When You and Your Gear Aren't Safe: Photography and Crime

When You and Your Gear Aren't Safe: Photography and Crime

Something that happened last week really hit home for me. Everyone probably already has heard, as it has been reported by almost every single news agency in the world; Australian photographer Brett Costello was robbed of $40,000 of camera gear in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil last week while in town to cover the Olympics. However, this article isn't about him specifically.

Most of the readers don't know, but I live in Lima, Peru, which is right next to Brazil for us that are geographically challenged. I would like to share with everyone what I have dealt with and continue to deal with on a daily basis as a professional photographer working in South America. Besides telling everyone about my own personal experiences, I hope to bring light to this subject that maybe many outsiders don't realize is going on here, and start a discussion.

People usually associate being mugged with dark alleys or in an empty parking lot at night like in the main image above. Not in Lima, Peru, Not in South America. People are robbed here on a daily basis, broad daylight, and with lots of people around. Especially artists such as photographers and videographers, as we rely on using expensive equipment to make our art, we are constantly a target.

San Juan de Lurigancho in Peru. A poorer district of Lima, where lots of criminal activity originates from.

Unfortunately in my almost five years of living and working in Lima, I have been a victim of theft twice, and had a third close call. The first time was a face to face mugging where I did not loose any of my camera gear, but I did loose many other possessions, the second time was a robbery I wasn't present for, but that time I did lose a lot of photography equipment.

Let me explain, I won't get into tons of details (If anyone is that curious about the details, just ask me in the comments, and I will be happy to explain and answer any questions you have), but the first time I was robbed, it was very similar to what happened to Mr. Costello in Brazil last week, minus the decoy to distract me. They robbed me of everything I had on me at the time, middle of the day, sun out, public place with people nearby, two police officers just around the corner. They were very well organized and prepared, it was over in seconds and they jumped in a getaway car that was waiting and gone in the blink of the eye. They knew exactly what they were doing, and seemed like they had done it a thousand times.

Also just like in Rio de Janeiro, nobody seemed surprised, not even the police. After I located two officers nearby maybe a minute later and told them what just happened to me. They seemed very nonchalant, told me it is over, they are gone already. I knew everything they took was gone forever, and I would never see it again,

It was also was reported a few days ago, Mr. Costello ended up catching two of the guys who robbed him, by noticing them inside an Olympic venue wearing his very vest they stole from him! And one the criminals is actually from Peru! I am curious if these criminals actually traveled into Brazil from Peru just to steal at the Olympics, knowing how many thousands of photographers are there with expensive equipment, I wouldn't be shocked at all. These criminals are smart and very well calculated for the most part. Unfortunately Mr. Costello probably will never see any of his gear again either, like me. As they do here in Lima, the goods exchange hands multiple times, and then pawned off almost immediately.

The second time I was a victim of robbery here in South America, I was not present, and did not have to deal with being robbed face to face again. But the company that I work for was doing a video production, and I lent them a bunch of my equipment for the job. A camera, a couple lenses, my tripod, and a few accessories. I was supposed to have it all returned to me in 24 hours, but that never happened. They were a group of eight people working on the video shoot together that day, but two guys with guns robbed them all! They took everything they had. They thought they felt safe in numbers, but it doesn't matter. Even if you are a group of twenty people, they will use five guys with guns, and nothing you can do it about. Your life is worth more than anything, so you just have to give them what they want, and not fight back. You can replace a camera, you can not replace your life.

I even had a third close call, when working at an event here in Lima. I had a shoulder bag on, and lucky enough I felt something not right. I turned around to find someone with there hand inside my bag! I had an extra lens in there, and If I did not feel him and turn around at that moment, he would have taken the lens and took off.

The Plaza de Armas in Lima, Peru. Normally a prime spot for criminals to pickpocket and do grab and run type crimes. On election day, as seen here, the plaza is closed off to the public. It is the only time you will ever see this plaza empty. It is normally filled with people and tourists.

Cameras and lenses are so expensive in Peru. Depending on what, and how much gear you are buying, it can even be cheaper with airfare to fly to New York, and buy it at B&H, than buying it here in Lima alone.

