I’m a Street Photographer, Not a Pervert . . .

. . . This just happened to me literally 30 minutes ago.

I was sat on a bench in Preston city centre, enjoying a well earned break from a days Street. Even when having a rest, the old Street Photographers eye is still working. Whilst munching on a Greggs Chili Beef pasty, there was an elderly couple on the bench opposite and showing that they were still very much in love with each other. I took a picture of them. Then an old man came along wearing a trilby hat, looking distinguished. I took a shot of him.

Then, what I can best describe as Vicki Pollard arrived, replete with the mandatory children. One of them began running towards the back of the bench and leaping high in the air over it, between the older people. “That would make a cool picture” I thought. He did it countless times, though each time I got ready to take the shot, he didn’t jump. I made three attempts and gave up.

Five minutes went by, then they got up to leave. Next thing I know, she’s shouting “you’re a sick pervert for photographing my kids” and that she was going to call the police. I remained calm and assured her that I wasn’t a pervert, that ‘perverts’ don’t use £1500 Leica kit and that I would stay here and wait for the police to arrive. She repeated that I was a pervert and that she was going to call the police. She left with her ill-fated children, one of them giving me the finger.

I waited 10 minutes while I drank my tea but no police arrived.

I feel physically sick and am left with this thought that what I love doing is now (somehow) dirty.

The uneducated and misinformed ‘masses’, via the gutter media such as ‘The Sun’, ‘The Mirror’ and ITV News, are destroying the oldest and most honourable form of photography in existence.

I’m writing this on the train as I make my way home. This is the first time in 10+ years of Street that I have experienced this. I feel sick to the core, am struggling to tell myself that I should take the rough with the smooth and that tomorrow is another day.

Update: Since posting this article I took the advice of some of the comments here and had some ‘business cards’ printed. Read all about them on my post here Hey Street Photographers, It’s Time To Get Your Cards Out . . .

Author: Kevin Shelley

Street Photography. eBooks. Blog. Shoots and reviews cameras. Develops film. Writes novelesque articles.

21 thoughts on “I’m a Street Photographer, Not a Pervert . . .”

  1. With today’s world there is more and more of this happening. With so many people taking photos with their iPhones, etc., and the criminal element that seems worse today then ever before, most street photographers gets this sooner or later. As a former newspaper staff photog, I would get accosted occasionally by an irate (or, at least, irritated) parent. Usually I circumvented this by finding the parent before they found me so I could get info for a cutline. There were very few occasions that I was not able to get a child’s name. I would also give them my card and offer to send them a copy of the image along with a pdf file of the page if it ran in the paper.
    There are options when confronted. First, I always ease tensions with a smile as I ask their name and pull out my card. A smile is always disarming. Then go with the flow. If they remain irritated, calmly inform them of your rights as a photographer and let it go. Just walk away.

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  2. Yeah, I suppose every street photographer in Western Europe has experienced scenes like this.

    In Germany (where I live), one of our big tabloids is trying to endorse “citizen journalism”, which essentially means that anybody with a mobile phone camera can shoot what they consider news and sell it to the editors :(( . While this is a real insult to serious journalists whose livelihood is threatened by this approach, it has also made the general public rather wary of photographers.

    There seems to be a deep-rooted belief that anybody who sports a big camera with a fast lens in public either must be a professional photographer or some pervert. Luckily, a little friendly conversation can most of the time put things into perspective.

    I agree very much with Rich Owen (“There are options when confronted…”): Offering an open, friendly and clear explanation of what I do has resolved almost any potential confrontation for me. I usually explain I’m working on an arts project, and I show people samples of my work which I have ready on my smart phone.

    In about five years of doing street photography, I only once had to delete a shot, and I suspect the person on that shot must have had a problem with the police (he was rather menacing, and wasn’t ready to enter into any discussion). Things like that can happen, but they’re not the end of the world …

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  3. Show your subjects a bit more respect “Vicky Pollard” tells me more about you than it does about the woman who’s kids you shot. This woman could be trying to escape a violent partner or may be suffering the genuine paranoia of many parents in the UK.
    I’m sorry to inform you that the cost of your gear has nothing to do with you being or not being a paedophile using cheap gear does not make you innocent.
    Embrace the folk on the street, you are not better than them, you are one of them.
    Become a better person and you might become a better street photographer.

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    1. Hi David,

      Thank you for your comments, all of which are gratefully received.

