It's Not Easy Being Brown — and a Photographer

It's Not Easy Being Brown — and a Photographer

Being a photographer with a “real” camera always carries risk. People well within their rights to photograph in public are harassed online all the time. I’d argue, though, that being a brown person in the United States adds an extra layer of risk that other photographers don’t face, namely fears that you’re a terrorist taking photographs to plan for a future attack.

If it was just one time and one story, I wouldn’t say that. But it’s definitely not just one time. I’ll start with a story of my time as a graduate student, where I took this photo:

Syracuse University from a publicly accessible area that was made a little less public just for me.

Syracuse University from a publicly accessible area that was made a little less public just for me.

The photo was taken from the top of the Syracuse University’s Crouse-Hinds Hall, in a hallway in the building that houses classrooms and administrative offices. No one is barred access to any of the hallway and classroom areas during business hours, so I took the elevator up to the eighth floor and placed my camera against a window overlooking the campus. I was aiming for a time-lapse.

Ten minutes pass, and a janitor walks past, but no one else. Ten minutes later, an officer from the Department of Public Safety walks up and informs me that only faculty and staff are allowed up in the hallway. I knew where this was going, but I gamely showed him my ID anyway, since I was adjunct faculty even before I was a graduate student. My ID card said as much. He seemed to short-circuit, fumbling through some words about how someone reported a suspicious person in the hallway and that I needed to leave.

Like I do in any interaction with police officers, I pondered whether I should challenge the assertion that I was a suspicious person, but I determined that I already had the photo I wanted and that the better play was to back down. I packed up and walked away.

Another time, when flying out from Buffalo Niagara International Airport with camera gear I needed to shoot a wedding, I got stopped and searched six ways to Sunday when going through the security checkpoint. That was not unexpected, given the amount of hardware I was packing. What was unexpected, was that after I had packed everything back up and put my belt back on, was that I was stopped and searched again in the same manner after walking five feet away from where I had previously been searched, without explanation. I complied, again. That said, I’ve been “randomly” searched most times I’ve been through the airport, gear or not.

When Taking Photos Is Really (Not) Encouraged

Sometimes, the stories just cross into the territory of asinine. Take this example from the Destiny USA Mall in Syracuse:

The tweet does most of the talking, but in short, I had my Fujifilm X-T1 with the XF 35mm lens (a diminutive setup as far as cameras go), and I was still stopped by mall employees and told to stop shooting. There’s a picture of a DSLR right on the sign, for crying out loud.

All of that brings me to the most recent incident from just this previous week, where I photographed a fixture in Bridgeport that I’ve photographed numerous times before, a power plant by the water.

A power plant that sits on the harbor in Bridgeport, easily viewable from everywhere.

A power plant that sits on the harbor in Bridgeport, easily viewable from everywhere.

I ride this ferry to work every day, many times taking photos, without incident. On weekends, there are parents, mostly not minorities, riding the ferry and taking pictures left and right. In the case of the photos above, I was using a 14-year-old Canon Rebel XTi, a camera that arguably takes worse quality photos than the Google Pixel 3a XL in my pocket. To make it a point, I started photographing with my cell phone first for a few minutes before switching to my DSLR. That was when I was asked by a ferry employee to stop and to not take photos. After I pointed out that people take plenty of photos with their cell phones, she relented and told me to not take photos of the (very visible from all angles everywhere) power plant. There didn’t seem to really be any rhyme or reason to any of it. If I was trying to be sneaky to get photos of the plant to blow it up later, I’d use something a little less conspicuous than a silver DSLR. Or I’d just use Google Maps. It’s not really a secret power plant.

Either way, as the ferry is a private business, I complied with the request to put the camera away, but if you look at the photos above, can you even tell which one was a cell phone and which a DSLR? I'd argue you can glean the same information out of either photo.

Am I Being Singled Out?

Maybe I’m making a big deal out of what may be isolated incidents and individual people. There’s no way I’d know without A/B testing, since I only have the skin I have. But all of it adds up and wears me down over the years. While race isn’t mentioned in the article where Hilary Duff confronts a black photographer for photographing her kids, the encounter is dripping with racist undertones. Brown and black folks will understand exactly what’s going on here. The photographer didn’t look like the other people on the soccer field and was then singled out by Duff for scrutiny. It’s doubtful he’d get the same treatment if he was white.