For example, a Canon 5D Mark III as of today is $2,599 brand new at B&H; here right now in Lima at an authorized Canon seller, it costs $3,562.26. A Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM costs $125 at B&H today, and is $191.13 here in Lima. That is over a $1,000 difference to buy the combo! Not only can I fly to New York to buy it at B&H, I can also see my family, and I will still have a few hundred dollars left over. Amazing!

I know people can be robbed anytime, anywhere, no place is 100% safe; but it is an epidemic here in Lima, Peru, and from what I read and hear it a huge issue in all of South America. Unfortunately I feel this will not be the only story of a photographer being robbed we all hear about in the news before the Olympics come to end in a couple of weeks. And not just the thousands of professionals there working, but also the more than half a million tourists expected to visit Rio over the next two weeks. The criminals know they have been coming for years, and I am sure have been planning this for months in advance.

It is disgusting what goes on, but it is actually the one and only thing I dislike about living in Peru; the crime and the delinquency. Everything else here is great for me and I am very happy. Besides these bad people ruining it for everyone else, the majority of the people here are amazing. They are over the top friendly, strangers make you feel like family, the food is outstanding, costs of living is less, just a wonderful culture. The funny thing is, even with all the crime, for some reason, I feel less stress in my life living here, I am not sure why that is exactly, or how to describe that, but it is the truth. It is very sad for me to see such a beautiful place have such an ugly side to it.

Miraflores at sunset. One of the safer and more upscale neighborhoods in Peru, but crime still occurs here.

So what I do now, ever since I lost my gear, for any session of photos I do, an armed, off duty police officer comes with us and stays at our side the entire day while we work. I know this doesn't guarantee me that I won't be a victim and get my gear stolen again; the criminals can easily just send two guys with guns and rob me very easily, but the police officer is a deterrent, and so far has worked out. Knock on wood.

If anyone wants to share there own personal stories of having photo or video equipment stolen, be it in the United States, while abroad, working on an assignment, or just out shooting for fun, feel free to share. Maybe your story can prevent someone from experiencing the same fate in the future. Crime happens everywhere, but it is on an whole other level here in South America.

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91 Comments

Wes Jones's picture

I like to shoot timelapse out in the middle of nowhere so the chances of encountering a thief is pretty low, however I do carry an aluminum baseball bat with me, not to fight off thieves but to fight off tiny scary animals.

Matt Burt's picture

I'm usually more worried about bears and mountain lions!

Daniel Laan's picture

This reminds me to check for vipers in the heathers when I go out shooting startrails tomorrow... Thanks for the potential life savers, Wes, Matt & Pete.

Matt Burt's picture

The wildlife experts here don't seem to be concerned with political correctness and most bad encounters with bears are either food-related or a grumpy mama protecting her young. Lions are harder to deal with because they are opportunistic hunters but they also usually just keep away, especially if you have a dog with you. Statistically speaking, humans are still the most dangerous animal to humans although mosquitoes probably give us some competition on that stat.

Matt Burt's picture

Very few people go missing never to be found again, at least here in Colorado. When they are found the most common killer is the elements and the person's lack of preparedness.
Even if we assume the small number of disappearances are the result of predation that is still just a handful of cases yearly. A very small number compared to firearms deaths or auto accidents, for example.
Bears are predators but will take the easiest meal. If you are the easiest meal then that's going to be trouble for you but statistics do not support that many bears are trying to eat people.
This isn't being politically correct, it's taking my observations of almost 30 years living in bear/cougar country (which is anecdotal I realize) and also the statistics that support my observations. It may be different in the Arctic or Alaska but here there just isn't evidence to support your claims.

Paolo Veglio's picture

I've never heard any media or the government say that mountain lions or bears are not dangerous. On the other hand I have seen plenty of indications, suggestions and clearly posted rules on how to behave and keep safe from those animals inside and outside national parks.

The problem with the wildlife accidents is that a lot of them happen because of the reckless behavior of the people involved.

Paolo Veglio's picture

lol, "people like me"... I am just saying to be careful in the wilderness and be prepared, meaning that if you know bears are in the area then take spray with you, don't leave trash close to where you're camping, etc.... If that is downplaying maybe there's something wrong happening after I press "Post" that changes the meaning of what I'm writing.