      I would however draw issue with a few points if you don’t mind.

      Firstly my use of ‘Vicky Pollard’. I felt this name served best in describing the young lady at that time. The uncontrolled verbal outbursts, the flat black hair pulled straight back under extreme tension into a ponytail, the copious quantities of black mascara, the white polyester tracksuit and the small mountain of Iceland shopping bags. Rather than type a lengthy description, ‘Vicky Pollard’ served best in fixing an image of the person concerned, into the mind of the reader.

      Admittedly she was more than likely suffering from media induced paranoia (which I mentioned at the time). However I have no influence over how others react to a given situation.

      With regards my camera gear. In the heat of the moment and in an attempt to calm the young lady, I somewhat foolishly believed that by showing the sort of equipment that only an enthusiast would use, ie. 40 year old camera with ‘film’, this may have allayed her fears. Obviously with hindsight, it is safe to assume her exposure to the larger world of photography was limited.

      With regards believing I am better than those around me, you are mistaken. I like the people I photograph. That’s why I compose my shots the way I do, in order to present the full character.

      It would be helpful if you could expand on what you mean by ‘a better street photographer’ and specifically what you mean by ‘better’. Better than what? Better able to produce photographs more like those of others?

      Finally, I have allowed your link. There’s some nice pictures on your site and (with the color photos) can clearly see Martin Parr as a strong influence.

      Cheers,

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  4. I didn’t even have my camera with me, I was walking my dog in a peaceful park and a woman with a car full of kids was bearing down on me. She was driving across the grass to save her kids having to walk 12meters from the carpark. I pointed out to her and politely that she was driving a car on parkland and that there was no road. Who are you she said, do you work for the council, in a voice like a bomb shelter alarm. I called the police. Later I bumped into her in the supermarket, she called me a pedofile, I called the police
    A few weeks later I was bitten by a dog (not mine) and needed a shot, she was in casualty with one of her kids and the nurses were crazy mad, when they discharged them they all slumped in a heap and the guy on the next bed said he was a neighbour and then we all heard another million stories ….are you catching on yet? But yes, I know the feeling and feel for you. Its odd too that another street photographer took a side against you but in my experience they can bite without thinking too.

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    1. Hi Ant and thank you.

      The word paedophile seems to be the ‘in thing’ at the moment.

      I took a picture of a drunk guy slumped in front of a pub the other week. He saw me and (very drunkedly) demanded to see the picture. I said I couldn’t because it was film. He then got angry and demanded to see the picture again.

      He then shouted “Paedophile’. He was probably expecting a reaction but I just smiled at him and walked away.

      Like with your ‘friend’ it’s best to just smile and leave.

      Us Street Photographers need to stick together.

      Cheers,

      Kev

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  5. The situation here in the UK is that, due to the current climate, that climate being several established, and loved figures in the media, have been found guilty of being pedophiles, so taking to the streets, and photographing kids, is sadly, a big no-no, not only will you get looked at in a suspicious way, but if you are in the wrong part of town, you could well end up getting a serious beating.
    Sad, but true, when I do street photography, I do it with my GR (other stealthy cameras are available!) and shoot in full stealth mode, and never photograph any young kids, unless it’s my own, I wouldn’t want a stranger photographing my kids without me knowing who, or what they do, so I respectfully, don’t do it either.
    I wish it weren’t so, but this is the current climate of suspicion, I’ve also witnessed men on trains shooting up skirts with mobiles, so, not wanting to be tarred with the same brush, I shoot respectfully, I don’t get in peoples faces, it does mean I miss some great shots, but, there will always be more!
    I’d have some business cards with you next time, so that you could possibly ease her fears, explain what it is you saw that made such a compelling shot! offer to send her a print maybe? some people don’t understand street photography, they instantly see a man taking pictures of their kids, of course they get defensive! I would, and I understand street photography ( I might not be any good, but I understand!!!) …

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    1. Hi Nic,

      Thank you for your comments.

      As a photographer I have always made it my rule not to photograph children, one reson being that it makes me uneasy and also cos I don’t like children (ok, two reasons).

      On this one and only occasion though, I felt the picture was worth it because of what the child was doing.

      It’s ‘sods law’ that on the one occasion I tried, it back fired.

      As you say, business cards are a brilliant idea and I’ve now been carrying some for the past couple of months. They have already helped to defuse a couple of minor situations, plus it’s great leaving them lying around in random places now and then.

