Street Photographer Assaulted, Offers Advice on How to Have Better Interactions

As London Street Photographer Michael Boyd puts it: "Why should you trust this guy for advice on how to avoid getting beaten up? Well, that's because I got really badly beaten up." Check out how he used a horrible encounter to revamp his shooting style and offer advice to others.

About six months ago, Boyd was walking around Glasgow at night with his Instax Wide 300, when he approached a group of men in the middle of the street and took a close shot, using the flash (which I can attest is a rather powerful bugger, having used one of these cameras myself). The men, unamused by the perceived invasion of space and privacy, proceeded to take Boyd's camera and physically assault him, the onslaught only stopping when Boyd's friends stepped in, some of whom too were assaulted. As Boyd puts it:

This is most photographers' worst fear, because it really knocks your confidence for a while. It took me six months to get over it.

I had the opportunity to speak with Boyd, who was gracious enough to share more of his experience. He recognizes a distinction between the legality of street photography and the manner in which one goes about it, noting that it's of course legal in most countries, but he realized after this encounter that the way in which he was going about it was neither beneficial for his photography or his safety. 

This led to the realization that interaction with his subjects was the key to fixing both these issues, leading Boyd to vow to never "hide behind the camera" again. In his video, he discusses the techniques he's developed, all of which are simple and effective for completely reframing a situation with a stranger: smiling, starting a conversation, and having a business card to legitimize one as a photographer. He notes that most people are quite easily flattered and that a compliment can go a long way in changing a person's perceptions of a photographer's intentions. 

Of course, I was interested to know if Boyd has had any altercations since, which he has, but armed his new techniques:

They've all been defused relatively easily with a bit of interaction.

From a technical standpoint, Boyd no longer uses flash because of its obtrusiveness. He also has not replaced the Instax, noting he prefers traditional film more. I too prefer traditional film (is there anything better than a good roll of Tri-X?), but I also carry an Instax 90 much of the time, as I've found people absolutely adore receiving a surprise old-school instant print. I've found it also makes the photographer more memorable. For Boyd, though, the big revelation was human interaction:

I really feel like a social documentary photographer's ability to make great images is closely linked with their people skills. After learning the hard way, I've actually started enjoying photography more by learning to talk to people. Worrying about cameras less and paying much more attention to the subject and composition is more rewarding for me. I'd recommend people try out talking to their subjects more and see where it takes them. If anything, it'll reduce the odds of getting a busted nose like me.

Have you had altercations as a street photographer? How did you handle them? Let us know in the comments!

All images by Michael Boyd and used with permission.

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14 Comments

And you were expecting . . . ? Ice cream and sprinkles?

Anonymous's picture

'Glasgow' and 'at night'

quelle suprise.

I could never, ever take someone's photograph on the street without asking their permission. And flash, too? So very, very rude.

Is the moral "Don't be a dick"?

Tom Lew's picture

not sure if this is the proper forum for this... but I've read a few articles not just on Fstoppers about street photography and it's "ethics." There is an entire group of photographers out there who are very aggressive in defending his/her position in being legally allowed to get in people's faces and take photos of them without asking permission since it is public space. I do not have a law degree but all I can say is that even if it is legal.. I think back to my mother who became very ill with cancer, went through numerous rounds of chemo, and was genuinely afraid of being in pictures because her physical appearance did not match the image she had of her former self. I simply do not understand how some people can walk around and take close up portraits of people without having a genuine conversation and asking permission first. How is this a realization you have to come to only after being physically assaulted.

I see your point and I empathize with your mother, but think of it this way: Those guys that beat up Boyd weren't so much interested in an "invasion of privacy" as they were interested in just beating a guy up. So the answer here is, "you deserved it?" Really? There is no excuse to ever beat a person up. They went above and beyond what Boyd did. Boyd was NOT the issue and neither was his taking of their photograph.

Tom Lew's picture

Oh let me be very clear here and say that in no way do I condone violence unless it's self defense. I'm simply stating that I disagree with the aggressive street photography style. It does not surprise me that he got hurt but the violence is not justified. You're right, no excuse.

I am sorry that happened as some people don't like their pictures taken. I think walking up to someone or a group of people and blasting them with a flash is a really bad idea and a provoking action. It says, I am screwing with you no matter what your intentions are. That blasting white light in someones face is really annoying.

While I have never had any problems with my candid photography, I always have an underlying guilt layer about doing candid photography.

