Camera in hand, trying to act inconspicuous

I wish I had a cloak of invisibility. Whenever I grab a camera and head out to shoot, I don’t want to be bothered or even noticed.

Because I take so many pictures along the roadside, drivers frequently stop and ask me if my car has broken down. I used to try to explain, but that seemed to just confuse the good Samaritans. So now I just smile and say, “No, everything’s fine!” and turn back to what I’m doing. But I still haven’t figured out what to say to people who ask questions when I’m in town shooting with my vintage cameras.

When I was shooting with my Argus A2B last year, I stopped for a cheeseburger and noticed that the adjacent strip mall had some good photographic possibilities. I shot several photos there, including this one of a check-cashing place. A man immediately came running out and, clearly agitated, asked me what I was doing. I showed him my 60-year-old camera and briefly explained my hobby. He shook his head and said, “Don’t you think that’s a little strange?” I was gobsmacked, and I just walked away from him. When I reached my car, I turned back to look and he was still standing there, watching me. It makes me wonder what he was trying to hide.

Legal loansharking

When I was shooting with my Pentax K1000 not long ago, I burned off the last few shots on my first roll of film in the parking lot at work. I was looking for colorful cars to shoot, which isn’t easy these days given that the most popular colors are white, black, and endless shades of beige. I liked this shot of a Jeep’s headlight best.

Jeep light

The next day, the company that manages our office park sent out an e-mail saying that they had received several reports of a suspicious dark-haired Caucasian male wandering the parking lot photographing cars, and that if he is seen again to call local police. Don’t they know I’m harmless?

I did attract police attention once. I was out exploring the many old alignments of Indiana’s State Road 37 south of Indianapolis one spring day in 2007. As one old alignment curved to meet modern SR 37, I noticed a sliver of old road beyond. Naturally, I drove onto it to see where it led.

Old SR 37

I was thrilled to find an old bridge back there. It was a simple concrete affair, typical of bridges built by the Indiana highway department in the 1920s and 1930s.

Abandoned bridge

I lingered on the bridge. It was peaceful back there, though I could hear the cars whizzing by on modern SR 37. The road from the bridge ended in somebody’s driveway, and there was a little gravel path connecting it to modern SR 37. It let a police car in while I was back there. It was just before the police arrived that I noticed that “Private Property, Keep Out” sign. Now, I heed “No Trespassing” and “Private Property” signs when I go exploring. I don’t want any trouble, and I empathize with property owners not wanting strangers traipsing around on their land. But this sign faced the road; you wouldn’t see it unless you stopped next to it and looked right at it, as I did. I hoped that it meant only that the land behind it was private property. But when the police car arrived and hovered anxiously, I realized that this was not the case. The property owner probably called the cops on me. I turned around and hightailed it out of there. Fortunately, the officer let me be chased off.

I’m too old for this kind of excitement.

Shaken but not deterred, I kept exploring the old alignments of SR 37 that day. Where another old alignment curved to meet modern SR 37, another sliver of the old road stretched out beyond. This time, the property owners did a much better job of marking their territory.

Do you think they wanted me to stay out?

You’d better believe I didn’t drive in there.

I loves me some old alignments. I love abandoned old alignments even more. Check out some other places I’ve photographed where cars no longer go.


32 responses to “Camera in hand, trying to act inconspicuous”

  1. Mike Avatar

    This is an issue all of us who photograph in public places have to confront these days. The fact that the law is generally on your side often isn’t much immediate help. There was a real horror story recently at the RangefinderForum from a young woman photographer in NYC who was assaulted by a thug in a police uniform.

    It does seem like the country is getting more paranoid about photography. I’m not entirely sure that is true, however. I recall reading that Russell Lee was taken to task for photographing a post office in Pie Town by the local sheriff who accused him of being an enemy agent. I think Wright Morris actually spent some time in a southern jail, also in the 1940’s.

    It is clearly worth giving the topic some thought before you venture into public places with a camera. I think your instincts were good with the shop keeper. He clearly was operating out of paranoid guilt when he confronted you, and giving some kind of prepared cursory answer and moving on is probably the best strategy.

    My experience in shooting with my odd old cameras is that they seem to provide a bit of a social shield to people’s suspicions. They apparently conclude that I’m just some old harmless crank hobbyist, which is largely true. I also sometimes resort to stealth techniques including the use of small, preset or automatic cameras and hip shooting. I think one needs a variety of tools and techniques to fit different circumstances.

    1. Jim Avatar

      Makes me wonder what’s considered a public place. A highway’s right-of-way is, I think, by virtue of being owned by the state. But since the parking lot at work is owned by a company, it’s not clear to me whether that’s a public place or not. Regardless, if future shooting there is likely to result in a visit by Carmel Police, I think I’ll cut it out. Or at least limit myself to a quick shot or two — so fast that by the time anybody could call the cops, I’d be sitting in my office! :-)

      I have had some luck deflecting attention when I show my very old camera and say I’m a collector. I suppose how well that works depends upon whether the person asking has something to hide.

  2. Vina Kent Avatar

    Wow wish I had a photographers eye… My daughter wants to take photography next yr in high school. Any suggestions?

    1. Jim Avatar

      I don’t really have a suggestion — I’m entirely self-taught, and my learning is a work in progress!

