Lead photo by Suzanne Stein. Used with permission.
Street photography and confrontation can go hand in hand. The fact is, some people just do not want a camera pointed at them. Most of the time unwilling subjects communicate their disapproval in a respectful way. However, sometimes they react in an aggressive, hilarious and just outright bizarre fashion. It’s a nightmare for many of us, and we try to find ways to get out of those situations. We spoke to a number of street photographers, asked them about the more memorable stories of confrontation and what we did to overcome it.
The Bizarre Kebab
We’ve all heard of the dodgy kebab. Well in this instance it wasn’t the meat that was questionable, rather it was the owner of the shop. I took the above frame more as a visual note for somewhere I could eat later – and the light was rather nice too. A quick frame and off I go. 30 seconds later I feel a tug on my bag, I turned around. I’m now faced with a bald, middle-aged fella with a look on face that suggests he wants to carve me too.
“You don’t take a picture,” he says. “Erm, I did.” I replied. He continues, “I don’t want you to take pictures of my shop. It’s private. No pictures.” I keep calm and politely offer to delete it… “No. you don’t delete. You keep. The damage is done. Now you come to eat kebab.” He grabs me by my arm “You come and eat kebab.” I pull myself away and firmly tell him he is not to put his hands on me again and request he takes some perspective and calms down. I tell him “I would never purchase a kebab from a man who is so rude and hostile.”
All of a sudden he calms down. He smiles. It’s as if we’re friends now. Surprisingly he apologizes, “Okay. We make a deal. You email me the photo I give you kebab on the house.” Hey, I’m a sucker for a freebie and I do love a kebab – and that was that. As we ate I explained what I do and my motives for doing so. He understood the practice more and seemed rather impressed by it.
Nick Turpin – @the_nick_turpin
With 20 years’ experience in street photography, Nick Turpin has a story or two. Taking time away from his day to day shooting and YouTube channel, he was happy to share us a tricky encounter he had…
“On one occasion I was challenged by a photography magazine to take as many street photographs as I could in one hour on Oxford Street in London, they sent a journalist to shadow me while I worked and, of course, that was the day I had my biggest ever confrontational situation arise.”
“I was 45 minutes into the hour and it was going well, I had some quite nice images and I was happy. Walking along towards Selfridges I saw three women dressed in black burkhas eating white ice creams in a row. The black and the white together was visually nice and I paused and snapped a couple of frames before continuing. Thirty seconds later one of these women grabbed me and started pulling on my bag, then they were all there pulling at my bag and clothes trying to stop me. I started explaining that I had done nothing wrong and that they were in the UK now and had been photographed by CCTV all day. Soon passers-by from the Muslim community started to stop and intervene, one man told me ‘these are special people’ to which I told him, “we are all special people”.
“This is an exceptional example from 30 years of doing street photography and extremely unusual…”.
“Eventually, surrounded by about 20 Muslims arguing, I called the Police who arrived in a van very quickly and of course defended my right to take photographs and tried to explain to these women that I had done nothing wrong. I and the journalist were rescued from Oxford Street and driven away to be dropped off away from this crowd. I couldn’t believe that this had happened on a street in the city where I live.”
This is an exceptional example from 30 years of doing street photography and extremely unusual, I wouldn’t let this story put you off doing street photography. I guess it’s an example where a cultural clash and a misunderstanding about the law, coupled with a language difference, made it very difficult to resolve without the intervention of the Police.It was useful that I had printed examples of my work with me that immediately demonstrated to the Police what I do and that it was inoffensive”.
“Generally, I find that if someone sees you photograph them, they just wonder why you singled them out, I will often keep walking and tell them ‘nice hat’ or something similar just to give them a reason”.
Suzanne Stein – @suzanne_stein
A street photographer currently based in New York, Suzanne is best known for her gritty, straight to the point social street photography. Interested in the female experience when it comes to confrontation, we asked her to share her most troubling scenarios when out making street photographs:
“I have been assaulted four times while shooting and have had two concussions. Every time I’ve been attacked it was by bystanders—never by anybody I was actually taking a picture of.
“Although I’ve photographed extensively on Skid Row in Los Angeles – I’ve never been threatened there. Surprisingly, my concussions happened in very nice neighborhoods. Once, on Boulevard Saint Germain in Paris I was kicked in the head and never saw it coming. I was down on the ground, just shooting aimlessly, and a man who was observing me didn’t like what I was doing, and ran up, kicking me hard in the side of the head, hitting my camera and hand as well. I didn’t let myself go down completely because I realized that I wouldn’t be able to protect myself…it was an effort of will not to collapse.”
“I find that its best to try to educate when confronted, and try to patiently explain why Street Photography is important…”
“The police were called, and the man, a mentally ill homeless man, was completely indifferent to the fact that he could’ve ended my life. I don’t want to demonize anyone, especially as I feel that it’s important for me to photograph everything and everyone, but I now recognize that it’s critical for me to constantly evaluate those I’m shooting and those that surround me in the urban environments that I work in. My second concussion permanently damaged my right eye, and that happened as I was simply walking down the street with my camera. Many people see a street photographer as someone who is rude and presumptuous, and have no frame of reference or exposure to street photography as an artistic endeavour, or understand that pictures of everyday things are critical visual documents of the world.”
“I find that its best to try to educate when confronted, and try to patiently explain why Street Photography is important, why I love it, and why I’m there. I sometimes talk about specific elements in the scene that I’m photographing and what I’m hoping to achieve in the image. Many people will back down, and actually, become accepting and the confrontation dissipates.”
Nico Froehlich – @nico_street_
Part of the new generation of street photographers, Nico Froehlich is no stranger to confrontation – even if he’s in the early part of his career:
“During the summer of 2018, possibly in July. I was taking photos near Charing Cross when I spotted a man laying on the road unusually. I moved closer to make sure he was breathing. Fortunately, he was, he just seemed to be on something potent, possibly ‘spice’. Instinctively, I began to take photos. No one is exempt from being photographed when I am out doing street photography. My main concern is documenting the world in an honest and unfiltered manner. I would only stop if someone was in real danger.”
“I am not proud of retaliating in such an aggressive way and in hindsight I should have just walked away…”.
“While taking photos, a young man, who happened to be accompanied by a young lady, took it upon himself to aggressively confront me by getting in my face and calling me a ‘scumbag’ and telling me that I should be ashamed of myself. This guy got so aggressive and physically close that I was forced to get defensive and counter his aggression with more aggression. Strong words were exchanged, and this guy’s companion could see that this was quickly escalating, so she stepped in to calm the situation and walked the guy away.”
“I am not proud of retaliating in such an aggressive way and in hindsight I should have just walked away, but I get worked up sometimes on the streets. People often assume that you are up to no good. It is a shame. It is all about approach, I don’t shoot in the aggressive style of Bruce Gilden, and members of the public shouldn’t aggressively confront me without question. However, I guess you will always get one, or two. That’s just the nature of the streets.”
Learn From Experience
If you’re new to street photography or thinking about starting it, these stories should help you to prepare for the realities of the craft. They should also give you enough knowledge to help handle any possible confrontation. As with anything time and experience will be your best tool for handling difficult encounters. Don’t let this put you off, however, for any struggles you’re faced with in street, you will encounter far more positive experiences.