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Confrontation Is Not Synonymous With Street Photography
Confrontation can happen to anyone with a camera. You don’t have to be a street photographer to attract conflict.
While I agree that street photographers meet with opposition more often than other shooters, I also believe that confrontation is NOT peculiar to street photography.
In this blog post I want to share with you my own challenges that happened long before “Street Photography” became part of my vocabulary.
Those of you who have read my near death experience article will remember that I talked about how a rampaging, blood-thirsty mob had confronted me. They wanted me to delete my photos or else. I also indicated in that blog post that I tried to face the same mob to defend myself.
That was by no means my first encounter of conflict as a photographer. Please note that I did not say ‘as a street photographer.’
Here is my point: As long as you carry a camera with you, conflict will follow you wherever you go. Whether you call yourself a street photographer, travel shooter or just a tourist, the camera will draw people’s attention to you. The camera is the weapon that raises people’s interests in you.
Long before I knew there was something called ‘street photography’, I endured resistance and hostility towards my photography. I did not mean to intrude on people’s privacy or to ridicule anyone.
But opposition followed me as I was trying to shoot innocuous Landscapes, Birds and Flowers during my travels around the Mpumalanga Highveld. I remember the following confrontational encounters so vividly as if they happened just yesterday.
5 Confrontational Encounters Of A Non-Street Photographer
1. The Paranoid Householder along the Klein Olifants River
I was on my way to work early in the morning. I had my camera with me.
I had this habit of shooting some landscapes before and after work. As usual I headed towards the Klein Olifants River half an hour earlier.
I searched for interesting views on the river and started shooting as soon as I found something worth capturing. I took several shots, trying three different settings with each shot to improve my chances of getting the correct exposure.
When I looked at my watch I realised that I was running late for work. So I stopped shooting and started walking back.
As I ran I noticed a car driving parallel to me. It appeared as if the occupants were also rushing somewhere.
I ran faster as if I was competing with the car. There was no more road for the car. So they turned back. I wondered what these guys were up to. But concluded that they were new to the area and that they don’t know their way around.
As I approached the main road the car caught up with me. I crossed to the opposite side of the road because it was more convenient for me to walk on the sidewalk. The driver kept looking at me suspiciously. I did not suspect a thing.
Suddenly the car came to a complete halt and the driver got out. He came towards me. I stopped, wondering what he wanted.
He: What were you photographing down there?
Me: I was shooting some landscapes.
Me: I’m a photographer. I take pictures. I then proceeded to show him the photos that I had captured that morning.
He: Why do you take pictures at this time?
Me: (Irritated) Have you ever heard about the Golden Hour?
It turned out this guy had been a victim of crime the night before. And he thought I was a member of a criminal gang and that I was photographing his house for future attacks or whatever.
2. The Pimp Of SADC Street
My wife and I were shopping for shoes in SADC street, Middelburg. I had my Nikon D3200 with me that Saturday morning as I normally would shoot street photography on weekends. I hid the camera in my jacket as we entered the shoe store.
I would not allow the security guard to keep my camera while we shop.
An unknown man was standing next to the door and he saw me when I put the camera under my jacket. He suspected I was a journalist from the local newspaper.
Several minutes later when we got out of the shop the man was still there, waiting.
He followed us everywhere. We went to other shops, doing window shopping. My wife was not aware of the guy as he followed us from one shop to another.
Eventually we walked towards the Iraq Taxi Rank. The man was still monitoring us like a well-trained detective. He kept watching us until we boarded a taxi that took us to the Township.
That very weekend the local newspaper had published an exposé, detailing the problem of prostitution in town. The paper disclosed that the pimps had turned the old Middelburg Hotel building into a brothel.
I learned a week later that the guy who had followed me and my wife in SADC street was a pimp. This explains why he was so jumpy when he noticed that I had a camera with me. He must have thought I was a reporter.
3. The Stock Farmer of Breyten
A stock farmer stopped his van behind mine on the road leading to the little town of Breyten. I was busy photographing a windmill next to the road. There was a flock of cattle in the background.
“Jy loop rond met n kamera. Wat is jou probleem?“ (You’re walking around with a camera. What’s your problem?) He roared.
I sensed trouble coming, but I remained calm. And then I asked him: ‘Do you see how beautiful the weather is today?’ He looked skyward and said: “Ja?”
I then explained to him that I’m a photography student and that I was taking photos to hone my skills. I offered to show him the images on my LCD. He looked at my vehicle and noticed that it belonged to a company.
That realisation must have assured him that I had no ulterior motives. He asked me not to photograph his animals. And then he left.
4. The Hoboes Of Middelburg Station
If you visit the Middelburg Station today you’ll find it difficult to believe this story.
The place used to be like home from home for homeless people. They simply loved it there. They would spend their days and nights at the station. Nobody would bother them or ask them to leave.
To passersby the station was an eyesore. Overgrown grass, rubbish and dilapidated buildings all contributed to make the place unattractive.
I wanted to document this deplorable state of Middelburg’s long-standing landmark.
As I approached the area I saw a group of men standing and looking at me. I had my Nikon with its 80-200mm zoom and a lens hood. The gear looked like a gun. It was so conspicuous the guys spotted me from afar and were ready for me when I approached them.
One of them shouted at me. His voice conveyed a request and a command at the same time:
“Unga sishuthe!“ (Don’t shoot us) Of course he requested and demanded that I must refrain from photographing them.
I assured them that I won’t shoot. That discouraged me from going any closer to the station buildings. So I left the place.
PS. Today the Middelburg Train Station is a very attractive place. It was renovated, fenced off and security guards are watching the property 24/7.
5. The Nyaope Boys Of ‘Iraq Taxi Rank’
I mentioned Iraq Taxi Rank earlier when talking about the Pimp of SADC street. This is a taxi terminal where mostly Black residents of Mhluzi get their transport to the Location, or eKasi as it is known in Tsotsitaal.
Taxi drivers park their vehicles here during the day when it is quiet and they find the time to catch up on the much-needed sleep. Some of them use the time to wash their cars.
The Rank is also ‘home’ to what is known here as the Nyaope Boys. They are young unkempt boys addicted to Nyaope. If you want to know more about this concoction of substances and its effects on these boys, just Google the word Nyaope.
One gloomy Saturday afternoon I happened to pass through the area and I noticed a few Seagulls foraging for food. Some of the birds had perched on the roof of the building nearby.
I pointed my camera at a Seagull on the roof and started snapping away.
When the boys saw me with the camera they became agitated. Whispering among themselves, I heard them asking one another: “U funani lo?” (What is he doing here?)
Immediately one of them approached me and asked: “What are you photographing?” In response I said that I was capturing the birds. I pointed at the roof. He burst out laughing. “You think I’m stupid, hey? You’re a journalist!”
In this part of the world it makes no sense for anyone to photograph birds. That’s why the guy laughed at me when I told him what I was doing there.
Anyway, his friends joined him and said: “Ufun’u kushaywa lo”. (Let’s beat him up) That’s when I decided to leave the place. They were serious, and there’s no point in trying to reason with these junkies.
Confrontation Affects All Photographers – Not Just Street Hunters
Street Photography inevitably attracts confrontation as it deals mainly with strangers in public spaces. But all photographers experience resistance all the time – not only those who shoot the streets.
How To Minimise Confrontation
As a street photographer, you cannot avoid confrontation completely. But there are certain steps you can follow if you want to minimise your chances of being confronted by anyone. The following resources will take you through those steps:
Do you think street photography is synonymous with confrontation? Have you ever been confronted or attacked while shooting? If so, how did you handle it?
Please share your experiences with me in the comment section below.
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