We all know the dangerous jobs out there: law enforcement, firefighting, the list goes on. But have you ever stopped to think about the risks that come with our profession?
You've probably been there before. It’s late and you're out shooting by yourself, perhaps in a not very safe area. You stay focused on your work, but in the back of your mind, you’re aware that the thousands of dollars in equipment on you could make you a target for crime. A stranger approaches you on the sidewalk, and you don't dare let them out of your peripheral sight. When they finally pass by, you breathe a sigh of relief.
Being robbed for equipment is a very real risk for us photographers, and unfortunately, the risks do not stop there. Let's look at some of the most common ones, but bear in mind that these dangers span various genres of photography, and therefore, no one person is likely to be subject to all of them in a lifetime.
Assault and Robbery
The above scenario requiring constant situational awareness is quite common for me and most other photographers. As an architectural photographer, I do a lot of location-scouting and find myself alone, wandering commercial parking lots all hours of the day and night.
I suppose my "street smart" (perhaps sometimes paranoid not-so-smart) attitude stems from the famously dangerous city I used to live in, Chicago. One year, I learned that a photographer was robbed for $30,000 worth of gear on North Ave. Beach while trying to capture the SuperMoon.
One sad part of this story is that the "SuperMoon" phenomenon had stirred up a lot of of social media hype over very little, as these moons are a paltry 14 percent larger than a normal full moon. Thanks a lot, FakeNewsBook.
Here’s another risk factor: if the wrong people know about the gear you keep in your home, you can easily be singled out for home burglary. Stash your equipment away when contractors or workers are inside your home, and always be careful about sharing your profession with strangers. You never know who someone you don’t trust can share your professional information with, and these days, it's easy to find an address by just knowing a person's name. Don't believe me? Google yourself. It's near impossible to keep up with all the data aggregators that (somehow legally) publish our personal info all on the web.
Unless you run a studio out of your home, do not list your home address as your business address. Instead, try to use a PO Box, registered agent address if you own an LLC, or simply set a general map area through Google My Business. How easy would it be for a criminal to target photographers if they knew where we all live? Let's all retain what privacy we can control.
Another crucial safeguard for loss prevention: make sure each piece of your photo gear is scheduled under your homeowner's or renter's insurance policy or a business policy if you use it for work.
We must also take precautions while on site for home builder, architect, real estate, and interior shoots. When on location at residences, leave at the first sign of an aggressive dog. Also make sure the homeowners are expecting you. One photographer in Atlanta was shot by a surprised homeowner who wasn't alerted prior to his photo appointment.
While nothing this drastic has happened to me, I personally have dealt with irate and suspicious neighbors in housing communities and private residences. Such experiences are never fun and sometimes borderline scary. Always remain calm and keep business cards on your person as verification that you are who you say you are.
It's also not uncommon for photographers and real estate agents to come across squatters while entering vacant listings. Photographers who focus on residential real estate have similar justified concerns. The popular Real Estate Photography group on Facebook has safety threads in which people share their brushes with crime on-site as well as their methods for self-defense preparation.
I was at first a bit surprised to learn that so many of these photographers carry concealed firearms on shoots, less so after reading the frightening squatter (sometimes angry homeowner) encounters some of them had experienced. One photographer in a rural area was shocked when he returned to his car mid-shoot to discover a squatter going through his car.
Many real estate photographers are confronted by confused or nosy neighbors who either demand to see identification or simply call the police at the suspicion of a Peeping Tom, terroristic activity, or staking out of a home. I like the purpose of a neighborhood watch, but it's frustrating to think that people might not think through why a professional is photographing a home with a “For Sale” sign out front.
Countless stories circulate of professional photographers being assaulted by citizens and authority figures alike, over issues ranging from privacy concerns to suspicion of criminality. It's a good idea to at least have pepper spray on your person while out shooting (check your local laws on this first). Just be sure to leave it in the car if you cover anything in a government building. Also, LowePro makes gear backpacks that open from the rear, which offer a layer of protection while you're out and about. This design is hard to describe, but essentially, the zipper is along the inner edge of the back-side of the backpack, making the compartments less accessible.
The Ultimate Danger
Brace yourselves, this is as bad as our professional downside gets. But it’s better to be aware of this potential ultimate danger and do everything you can to protect yourself.
Back in Chicago, a digital photography classmate of mine named Jay Polhill went missing. Jay had last been seen on video surveillance leaving his dorm with a laptop bag and his camera strapped around his neck. His lifeless body showed up two days later in the Calumet river. It was later determined he had suffered a head injury before his drowning.
Another student in our class pointed out that Jay's photography project at the time was documenting the undersides of bridges in the Chicago area, which naturally is where a lot of vagrants tend to reside. One can't help imagine that his gear probably made him a target. Police concluded "assault" was a factor, but did not list Jay's death as a homicide. (Chicago police have been suspected of classifying extremely suspicious deaths not as homicides in an attempt to lower the city's notoriously high murder rates.)
Unfortunately, Jay is the not the only case of a photographer being found in a river.
Due to the often solitary nature of our work, photographers sometimes go missing. Like any hiker or nature enthusiast who tends to trek off the beaten path, nature photographers sometimes go missing, too. Some become lost forever in the wilderness, others are mauled by predatory animals or even fall victim to dangerous terrain. Just recently (October 25, 2018) a couple fell off a popular high point for photography at Yosemite National Park. If you're a nature photography enthusiast, brush up on your survival skills with this Top 10 list of survival techniques for hikers.
Hands down, the most dangerous photography job is, of course, wartime photography. Named by The Guardian as the riskiest freelance job in the world, war photographers put themselves literally in the line of fire in order to capture what one could argue is the most important freelance job for human affairs. If this subject interests you, here's the full Guardian article. I am humbled and blown away by the bravery of war photographers and have the utmost respect for them.
Has your photography career put you in a dangerous or risky situation before? Share your stories and opinions in the comments below. Next week's subject: the social and financial risks of photography, along with more ways to protect yourself.
Lead image by Ahmed Ali, used under Creative Commons.