Due to the nature of the work that I do, I was recently asked how I stay out of trouble with the police. The question caught me off guard. The person asking the question brought up the fact that I’m always in New York with a camera. In my photography life, I have occasionally run across my share of bigots. But photographers are mostly a great community of people–and the issue some photographers have is their race and the law. Not everyone is treated equally 100% of the time. As an adult I have rarely, if ever, been singled out and stopped. I am not going to say I have never been harassed but when I was young–I quickly learned how not to make myself a target for police. As a photographer, I worried about that subject even more. So here is my answer.
Editor’s Note: Chris Gampat has co-authored this piece.
Dress in a Particular Way
Due to the nature of my job, I have learned that in general police tend to look at people wearing a certain style of dress in a certain way. They see a person in a baseball cap, jeans and sneakers differently then they see a person in casual dress pants and a polo. It’s not fair, but how you dress can make you more of a target or less of one. Police watch TV just like most people and they make assumptions. A photographer needs to learn to blend in to their environment. I try to disappear. Some of my friends don’t even notice when I’m making a photograph.
Be Cautious in Certain Neighborhoods
Watch the news–if you don’t feel like getting anywhere close to the possibility of being harassed, just stay away from the problematic neighborhoods. When there is something going on, it’s fair to assume that police are in a heightened state of alert–just look around NYC and you’ll find it everywhere. Even if you did not do anything wrong, a cop can, at minimum, question you. Sometimes it’s uncalled-for but it’s reality. If you don’t put yourself in these situations you can have a better time. If you want to capture these scenes with your camera you just have to calmly put up with it.
Keep Calm and Carry On
Try to keep a positive attitude. Cops are humans too so they will respond better to calmer conversation. If you get angry with them they can return the anger in ways you don’t like. If you find yourself in this situation, put your camera down and talk it out. Most of the times calm conversation can ease a tense situation. Not all police will be willing to calm down, and because of this you will miss shots. However, in our current reality you have to keep this in mind.
Putting Yourself in Harm’s Way
As photographers who sometimes have to cover dangerous or sensitive stories, we have to put ourselves in front of police. Police can sometimes create problems for media just trying to do their jobs.
You have to be on top of things. You need to have all of your identification in order and be prepared to deal with confrontational police In a calm and logical manner.
Don’t Ever Think the Police are Not Looking at You
Every once in a while the Phoblographer staff gets together to test lenses or have meetings. On one occasion while testing Zeiss Touit lenses on the High Line we noticed we had a police shadow. Several officers decided we needed to be followed to see what were doing. They never approached us or said anything. I believe they wanted us to know they were there. There are always people with cameras on the High Line since it’s a tourist zone. But for whatever reason we were deemed suspicious. As photographers, we are always being watched, especially in big cities.
And unfortunately in our times, no one can deny this.