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Blend in with the Background
Do you want to be a successful and safe Travel Photographer? Then make sure that you Blend in with the Background.
There are a number of reasons why, as photographers, we might wish to be un-obtrusive:
Safely of the person: Of prime concern to any traveller, and especially the Travel Photographer is one of personal safety. We shouldn't let our interest, hobby or job put that in jeopardy. Yet walk around with an expensive camera on view in some parts of the world and that is precisely what you are doing: putting your own life at risk. An expensive camera is often worth more than a year's salary in many countries you might visit, where people survive on a dollar or so per day. People may have no compunction in attacking you to get hold of what, to them, represents a small fortune. You won't be able to discuss or bargain with them. They are frightened and greedy individuals, frequently on drugs, who won't hold your life of any value if they see you stopping them from getting what they want.
Security of possessions: Even if you don't get hurt during a robbery, you aren't going to be happy to lose some or all of your camera equipment. Not only will the finanacial loss be annoying, but the fact that you, a Travel Photographer, now have no equipment to carry on the trip or journey with could be a much bigger problem. Even if you have the spare money with you, there may not be a camera store where you can buy a substitute for a thousand miles.
Candid photographs: When photographing people, it is nice to have the choice whether to take a candid shot or ask for a posed photo. If people have already noticed you wandering about with a camera in hand, you will lose the chance of the first option. Even if people don't think you may want to photograph them specifically, they will still understand what your general intentions are, and want to watch what will happen. They will stop the tasks that they are currently performing, and may call friends and family over to look at you. The photos that you take will be substantially different from what they might have been, and could even have lost most of the spontaneous appeal that attracted you to the scene in the first place.
Involvement in events: Even if we have no intention of becoming involved in a riot, rally, or political demonstration that we might stumble across when wandering the world to take Travel Photographs, events can sometimes spiral out of control, and our possession of a camera at such times may not be helpful. A foreigner with a camera often says just one thing in the minds of many people: Press and the Media. Press photographers are often a target for abuse or attack from both sides of the demonstration: the police and authorities think you want to capture un-necessary violence or lack of personal freedom for your newspaper in the West, whilst the demonstrators see you as a tool of the multi-national media companies, and a tool of the rich. You don't have body armour or a baton either, so you are worth puching a little, anyway, to vent some frustration.
Attention of officials: Whilst most members of the police and authorities in the countries you visit are used to the fact that foriegn tourists spend all of their time taking photographs, they will be used to tourists with small, handheld cameras that flash a lot. Present yourself with a couple of large SLRs hung around your neck, and maybe a tripod as well, and the authorities can get interested in a way that you would rather they didn't. It is unlikely that any self respecting spy would use cameras so blatantly, but there are other possibilities that might occur to them: the press, or a professional. In many parts of the world, investigative journalism is unheard of amongst the locals, and unwanted from the foreigners. An official may demand to see identification and check or even confiscate cameras if they suspect that you are working as a journalist. If they suspect that you are a professional, then you may require special permission to take photographs, even if a hundred tourists are doing exactly the same thing without it. It can be useless to argue the point. In many parts of the world, even if the authorities don't *really* susupect that you might be with the press or working as a professional photographer, they will *say* that they do as a pretext to asking for some payment, to *let you off* the charge.
We have seen a number of reasons why a Travel Photographer should try and blend in with the background, so how can this be achieved? Its not always easy. If your racial type is different from those of the majority in the country that you are visiting, you will already stand out. The reaction to foreigners in some countries can be surprisingly different from what you are used to back home: sometimes good, sometimes bad. To be a foreigner is one thing, but to be a foreigner with a camera is something else again. The possession of a camera, especially a big and expensive looking one, can cause a variety of reactions. As a very minimum, if you are trying to capture the essence of a location then the last thing that you want is a string of children running along behind you, clamorously shouting for one school-pen, one chocolate, one Birr, or whatever else the last group of tourists dished out.
We are unlikely to be able to hide completely, but the more we can blend in with the background, the easier our job as photographers will be. Its all a question of degree. Here, then, are some ideas to help:
Some final comments about Blending In: for security reasons mentioned above, we should not advertise ourselves even when we are not taking photographs. Keep cameras hidden in your hotel room, so as not to tempt a maid or cleaner. Use hotel safes when available - they often have room for a camera body and a couple of lenses as well as your travel money and documents. For more bulky bags, you should chain them to an imovable object such as bed or radiator. You might like to try a PacSafe mesh protection, but use it inside your bag, not around it, as that way from the outside it does not appear that any special means have been taken, thus alerting someone that there is something of value inside. You can even buy a movement alarm for your bag or suitcase that will set off a loud noise if it is physically disturbed, though these should only be used in a temporary situation, like an airport or railway waiting room. Don't leave them connected to your bag in your hotel room if you are away for the day, as the cleaner may knock your bag and set it off quite inadvertently, and then have no means of shutting the alarm off. The guests in an adjacent room, sleeping late after a difficult flight, will not be best pleased with such devices!
Read other articles in the Tim's Tips series...
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