On the typical comments I see your point, especially coming from the media. I wouldn't go into the discussion of comparing statistics because journalists and politicians are champions in misunderstanding numbers or even simply cherry picking the studies just to corroborate their agendas. Think of the study that last year pointed out that more people were killed by taking selfies than by sharks... Ok, it's hilarious, but without context the numbers are irrelevant. On the same line it is highly possible that more people in the US are killed by cars than by bears. But how many people see bears with the same frequency the see cars?

Dustin Levine's picture

Yea I guess depending where you are in the world, the threat might not only be human. Some people have to deal with Bears, Big Cats, Snakes, Scorpions, etc.......I love animals, but I'd rather go up against a thief face to face than a Mountain Lion if given the choice Haha

michael andrew's picture

I drove to Panama from California with tens of thousands of dollars of photo gear and computer equipment, and not a lens cap went missing, because I avoided cities like the plague. I hugged the coastline and never worried or had trouble with anything but crooked cops.

San francisco, New York, Rio, LA, Mexico City, your stuff is a target and so are you if you stick out. Does not matter what country you are in, big cities are always where the theft takes place.

michael andrew's picture

Well thats because you likely have not lived in SF and seen someone get stabbed on Market and 6th, or bothered to drive near Hunters point after dark. Of-course crime is worse in Mexico City per capita, but a knife is a knife no matter where you are at. Percentages are useless when you are in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Outside of big cities all of central and latin america is an amazing place filled with beautiful people and no imminent threat of danger. Don't let the news corrupt you with misinformation.

Ross Floyd's picture

Simple things like not having bags that say "Canon" or "Nikon" and having a packing blanket to cover larger expensive looking bags and cases in the back of my hatchback are some of the best deterrents. If its out of sight, no one knows its there..

I also throw away all of the neck straps that come with my cameras, not one needs to know what kind of camera I am carrying and I replace them with generic (and usually more comfortable) straps, or ones with s security cable built in - to keep people from cutting the strap.

Also, insurance is a pain in the ass to pay for, but if something gets stolen or broken, you'll be glad you had it.

Dustin Levine's picture

Those are all great tips and ideas. Definitely hide and cover up your gear when it's not being used and in storage. I also don't promote to the world what gear I have when I'm out working. I change my straps for something without logos and more comfortable like you said too, and I use simple black bags without huge name brands to transport it. But you have to take out your camera to make images, and at least here in Lima, the criminals do not care about straps or logos, they see a camera being used, they stalk you, call there buddies, follow you and wait for the perfect time to pounce.........And as far as insurance, because I am living in Peru, it is like car insurance for first time drivers in the usa. The cost of coverage I would have to pay is about 50% of the value of the gear, the insurance company knows there is huge possibility I will have it stolen and they will have to cut me a check, so there rates reflect that. In the USA it is a lot more economical to insure camera gear.

What I also did with my camera bags, I've put some dirt on ti. So it looks more used. Because most of the time, camera bags are also clean on the outside.

Dustin Levine's picture

That might help in some situations, I keep my bags dirty too :). But what happened with Brett Costello last week, and what has happened to many photographers I know here in Lima, The criminals first see you taking pictures, you put the camera away into your bag, but they know it's in there. So they follow and stalk you, and they are very patient, and wait for the right moment to pounce.

Wes Jones's picture

When I purchased my 5D II way back when, I made the mistake of buying a Canon bag along with it. It's a great bag but that big metal Canon tag on the front might as well say "Steal Me". It now stays at home as just a lens storage bag. Live and learn as they say.

Dustin Levine's picture

Yes I wouldn't recommend a Canon brand bag or any bag that easy is identifiable as a camera bag, but it honestly does not matter, at least in South America. The criminals are not looking for bags, they are looking for cameras. Once you take it out of you unmarked bag, and the wrong person notices you, you are now marked. You put it away back into your bag, but they know it is there, And they follow you and wait for the right moment to grab it or assault you.