The problem with candids are that by them knowing you are going to take the picture it ruins the expression they have as they start to pose. So you have to take it before you talk to them usually. But it is a good idea to talk to them afterwards.

The problems I personally have had is endless people making up lies that I am doing all these things to people because their are certain people in my life that don't want me to get into photography as well as other aspects of my life. I have even had endless places provoke me for not taking pictures, but merely having a camera on my shoulder and at one point even had a security guard who was involved in something much deeper and trying to dictate my life, actually tell me that by having a camera on me, I am causing problems which I think we all know isn't true. At that point every business I would go into would attack me and try to bully me to not having a camera on me. Reasons, are actually because they didn't want me taking pictures of the crimes they were involved in on a targeting. After that, they started notifying city wide groups all across california that I was a paparazzi, which is pretty absurd.

Of course getting into photography wasn't related to that, but when people are involved in crimes, they don't want the target having a camera in any way shape or form.

on occasion had to photograph people in groups following me from place to place harassing me in defense after about 10 years of all day and night attacks to document it, but that has nothing to do with my photography or photography in general.

back to the point, I think you are on the right track as far as trying to be more friendly. Candid photography is very difficult but can be very rewarding. Some people are normal, but some people are paranoid and don't know why their picture is being taken, and some people have something to hide or are angry in general. And others actually like it. It is hard to know, but you are on the right track by talking to them, or letting them know you are a friendly person.

Anonymous's picture

I had one incident, not as significant as this, but it was an eye-opener. Many years ago, when I was still shooting film with a Pentax K1000(old school stuff), I was taking shots from the sidewalk outside a local abortion clinic. I was approached by several of the protesters and repeatedly asked why I was taking pictures, what was I doing with them, and who did I work for. They were a loud, rude, and aggressive group. which I assume is what you would want in protesters.

This let me know early in my, albeit amateur photography career that subject interaction would be a significant area of photography that I should invest time improving upon.

John Skinner's picture

SO.... a guy got his arse whooped in Glasgow or Liverpool or Manchester..

I'm waiting for the catch here. There are certain cities ya just don't sod around with people. Those are just the 3 I mentioned.

Approaching a group of men and taking photographs of them at night using flash while alone? Is this guy stupid! These idiots see the New York street photographers like Joel Meyerowitz, Jill Freedman and the late Gary Winogrand and they think that they can emulate them. Joel says: "make yourself invisible". Even Bruce Gilden on the streets of Derby chose inoffensive subjects with a great deal of care. Me? I use a 1935 Leica 111 with 3.5cm f3.5 Summaron lens and home-made wrist strap. I use a Barbour tweed coat in muted colours with big bellows pockets. I wander aimlessly about noticing but pretending not to notice. When I see my target, I get in place and as they approach me the camera comes out of my pocket, up to the eye, button pressed and back in the pocket in one clean seamless move, and then I MOVE ON.
Never any arguments, confrontations, police, security guards etc.
If anyone wanted to challenge me they would have to run alongside me with their questions as I move swiftly away. And I have never moved away being followed by a 'concerned member of the public' talking to the police on a mobile phone while running after me! Go out. Be very discreet. Choose your subjects carefully. And above all, be guided by me!!!

Joe Watson's picture

It's nuts how these kind of events can totally knock you for six.
I don't think I'd ever take this guys approach to photography, but admire those who can do it successfully.

I've photographed bands for years, small gigs usually with upcoming bands.
I was photographing a band from the States in a pub back room in London... all was going good, until halfway through the guitarist decides to start screaming at me and tackle me to the floor for photographing him despite being fine with it previously. I learnt later he was kicked out.

Then, on a work job, I was filming sailors learning to use a simulator at the manufacturers request. I was filming one big guy for a few minutes, then he just flipped out and squared up to me and threatened me .
It was odd because everyone had given their consent to be filmed.

Despite not suffering any physical damage, I quickly became very nervous and didn't want to photograph gigs or people anymore (the two things I adore). Took me a good year to get back to where I was. Basically even the most normal of circumstances can turn sour quickly. I think a lot of photographers feel it's their god given right to photograph whatever they want.... be careful folks!

Hi approach is Bruce Gliden. It's legitimate. His mistake was doing it at night in a bad part of town. If you're going to get aggressive, be aggressive yourself and always have a lot of people around.

The problem with subject interaction is that it doesn't always work well with your photography. "Can I take your picture?" often ruins the whole point of spontaneous street photography. Good luck with getting the kinds of shots you want as those you approach smile unnaturally, or clown around for the camera.