The Biggest Dangers Photographers Face

The Biggest Dangers Photographers Face

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.

a low-key image of the entrance to an Amtrak station at night

Photo by Justin Hamilton via Pexels.com

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.

On Site

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.

Squatters

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

a photographer in a city taking pictures at night

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.

a car driving into a lush, foggy forest

Photo by Pedro Figueras, Pexels.com

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.

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34 Comments

Motti Bembaron's picture

Welcome to the US of A :-). Unfortunately, some parts on Toronto are becoming a highly risky place in the past two years,

It's sad that you have to carry a weapon as part of your gear considering you are not in Syria or Yemen (or one of many really dangerous places)... I never once felt I needed a firearm, not in Canada nor in Israel.

jacob kerns's picture

So don't weat a seat belt then because you haven't died in a car wreak.

Motti Bembaron's picture

So you say we should all carry a gun just in case, right? mmmm...

Coulda, shoulda woulda...It's proven time and time again every time there is a shooting in the US. GUN FREE ZONES! You limit Law Abiding Citizens from protecting themselves and think Criminals are going to follow the Law LOL. So to answer your question. YES. I have never once left the house and was in fear of my life and like I HAD TO have my gun on me. But I also keep a Fire Extinguisher under my sink just in case. I also have amazing Vehicle and Home insurance. All of these are ways to prevent catastrophic. Just because you don't agree with it, or think it's stupid, or whatever it is you think, doesn't mean its wrong or holds any less merit. I like by the theory in all aspects of my life as "I'd rather have it and not need it, than need it and not have it". Photography, my truck, my guns, etc. I don't need $30,000 in camera gear, but it helps. I don't need a brand new truck, but it's nice not worrying about tires, or belts, or the tranny. And yes, it's nice knowing if I go to see a movie and some crazy SOB thinks he's going to make me a victim, I'm going to go down fighting, not be a cowardice victim.

Motti Bembaron's picture

If you say so. It has been 36 years since my army time and I haven't held a gun since then and hopefully never will. Cheers.

Shawk Parson's picture

but you could be arrested for just that: showing off your firearm like that! :D besides, such an 'exposed' firearm could be even more inviting for the likely criminal than your expensive fancy photogear! someone may take the firearm first and then rob your gear right on the spot ...

Casey Fry's picture

Not in states that allow open carry. As for "inviting a criminal"; statistically, no, in fact the opposite.

A few years ago, I was shooting in a bad area and left the back of my station wagon, with camera gear in site, open while I was standing about 30 feet away, next to my tripod. Several people walked by but nobody came near the car or me. One guy got up the nerve to ask about it, though. Not my car or gear; my rather large, very serious dog. He was sitting, unleashed, just inside the car, watching everyone who walked by. Not wagging his tail. Not "smiling". I love my dog! :-)

Daniel Haußmann's picture

One thing I might want to add. It is pretty generic and not directly photography related. But working late and driving home is super dangerous. We shoot a lof of wedding films. Usually 12h+. It is exhausting. And more than once I felt super tired. On the spot we mitigate by taking a break and sleeping for 20min. Better solution of course is to take a nearby hotel.

Scott Mason's picture

Daniel, I've been there with weddings and share that sentiment with you. Not only is our own exhaustion a risk, but since weddings tend to let out very late on weekend nights there are always drunks and/or other exhausted people on the road. If it's a long drive I always help myself to coffee during the last 1-2 hours, no matter how late it is.

Rifki Syahputra's picture

one of our biggest enemy today is our own stupidity

I think the biggest danger to me is the generic Chinese strobes I use in the studio. The number of times I get a shock when I unplug them is, well, shocking.

Ernest Saenz's picture

you may want to invest in a portable GFCI.

Pretty cheap online or home builder stores.

Jordan McChesney's picture

A great article, and a fantastic reminder of just how dangerous this hobby/job can be, I never even think about much much the gear I'm carrying is worth.

I feel so lucky to live in Japan. It's so safe here people will put their Louis Vuitton bag on a chair at a cafe, and then go to the counter to order a drink without so much as looking back. I've left my gear meters and meters away from me as I'm shooting, and I've never felt the fear of being robbed or having my stuff taken. Don't get me wrong, there is crime, there was a purse snatching 2 minutes from my house, last month, but overall, it seems super safe here.

When I was shooting in my hometown, Vancouver, last year, my heart rate rose when someone so much as walked within 10 meters of me.

The only time I've ever felt in danger here, was when I was hiking alone and photographing waterfalls in Northern Japan, and the signs were nice enough to remind me that I was in bear territory. Luckily I met more retired people than bears, and even got a free can of coffee from a wonderful couple... so I guess I got the opposite of robbed, haha. The only "danger" I face here in the city, is a conversation with a 65 year old retired businessman who is using a $5000 dollar camera to take snapshots.

Mauro Scattolini's picture

well sucks to live where you do. Of course every job can be dangerous, but always remember to use statistics and compare the amount of photographers with the amount of photographer that end up robbed or dead. I can bet it's pretty small.

Scott Mason's picture

I'm not aware of those specific statistics out there for our profession, therefore I wouldn't be able to do so. If anyone has data, please share it.

Michael McCray's picture

Until recently most of my forty year of photography has revolved around some form of activism that has often put me in harm’s way. Sometimes it has been strictly my activism which presents own dangers on many levels.
It is about managing your fears. Fear can chain you like nothing else in this temporary event called life. Except for putting myself there most situations, I have had no control anyway, as each event unfolds and moves to its own conclusion. Looking back you and others can draw all sort of scenarios, if only I had.... or this could have happened, stuff happens.
My own management technique is my faith and prayer. Prayer when it was Soviet jet circling back towards you in Afghanistan to faith when it is some yahoo threatening to kill you in America because of drugs.

