Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Is it Safe? Should I Bring My Camera Gear?

A Hmong Grandmother

My interest in photography has lead me to participate in what I consider to be a very informative photography website, http://www.photo.net/.  Part of the website is a forum where people can ask questions and get information and advice from people.

Recently a question was asked regarding the risks or carrying top quality camera gear in Rio.

These types of questions are very difficult to reply to.  You can only give advice based upon your personal experience but there is never any guarantee that they will have the same experience.  You can only provide information that they can use to assess the risk and to make their own decision.  In the end they will experience the consequences of the decision and not you.  In general there are risks in carrying expensive equipment anywhere in the world.  Just as general, there are many common sense actions that a person can take to manage the risks.

Some One's Grandmother - Thailand
The most important advice is "Don't be stupid".  Travel is a great deal like the mass migrations we watch on television of the animals across the Serengeti Plains.  The predators are vastly out numbered by the herd animals.  The predators survive by identifying and then preying upon the weak members of the herd.  This is analogous to tourist travel.  Thieves are on the look out for targets of opportunity.  A serious photographer can easily be carrying 5 to 10 times the average annual income of  the inhabitants of many of the more photographically interesting destinations throughout the world.

The first step in managing security risks is to identify and quantify the specific nature of the risks for the specific location where you will be going.  Before embarking on a journey, it is a very good idea to do some research.  The Internet has revolutionized and greatly increased our ability to find information on an almost unlimited number or topics.  Electronic versions as well as paper versions of guide books are a good start to get information regarding security issues.  The United States Department of State on their website provides up to date cautions and warnings regarding threats in specific cities as well as countries.  In some cities the threat is pick pockets.  In other locations the threat is mainly being mobbed by children. Cutting of backpacks to steal its contents while a person is in a large crowd is prevalent in some cities.  In some places, tourists are robbed after being incapacitated by a drink offered by a friendly local person.  Once the security risks are identified and evaluated, the individual tourist can decide if they are willing to accept the risks for the rewards that they expect to acquire in visiting the location.

If the tourist decides to visit a particular location after assessing the risks, the next step is to develop a plan and take steps to manage and minimize the risks.  It is important to realize that the over whelming majority of the people no matter their ethnicity, economic status, social status or religion are good, kind and honest people - just like us.  It is the few bad apples that can ruin a trip or give a bad reputation to a city or country.  It is the small minority that we need to be aware of and to manage the risks of having a bad encounter with them.  There is no need for paranoia to imprison us in our own comfort sphere but we need to always be aware of our surroundings at all times and locations.

You, as a possible target, can reduce the possibility of being preyed upon by minimizing the attraction of attention to yourself.  As much as possible try to blend into the local population in your dress and mannerism.  When travelling, I never wear my best clothes.  I dress for the climate and location rather than to impress.  I consciously decide to wear sturdy boots to minimize the probability of tripping or rolling an ankle.  Sturdy  boots also send a subliminal message of power and strength.

Nothing advertises the quantity and value of your camera equipment or possessions as openly flaunting them.  High priced internationally known backpacks advertise that you are wealthy and pique the interests as to what may be contained in the backpack.  Most people in the world, especially where there is a risk of theft, does not expect to find only a sardine sandwich in a Nikon, Canon, Lowepro, Crumpler, or Tamrac back pack.

I choose to carry my camera gear in a nondescript backpack.  My current bag was made and purchased in Brasil.  My criteria in selecting the bag was appropriate size, water resistance, appropriate external pockets, and the overall quality of construction.  I brought the bag to a shoe repair shop and had the attachment of the shoulder straps to the bag reinforced with additional sewing.  My lenses are kept in individual lens cases and my cameras are encased in Sling neoprene coverings.  My bag also carries emergency toilet materials, and appropriate clothing for expected weather conditions.

I often wear a large rain jacket.  The hooded jacket provides protection from the rain.  There is another advantage to wearing the plain black over sized jacket - I can conceal a great amount of camera gear underneath it and in its large pockets.  It helps to maintain a low profile and blend into the surroundings.

Great advice whether you are travelling for photography or just traveling for tourism,  is the need for "situational awareness".  To manage risks you need to be capable of assessing the risks.  This means to avoid alcohol when you are in or going to risky areas.  It means avoiding certain times of the night for traveling.  It means walking under street lights rather than walking in the shadows.