      Paranoia has now become part of the Street Photographers ‘lot’ here in the UK and in fact I’ve come to think of it as a good thing. It keeps you on your toes and concentrates the mind, rather like a war photographer?

      Cheers,

      Kevin

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    2. You are quite right, never photograph or even point a camera towards kiddies. Some years ago, in this country, silly people became obsessed with’paedophiles.’ Yes, we have had all these celebrities such as Rolf Harris, Stuart Hall, Gary Glitter et al, imprisoned for abusing youngsters. We have seen Cliff accused as well as many others. We have seen schools fenced off like prisons with double security gates and intercoms. Yet, as we saw in the case of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, the murderers were INSIDE the school,

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  6. Hi Kevin…
    and you are surprised? Shocked, when personally abused, yes, but alas surprised, not really. Incivility and verbal (if not physical) aggression from anybodies have become more an more normal. Also, in Europe at least, an exaggerated view of right to privacy in the street that is far beyond what’s actually in the (fairly strict otherwise) body of law. We live in more congested environments out of our ever more isolated tech bubbles, TV and media at large induce total paranoia, and to put it simply, the vast majority of people have totally forgotten common courtesy and forbearance. Still, 99% of the time a smile and acknowledgement will defuse any defensive/aggressive posture from the people you shoot (with a camera) in the street.
    Keep shooting and move on, it’s their problem not yours (as Dante used to say, more or less)…
    Best,
    Giovanni

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    1. Hi Giovanni,

      I agree in every way.

      People do seem to think that if they believe something ‘should’ be illegal, then it ‘is’ illegal.

      As you say, it is their problem and not ours.

      Cheers,

      Kev

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  7. Hi Kevin
    So a year has gone by since this un-nerving situation.
    What changes have you noticed in the way you are now doing street photography?

    jesse

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    1. Hi Jesse and thanks for your question.

      To be honest I think my confidence has improved. It made me more determined to face my demons because I didn’t want to stop doing street. I’m now much less self-conscious when photographing people.

      I think one thing has helped more than anything else and that’s the ‘business cards’ and doing the blog (ok, two things).

      They’ve given me (in my mind and maybe others) a sense of validity in what I’m doing on the street.

      Cheers,

      Kevin

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  8. You should take with you some samples of your photography printed on postcards with your name and your website, so they can see what you really do. They may not know that Leica is a big name, so to them makes no difference, but having a look at a business card or a sample can help, maybe.
    Best regards,
    Fabrizio

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  9. I’ve had a number of run ins. At our local Farmers market. The police backed ME up! Talked to the organizers afterwards and they suggested that when I’m shooting there, I should just stop by their Information Booth to let them know … so when the mom’s complain, they can tell them I’m All Right!

    A couple of weeks ago I was testing a piece of kit … rented Sony RX10 mk3 … for a paying job that coming weekend. So I went to my local horseriding rink down the street. Photographing a woman jumping. She leaves so I’m photographing a girl jumping. I’m mainly looking down at the menus trying to figure the camera settings out. This mom comes all the way over from across the arena to tell me to stop photographing her daughter … or she’ll call the cops! I show her the photos and tell her that I will email them to her. I’m an award winning sports photographer! She says no … and STOP IT! I thought I was shooting from a public parking lot right off the road. Still trying to find out from the city if in fact it is public parking. It DOES lead to public hiking trails. The owner of the stables told me to NOT photograph his clients. They sometimes have competitions there. Do they tell everyone to put their cameras away ?! Yesterday I was at a park. The only thing of interest was some women doing Yoga. I didn’t photograph them. I’ve lost my nerve. Going to the range instead to shoot my new rifle …

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  10. I notice that you haven’t written or posted any photographs for a while Kevin. I think it’s about time you received some recognition for what is an excellent body of work by anyone’s standards?

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  11. A couple of points: “Vicki Pollard” a business card would be no use at all, she will be incapable of reading! Next, I’m going to b@ll@ck you here: you saw her and her brats, you recognised the trash they were, BUT, you still pointed a camera in their direction!! Oh dear.
    Methinks if you had only smiled at them as they passed you, you would have got a mouthful of abuse. You must learn to be discerning. Recognise the warning signs. Spot, then look away as they pass. If your back is turned on them, they will ignore you. Also, find out about WINTU.

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