In the USA we tend to take our safety and security for granted. But it’s becoming more apparent that’s no guarantee that we actually are safe. A video producer in Oakland, CA was beaten and robbed of his camera recently – and that’s just one example of what can happen, even if you’re in broad daylight and a public place.
When I was younger and traveling with a camera I was robbed in a Montreal bus station bathroom. I had my gear on my back in a back pack and someone hit me over the head while I was doing my business at the urinal. I work up with a sore head and no gear.
On Mt. Rainier, I was accosted by some VERY drunk kids in a 1969 Camaro who took a shot at me with a pistol and tried to run me over while I was shooting from a remote logging road. Fortunately for me, their state of intoxication left them with very poor aim and their car went into a ditch and I made my escape in my truck.
I experienced one last problem in Thailand. I was shooting from a boat and pirates tried to hijack the boat. Luckily we’d been warned and had private security so our guys shot at their guys and we won. But it was a close call.
Those are the only incidents I’ve personally suffered, and three in almost 40 years isn’t bad. But if you travel long enough and go far enough, you could be in the same situation. So what can you do?
It depends on who you are, where you are, what your personal abilities are and how you feel about defending yourself.
Here are some things to consider just in case, no matter where you fall on that spectrum.
1. Be alert. Be aware. Know your surroundings. When traveling to new places, pay attention to ingress and egress points. Know your escape routes, where to find help and what’s happening all around you. It’s very easy to get “lens eye.” What I mean by that is we tend to get so “focused” on what we’re doing, we don’t notice things outside what we see through the lens. Take a second to look up and around. That way you can assess any potential threats.
2. Well-known travel photographers have long advised that you use black electrical tape to cover up the brand name of your camera. In the old days, shooting in Europe with Nikon gear, I covered up the Nikon brand on the camera body which really did help. Also using camera bags that don’t look like camera bags is a good idea and generally, keeping a low profile is always the best approach to protecting your gear. When a stranger comes up in a strange land and says something like “Wow that’s a nice camera, I bet it was expensive.” I always say “What? This old thing? It’s not worth much. It barely works any more.” Better to downplay the value.
3. The safest place for your gear is always on your person. Leaving it in a hotel room or car is like tempting fate. Ask well-known nature photographer Art Wolfe. He left all his gear in his car, along with a month’s worth of exposed film – while on a trip to San Francisco. He lost everything.
4. Use common sense. Going down a dark alley at night all alone in a rough neighborhood to get a cool shot isn’t always the best approach. If you must shoot in such places, go with a group. This is where meetups and photo walks can make a difference. 10 of you going down the alley isn’t a guarantee that you’ll be safe. But it’s certainly better odds. Use your head. If it doesn’t feel right, turn around and go the other way.
5. Don’t lose your life over your gear. If you are approached by someone who wants to rob you, unless you have special training, give up the gear. If you’ve paid attention to my other posts, you should have insurance. Let it go. It’s all replaceable. Pay attention if you are robbed. Try to get a good look at the people who are robbing you. Immediately file a police report (you’ll need that for insurance) and recite as best you can what the person or people looked like. Who knows, the cops may be able to help get your gear back. You can also use one of those GPS locaters (like that sold by PIGEAR) to help find your gear later.
My goal here isn’t to make you paranoid. Nobody should live their life in fear. But it does make sense to pay attention, avoid unnecessary risk. be alert and know your options when you’re out in public with your gear. I’d talk more about common sense here but as I get older I realize that there’s nothing common about good sense so I’ll stop now. Be safe.