Just as the herd provides a great deal of security to an individual, traveling in groups also helps to minimize security risks.  A group can nothing more than traveling with one other kindred soul or being part of large group of tourists.  I am fortunate now because my wife is pleased and content to go with me on my photography forays.  Since she does not take many photographs, I always have a focused pair of eyes alert to any threats or risks in our vicinity.  In the past, there have been many times that I travelled alone.  However just because you start out alone does not mean you will be alone throughout your photography shoots.  I found that because I my interest in photography I often encounter like minded travellers.  Typically I ended up accompanying them on joint forays into more risky areas to take photographs - a small herd but it has always been effective.

My photographic excursions have taken me to 23 different countries over the years.   I have been fortunate to never experienced any theft.  However I have always been careful and managed the risks.  I have been in some situations where there was a strong possibility of theft.

A Trustworthy Grandmother in Isaan

I was in Cuzco, Peru in broad daylight taking photographs of processions around Plaza D'Armas related to the Feast of Corpus Christi.  There were huge crowds and the risks of theft were readily apparent.  An old grandmother came up to me and warned me in Spanish to be careful.  I thanked her rand took appropriate steps to manage the risks.  The grandmother was part of a rather large group of elderly women selling boiled potatoes and other foods to the spectators.  In my travels throughout the world, I have yet to find a culture where grandmothers were or respected or better yet not feared.  No one messes with grandmothers!  I joined the grandmothers as they climbed the steps to the cathedral and sat on the stone steps.  Rather than take my chances wandering about at street level taking photographs, I sat amongst the cadre of Grannies taking photographs.  Some of the women had very large burlap sacks of cooked potatoes.  When they left our area to tend to personal business or to sell some of their prepared foods, I watched over their stock.  We ended up having a great time interacting as well as joking with each other.  They even ended up giving me some potatoes to eat - I guess I had become an accepted member of the herd.  I enjoyed my afternoon - relaxed and protected in the company of some remarkable women.

The next day I attended another procession in the Plaza.  To manage the risks this day, I set up on the edge of the sidewalk next to a Policeman who was preventing people from getting on to the street while the procession was on going.  Besides the obvious minimizing of risk by staying next to a Policeman, there was an unexpected benefit.  After watching me take photographs for a while, he motioned to me to go out into the middle of the street in order to get a better angle of the oncoming marchers.

That night, the procession was continuing.  It ended up lasting from 10:00 A.M. until 1:00 A.M. It very well could be a world record for longest parade - 15 hours! I was alone so when I detected or imagined a threat from some teenagers and young men I relocated to the middle of an area that was saturated with young families.  Once again the risk was managed by situational awareness and taking action to become part of a herd.  To get to me, the perceived threats would have to enter and exit through a throng of people who were a not a threat to me and capable of protecting their families.  Since thieves tend to be opportunists, I diminished the opportunity and made it more difficult for them to get to me and my equipment.  I am certain that better as well as easier opportunities existed at the fringes of the crowd.

The following night at another event, I noticed some young men who seemed to be eying me.  As I stood watching the event in front of me, I periodically made an unpredictable movement that would disrupt any attempt to pick a pocket or cut my back pack.  At one point, I looked directly at the young men with a confident look that was intended to communicate to them that I was aware of them and I had an idea of what they might be thinking about.  The young men left.  I had removed the element of surprise from the situation  I had let them know that I had situation awareness.  With less of an opportunity, they moved on.

A Lao Loum Grandmother
On my last night in Cuzco, I went out with two British young men that I met on one of the tours that I took.  We had no problems at all and thoroughly enjoyed the fireworks display.  Once again the herd had provided protection.

When planning on visiting suspect areas, besides maintaining a low profile, I minimize the amount of valuables that could be lost.  I strip my wallet of credit cards and identification papers that would be a pain to replace.  I ensure that I am carrying a photocopy of my passport identification page and of any applicable visa for that country.  I carry enough cash for my planned activities for that night and just a little extra so as to hopefully not "insult" a potential assailant.  I bring only the minimum amount of camera gear that I expect to require at that location.  I take particular caution and steps to ensure that whatever photos have been taken to date are not placed at risk.

In the end it is up to the individual to decide whether to bring their camera gear or not.  No one can guarantee that it will not be stolen.  However similar to what Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote "'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all"  I believe "It is better to have brought the camera and lost it than never to have brought it at all"

What good is a camera if you are afraid to take it places?

The final decision is up to you and only you.

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