I don’t look like a criminal but apparently some people think I do.
A few weeks ago, armed with a Polaroid SX-70 and my iPhone, I went to a spot I’ve been meaning to photograph for at least a year. On the side of a rural road sits a broken-down, rusted out school bus, a rusted jeep, a few tired old buildings and random rusty skeletons of things that are now unrecognizable. Exactly the kind of things I like to photograph.
With its surfboard rack, peace and love stickers and car seat in the back, I don’t think my vehicle could be mistaken for a great getaway car but there it sat, on the side of the road. Dressed in Old Navy’s finest pea coat and wearing boots, nice khaki pants and nary a hair out-of-place, I set out to get some shots before the sunlight faded.
I always feel a little conspicuous when taking pictures on the side of the road but I just chalk it up to paranoia. Then it happened.
A white car slowed down, a woman rolled down her window and told me she had to take down my license plate number because there had been a lot of thefts recently of the junk I had been photographing.
“No, I’m just taking pictures” I told her as I stood up, SX-70 around my neck.
“That’s what they do” she said, “take pictures in the daytime and come back at night and steal”. Then her car slowly pulled away as I sat there, stunned, unable to come up with a response.
Did that really just happen?
Did she really think I was going to steal stuff? What would she have said to me if my skin had been ‘the wrong color’ or if I had been dressed in dirty, ripped-up clothes and why the hell hadn’t someone moved this valuable junk if people just kept on stealing it?
As a middle-class white girl I know I’m lucky to have never had to deal with racial or socio-economic stereotyping based on my appearance so I can’t IMAGINE what a monumental pain in the ass it must be for those who are.
I am extremely grateful that I don’t live in a country in which my camera is confiscated on a regular basis. Balancing security with freedom of artistic expression is a tricky business in our post-9/11 world. The preponderance of cameras in 2011 should make people more comfortable with the idea of photography, instead I think that people are generally much more paranoid about photographers.
We’ve all heard stories of folks being asked to move on by security guards and there are plenty of landmarks where you can only grab one or two quick shots before you’re mistaken for someone plotting something nefarious. A good friend of mine has been questioned numerous times while photographing bridges and buildings. He’s even been kicked out of places but he really just loves architecture, plain and simple.
I’ve researched my rights as a photographer and know where my boundaries are according to the law, but the general public isn’t usually as well versed. I was on the side of the road and my subjects were clearly in view from public land. I wasn’t deep into the field, poking around in the buildings and vehicles, even though there were no warning or privacy signs posted. I don’t know who owned the land and I doubt the woman in the car did either, but I do try to be respectful.
As stupid as that whole exchange on the side of the road seemed to me, I’m glad that woman took the time to tell me what she was doing. It taught me a lesson and that is to always have a business card prepared to present to people and to always expect that someone isn’t going to like what you’re doing.
Here are the pictures I got that afternoon. I like the way they turned out considering the short amount of time I spent at the site.
Do you have any similar horror stories? I’d love to hear them and how you dealt with the situation.