I can’t be the only photographer of color to have experienced this. Have you? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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255 Comments

Mark Wyatt's picture

Would you say it is more that you are of Middle Eastern ethnicity than that you are brown that might be causing this (it is wrong in any case)? EDIT: I see you mentioned this story..

https://fstoppers.com/news/hilary-duff-challenges-creep-photographer-pho...

What made him "creepy" to Hillary Duff? That he was a man, that he was black, both? neither? Maybe just that he had a camera? I have people tell me that old white guys taking pictures of young girls is also creepy. I think people today have very thin skin. As you pointed out, flash an iPhone, and no one even seems to notice.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I'm not Middle Eastern.

Mark Wyatt's picture

Your name indicates so to me, and your appearance support it. Clearly I am wrong. I guess it goes to my point. I would suspect many people would assume what I did, even based on your appearance alone. Many Indians for instance have your appearance and (I am guessing again) Arabic or related names. And you may be American, but I did state "ethnicity".

Wasim Ahmad's picture

It's probably true that people mistake me for being Middle Eastern, but being Middle Eastern does not automatically make one prone to terrorist activities and subject to extra scrutiny while engaging in photography.

Mark Wyatt's picture

You are talking about impressions and stereotypes, and I have to disagree on that basis. People in the US ARE afraid of people who look middle eastern. I am not agreeing nor disagreeing with your point, but let's be realistic. The landscape has changed since 9/11. It is not right, moral, or fair, but the truth is it is the case. In California (or the West in general) being brown and Latin for instance (say Mexican or Central American) is hardly even noticed.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I'm a person in the U.S. and I'm not afraid of people who are Middle Eastern. Are American citizens from the Middle East also not "people in the U.S.?" What about law-abiding non-citizens and visitors who reside in the U.S. legally, are they, too, not people in the U.S.? Challenge your assumptions about what it means to be a citizen and a person of color, friend.

Yes, the landscape has changed since 9/11, and it's not looking pretty.

Mark Wyatt's picture

Your last sentence is the point. Not all people are afraid of Middle Easterners for sure. But there is a general landscape since 9/11. To my point about Latins in California and the West, being "brown" is innocuous.

Please do not ascribe to me the point I am making about general trends. If we are to have an intelligent conversation, we need to be open about what we say. Nothing I have said so far is out of malice. I think you agreed with my point in your last sentence. In addition some Latins also look Middle Eastern, and that is largely due to skin color plus perhaps some features (and possibly Middle Easter lineage, but not necessarily), so your point is not wrong, but I am focusing a little more closely.

Pierre Dasnoy's picture

People all over the world need to get curious about traveling, learning other cultures, etc. American people most of all. It's a very closed country where people don't even knowing what is happening next state.
People are scared of what they don't know, and Trump gets elected because of walls (short version).
We sadly live in this world.
Google the image "family guy color code".
I hope it will get better, but I doubt it :/

"American people most of all. It's a very closed country where people don't even knowing what is happening next state."

Is this actually any worse in America than it is in countries like China, Egypt, or Brazil? Or are you just singling out Americans because we have a bunch of aircraft carriers to bully other countries around with?

Pierre Dasnoy's picture

China is different, the media couldn't even go through. And they are complete trash to muslim people, actually, if you hear the news...
Egypt, you'd be surprised. They also are surrounded by political crises. People there know geopolitics.
People from Brasil I talked with were very interesting. But they were travelers, that change things.

My european traveler point of view : I was affraid to see how americans ar uncultured about the world. There is no need actually, since it is America either way for thousands miles.
My problem with the USA may well be linked to their habit of sending bombs without even knowing who will get them on the head. And then getting affraid of the vilain muslim you saw on that war movie, produced by the us army.
(This and many : https://www.huffpost.com/entry/how-your-taxpayer-dollars_b_836574 )
Not 5% of americans knew where Iran was 6 months ago. Please, cultivate yourself !

If we're going to talk about ignorance in regard to geopolitics or culture, Americans are hardly the worst offender-not even close. They just happen to be the most influential offender. If we're going to go with numbers, what percentage of Chileans do you think could point to Iran on a map? Nigerians? Cambodians? Japanese? They can all probably point to "important countries" such as the USA, England, France, Germany, Russia, and China, though. That's just how it is.

