email them a copy of the image for their own use. More than half the time they respond positively or indifferently, take my card and within a day or two email me for the promised copy.

What I don’t do is start a debate over the legal rights around taking photos in public spaces. They won’t care, and why should they? They don’t know me from Adam and have no idea if I’m right or wrong or lying through my teeth. They only know it feels wrong, ethically speaking.

If, however, the interaction begins with them firmly insisting that I have no right to take anyone’s photograph sans permission, I will correct them as gently and respectfully as I can. But at the same time, I always offer to delete the image, if they’d like. Some take me up on it, some don’t bother once they realize I’m a harmless, friendly guy.

In my opinion, that’s exactly how you want to be seen in these sorts of situations, as a harmless hobbyist with no ill intent. A welcoming smile goes a long way. If you think of yourself as a tough guy who takes no s**t from anyone, perhaps street photography isn’t for you. Join a fight club or something.

It’s important to empathize with the people you’re taking pictures of, in my view. The law might be on your side, but that fact doesn’t diminish their right to not like being photographed by strangers on the street.

That said, no matter how considerate you are there will come a time when you come face to face with someone who relishes being unreasonable; after all, it’s the age of the internet and haters gonna hate, as they say. Learn to recognize when a situation has the potential to go really sideways and take care not to react in a way that could escalate it. No one wants to end their day in the back of an ambulance or cop car, right?

What we don’t need is for people to think of street photographers as nasty, arrogant paparazzi to be avoided at any cost. You have the power to control the narrative and defuse these situations when they arise. Don’t let pride get in the way of a good day’s shooting. No photo is worth a fistfight.

Happy shooting.

About the author: Dave Bottoms has spent the past decade exploring the streets of Toronto, Canada, where he calls home. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Around Bottoms’ neck hangs a Fujifilm X-Pro2 sporting an 18mm f/2 prime most of the time. Dave is also an Admin for the Toronto Street Photography and Canadian Street Photographers groups on Facebook. When not taking pictures he is a freelance writer/editor for hire and is currently working on a street/documentary photography book of his work. You can find more of his work on his Instagram and blog.