Dustin Levine's picture

Yea I must say outside the capitol of Lima, crime is not an issue in Peru. It still happens obviously, but nothing like in the city. I travel often inside of Peru all around the country with zero issues. And these smaller towns usually do not have any police what so ever, and in Lima where there is a huge police presence, ironically is where the crime goes on. It is all backwards.

Dana King's picture

This is why I am an advocate of open-carry. I don't know what legal boundaries with carry and/or carry and conceal you have there in South America. I sometimes go into what we call 'sketchy' places. Thankfully I can open carry. I am ex-military and trained a bit better than most but you can always take classes for weapon safety and use. I don't advocate everyone carrying a weapon. I think a lot of situation awareness is in order. The rise of photographer crime is a bit disconcerting. (in any nation). I am sorry to hear about your situations. NY isn't much better :)

Anonymous's picture

You really think carrying a gun will protect you some how? Many people, actually a lot are carrying guns in South America, (legal or not) and still have extremely insecurity levels. When using a gun in such conditions is to kill, nobody shows a gun to say don't rob me I am carrying a gun.

Anonymous's picture

I lived in South America and was born in one of the most violent cities of this world. And about the violence level in this cities it just takes a bit of research to find the statistics about carrying guns and violence in South America.

Anonymous's picture

I lived in 3 countries :) And worked all over South America.

Anonymous's picture

Of course I am guessing I haven't lived in all countries of SA, my assumptions are based on my experience, were I lived, and what I read. And I can assure you that in Mexico, Venezuela, and part of Brazil, countries in which many of the people are carrying guns, it doesn't do much of a difference. Just search for murder densities. I lived in those 3 countries long enough to give an educated opinion. Actually people are robbed of their guns, and it's gotten to the point were the bad guys shoot first to kill, since they know you might be carrying a gun. They don't have the need to risk it, better just kill you first and then take your belongings. So thinking wearing a gun is gun is going to defend you, yes but in very limited occasions. Maybe everyone needs military training...

Anonymous's picture

And yes I can not judge other countries based on my experience but I seen a lot of South America more then probable you will ever see :)

Anonymous's picture

Just out of curiosity, you are voting for Trump right? Or it's just a silly stereotype?

Anonymous's picture

.

Anonymous's picture

but yes they might have not been the best examples, since they were not the safest.

Hi Dana, how does it work if you're confronted by an unarmed pair ripping you off and you have a gun with you? Seems like that situation would somehow get me locked up, especially in NY. I get that the gun is a deterrent but what if just pointing it doesn't work and they keep coming at you? At what point can you use deadly force? (Legit question, I'm not an ant-gun person. I've always wondered if carrying one to protect my stuff would end up with me holding the bag. Thanks in advance.

Anonymous's picture

Never take out a gun if you are not going to use it. If the person attacking you has one he will definitely shooot you. So if you are not willing to kill someone better not have one.

For sure. And that's the fuzzy part. If they are unarmed robbing you and you shoot them in NY, you could be the one going to jail. It's crazy.

Dana King's picture

Jim, I did state that I am not an advocate for "everyone" to use a weapon. I would only bring one with me if in an area that would be deemed "dangerous". Generally I bring a second person along and keep the weapon close. Sometimes wearing it, most of the time not. NY is not gun friendly, I don't know the state laws on carrying a concealed weapon but that might be an option. You don't resort to deadly force unless you feel your life with be threatened. Loss of your gear vs loss of your life equates to an easy decision. The Japanese have a rule of thumb with the sword. Never drawn the sword unless you are going to spill blood, crude but an effective message that you don't pull out a weapon unless it's the very last resort. I've taken classes on defense and what criminals look for. BTW this is why I don't live in NY or any other state that has crazy laws that protects criminals (my opinion). Always check with law enforcement before carrying, being proactive letting them know save you and them a world of headaches. Since this part of my last blurp didn't catch on: "I am NOT an advocate of everyone carrying a weapon" because most people panic during certain situations. Training helps but doesn't cover how you will react. Bring a second person, according to the criminology course, two people are far more effective in the criminal selecting someone else than you being alone. (Appendium: I don't hate NY just think it has some crazy pro-criminal laws)(which is my own person opinion based on my findings. I've been to NY many times. I love the people there just not the criminals).

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