Yes, more people around the world will know about the USA than Americans will know about those countries. A lot more people know the details of Justin Bieber's life than Justin Bieber knows about them. When influence is one-sided, it's not reasonable to expect reciprocity. There are limits. Even in Egypt where you claim that they "know geopolitics", I'd wager that most of their knowledge is in regard to geopolitics that directly affect their lives. How much would they know about geopolitics in Southeast Asia or South America? Some particularly educated people might know, but the average person running a store and trying to pay rent? Please...

That's what most people in any country are, though. They're just people who are trying to get through their lives. Whether it's the USA or Egypt, few have got time to worry about things that don't directly affect them. I think what bothers you is less the actual percentage of people that are unable to point to a particular country on a map and more the fact that our military can absolutely devastate the lives of people in another country while the rest of us concern ourselves with who the Bachelor will select in the rose ceremony or something stupid like that. I get why that would bug someone, but I find the general criticism of being "uncultured" to be rather unfair since I've not seen anything that would indicate that the average American is less "cultured" than the average person from most other countries.

Also, I would remind you as a "European traveler" that most of our modern military actions have been in concert with forces from various European powers as well so if we're going to cry about irresponsibly blowing people up, then there's blame to go around. Europeans don't exactly have clean hands when it comes to violently imposing their will on other regions of the world either. As for the bit about movies made by the US Army, I honestly have no clue what you're talking about since Hollywood is bankrolled by Chinese investment these days (since they're apparently the only ones that still go to the theater). Did you have a specific movie in mind that was created by the US Army?

Ryan Davis's picture

The Idea that the average American is more ignorant than the average french person ignores the existence of France outside of Paris. Try talking to a Picard farmer about the Iowa caucus. Europeans are pretty much as ignorant/racist/nice/whatever as anybody else.

Mark Wyatt's picture

America and France. Some French say 'why should I leave France, I have everything I could want right here'. Of course most do travel because neighboring countries are pretty close.

Pierre Dasnoy's picture

Same as in the USA, right, but many still have a real look around (6 months or more traveling), and they know about what happens in the world.

The ones with money do, just like a lot of Americans with money go backpacking in India or Thailand to "find themselves". The rest of us have responsibilities and bills to pay.

Mark Wyattwerp's reply proved the author's point.

Mark Wyatt's picture

In other words because I engaged in a conversation on the matter, I proved his point? I pointed out instances of what he is talking about. Note that I did not justify the behavior. I only pointed out some of my interpretations of it. Maybe you are proving the author's point (by showing your ignorance, which is what most of this comes down to).

Please, Wyattwerp, stop embarassing yourself.

"People in the US ARE afraid of people who look middle eastern."

So are people in US afraid of Israeli's? Because Israel is in the Middle East.

"In California (or the West in general) being brown and Latin for instance (say Mexican or Central American) is hardly even noticed."

You really are delusional.

Mark Wyatt's picture

As to Israelis, if they look Middle Eastern and some people see them doing something they consider suspicious (often wrongly so), yes, they might be afraid.

I live in California (Southern). Close to half the population is of Latin descent. They do not stand out as different. A lot of Asians now, too, and they stand out a little bit, but no one has a fear that they are terrorists.

I am talking about perceptions here. Since 9/11 especially, a lot of people are afraid. Sorry that bothers you.

You are delusional sir.

Does it get frustrating when people assume that you are?

Once again here goes Fstoppers resident racist posting stupid articles about a few incidents that happen to many photographers no matter the color of their skin but he'll try and twist it to make himself look like a victim. You perpetuate the racism you claim to hate. Clown.

Your white fragility is showing, clown. Let the man speak.

lol more racism the irony.

The demeaning tone and term Clown pretty much says it all about your post. It's pretty clear by your comments you have an issue.

You're correct I do have an issue with racists like Wasim. Also him claiming the intentions of millions of other people based on a couple of potentially bad run ins with people isn't demeaning? lol ok cool.

That's because there are millions of bigots in the world. Pretty obvious if you stop and look around. Lots of documentation backing it up. Not cool at all and based on your responses, neither are you.

Cool so call millions of people bigots without evidence but because you feel that way it's all of a sudden fact. Here is an idea how about you judge each person individually instead of making a blanket statement about the supposed bigotry of millions of people you've never met...

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