David Pavlich's picture

I have a certain amount of respect and admiration for those that place themselves in harm's way. However, I have no sympathy when their decision to place themselves in harm's way turns bad then that person expects others to do all that they can to get them out of trouble.

Decision have consequences, some good, some bad.

As far as having a dog or a .45 for protection, if someone is determined to get you or your gear, they will do it. The dog and/or the pistol will probably deter the petty thief. Scenario: You're taking a photo of an old building in a bad part of town, camera at eye level. You are NOT concentrating on your surroundings. While taking the shot, a bad guy comes out from behind a dumpster with piece of rebar. By the time you're dropped your camera and go for your holstered .45 it's over.

The best deterrent? Don't put yourself in a compromising position. Cocked, locked, and in the holster is fine if you're on alert, with your hands free, but in the scenario above, you may as well have a feather duster in your holster.

jacob kerns's picture

It's called self awareness it should be practiced at all times with or without protection. I'm pretty sure you will hear someone walk up behind you unless your shooting somewhere its loud where you can't hear foot steps.

David Pavlich's picture

Considering my scenario, bad part of TOWN, chances are that there is noise. All I'm saying is just because you're armed doesn't mean you're not in danger. It takes a substantial amount of training to be able to go from shooting a picture to suddenly having to make all of the moves needed to get your firearm into a defensive posture. Perhaps you've had that training, but most haven't.

A false sense of security is not a good defense against bad things happening.

A dog would be better in your scenario but, in either case, a dog or gun will deter more than just petty thieves. People like to talk about what they would do, confronted by a gun or big dog but when you see a steady hand, holding that gun, or a big dog with his hackles raised, baring his teeth, things are a bit different.

David Pavlich's picture

Yes, a person with a firearm at the ready is a major deterrent, but consider the topic at hand. We're not discussing a tactical team going into a hostile situation, we're discussing a photographer with all the gear and thought processes that entails, that happens to have a sidearm.

Again, if you're taking a picture, that means that your firearm is in its holster. Cocked and locked doesn't matter. Unless you train at a 'Hogan's Alley' with your camera gear included in that training, somebody coming out of nowhere has a very good chance of gaining the advantage, ie, whacking you in the back of the head with a club or some such thing.

Which is why I prefer a dog. I'm not sure I could shoot someone, and don't even own a gun, but I know my dog will attack someone to protect me or his territory, which includes my car. Even if he couldn't identify someone as a threat until they're too close to prevent the initial contact, he lets me know when someone is near, long before they got that close. Sometimes he's TOO good about that. :-)

Tlamati Xochipilli's picture

This is something I think about a lot... security, insurance, etc. Things not related to the nature of photography, but can be a reality while pursuing your career as a photographer. 1st thing is to have equipment insurance, an Inland Marine Policy, for example, covers your equipment 100%, no deductible. 2nd self protection, having and carrying a gun has a similarity to photography, if you don't know how to use it, what's the point? Sure you can have it, but learn & train, just like in photography. Also, in speaking with gun law, at least here in Texas, if you are being robbed, you are allowed to shoot at someone who is stealing from you, even if they are running away, especially if they threatened you. If you are trained, as any responsible gun owner "should be", you can easily stop someone without being lethal. But if you choose not to, then the insurance should cover you. It's all about training and responsibilities.

Wildlife related death and injuries are not unheard of in the midwest; pro and recreational shooters alike have left the safety of their car to get a shot of wild buffalo or go traipsing across an open field in pursuit of a deer only to encounter a prairie rattler. Situational awareness in everything, always.

jacob kerns's picture

That's why I carry a gun when I'm taking photos. Doesn't matter if I'm in Downtown Phoenix or in the mountains.

art meripol's picture

In the USA the most dangerous photo job is probably that of news photographers. Unfortunately media companies have dropped so many of those positions. But with the current mood of our leadership encouraging actions against the media it's especially dangerous. And since many now work freelance they don't have the power of the media outlet to either protect them or help if they are assaulted. It's hardly as bad as it is in places like Syria or Turkey or Mexico but it's a constant hum of stress I'm sure. Just going to any news event could turn into an assault by someone emboldened by angry rhetoric.

Jon Dize's picture

I have (3) CCW Permits (Nevada, Utah and Florida) which allow me through "reciprocity" to carry concealed in 39 states.

I have very good RADAR when it comes to situational awareness from my youth through 20's in Martial Arts, though at 64, there are only a handful of magic tricks I have left to assist me should the need arise.

Wisdom is the best defense, don't put yourself in to situations you cannot get yourself out of and you won't have to get yourself out of situations.

But, now and then we find ourselves in high risk areas. I've had a few anxious moments myself.

I don't open carry. I keep my gun and magazines concealed.

When you open carry, you have identified the person that is the greatest threat to the bad guys. The guy they take out first.

I've watched hundreds of videotaped real life scenarios and the armed good guys that came out best, were the ones the bad guy did not know were armed.

When the bad guy doesn't know the good guy is armed, there is a timing window, when the good guy has a chance to surprise the bad guy.

https://www.liveleak.com/view?t=81e_1467675338

https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=18&v=N-O5pEuTM9g

https://www.liveleak.com/view?t=a95_1496518687

https://www.liveleak.com/view?t=fd4_1480096343

https://www.liveleak.com/view?t=153_1502140280

YES! I recommend using your head and being AWARE of your surroundings and risk factors and yes, I do suggest you get a CCW permit if possible, not just for protecting your gear, but for protecting the lives around you.

As a smallish woman, I have always been extremely aware of unsafe areas and avoided them. No, I don't do photography there. Period. Screw the shot, I prefer my life.

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