  3. Todd Pack Avatar

    That’s funny-but-annoying about the warning from management about suspicous activity in the parking lot. Generally, the law’s on your side as long as you’re on public property. When I was a newspaper reporter, I was doing a story about a fight between students and townies at a small, secretive Christian college. I was interviewing a student on the edge of campus when the campus PR person came up and said I was on private property and had to leave. So, I took, literally, 2 steps and continued interviewing the student in the street. The PR woman asked her lackey, “Do we own the street?” I almost started laughing, it was so amateurish.

    1. Jim Avatar

      Most journalists must have stories similar to yours. YouTube has several videos of TV news photographers being asked to stop shooting, even though they stand on public property. Even when the law is on your side, it can be hard to convince a cop of that on the spot.

      In my case, the #1 thing people seem to wonder is why I’m taking pictures, as if my plans must be somehow nefarious.

  4. ryoko861 Avatar

    The worst thing the cop would have asked was what you were doing there and to please leave. And you would have told him the sign wasn’t positioned properly and you didn’t see it until that moment and you’re very sorry you upset anyone and you promise never to return.

    Then you get in your car and laugh.

    There’s an old church that’s set up on a small hill along SR 946 here in Nazo. There’s a dirt driveway that leads up to it off the road. I’ve been tempted to just park the car on the road and walk up the driveway and take some pics. But occasionally I see a VW Beetle parked just beyond the chained off entrance. I don’t recall seeing any “No Trespassing” signs (though out here there’s probably some sort of hidden ordinance). I may get the gumption to approach the person and ask if I could just take a couple pics of this very old church and what it’s now used for. But I don’t dare just approach it unauthorized. Them folks out here don’t take kindly to trespassers.

    1. Jim Avatar

      The uptight side of me really comes out when threats of police are raised. Truly, I just want not to be noticed.

      There have been some places where I’ve wanted to take photos, but haven’t because my read of the place told me it probably wouldn’t be friendly. I seriously don’t want to make anybody nervous or angry.

      1. ryoko861 Avatar

        Especially in this day and age. You can’t trust anyone. I mean I’d be suspicious if someone came around and started taking pictures of my house. You can’t blame them!

        1. Jim Avatar

          One story I didn’t tell here was of the guy who came up to me, out of breath and sweaty, after running after me through half of Lakeville, Indiana, wondering why the heck I just photographed his house! I explained; he calmed down.

  5. Scott Palmer Avatar

    Maybe the check-cashing place was a front for the mob. You never know. Great pix, as usual!

    I don’t do as much photography as you do, but it seems to me that people are getting a lot more paranoid about it. About 10 years ago, I was taking photographs as part of research for a book, and a couple of cops hassled me like they thought I was a terrorist with a nuke in one pocket and anthrax in the other.

    1. Jim Avatar

      Scott, you clearly look like a terrorist, so it’s not surprising that you were hassled! ;-)

  6. vanilla Avatar

    …ask why I’m taking pictures.

    Clearly it is a hostile act linked to some nefarious purpose, hence the suspicion. ;-)

    1. Jim Avatar

      It must be that raising a camera to your face makes you look like a criminal or a terrorist!

  7. Kaitlin Avatar

    I like this post and I know what you mean. People get so touchy about taking pictures of private property, even if you are within the right-of-way.

    Nice concrete bridge, too. What’s better than quiet old alignments and concrete bridges, I ask? Lovely.

    1. Jim Avatar

      That bridge railing is standard issue — Indiana built lots of bridges with that railing in the early 20th century.

      I’ve taken thousands of photos, both by the roadside and with my vintage cameras, and have been bothered like this only a handful of times. So overall I’ve had good success.

  8. anindya Avatar

    This is so true! I remember once while driving a small road wonderful formation of clouds and sun over a corn field. It was so good that I parked my car on the side of the road and stated taking some pictures. Suddenly a cop came and started asking questions as if I was a criminal. It seems the owner of the corn fields called the cops. With a camera what I could do? The cop and the person made such a lovely evening a complete mess.

    1. Jim Avatar

      I imagine everyone who shoots in public will eventually gather a few stories like this one to tell. I’m sorry you had to deal with that!

  9. Lone Primate Avatar
    Lone Primate

    The cheque (sorry, check?) cashing guy probably thought you were either casing the joint (see, I know the lingo!) or an advanced scout for 60 Minutes. :)

    You should have said something like “Gosh, you people in the future sure got some new fangled cameras, but how am I gonna show anybody pictures on some byte-chips when I get home?” Big laugh/butterfly net. Six of one, half dozen of the other. :)

    1. Jim Avatar

      I knew I shouldn’t have worn my CBS News logo jacket and cap that day! ;-)

  10. Bernie Kasper Avatar

    This a great post Jim…most of the time with my portrait photography I may place someone in front of a business or home or some other type of structure usually things go well but every so often hell tends to break loose.

    For instance I was shooting a wedding party in front of the JFD Lanier Mansion in Madison, when a very perturbed tour guide came out screaming at me telling me I couldn’t do that.

    The only problem was that I could do that and the wedding party had rented the grounds for the day, so before I could scream back the groom let her know in any uncertain terms that were going to shoot there whether she liked it or not.

    Of course she backed down when the property manager came over and calmed her down, power panties I guess, but you really do have to be careful now days when you carry your camera around !!

    1. Jim Avatar

      Yay for the groom! I swear, you’d think a camera was a weapon given how people sometimes react to it.

  11. Ted Kappes Avatar

    I do wonder how smart some of these people who are paranoid about photography are. I would think that most people would be aware that there are cameras that are almost impossible to detect that people with shady intentions could use. Seriously what kind of spy or terrorist would go around in the open with some big ancient camera taking pictures?

    Like everyone else I have had my experiences in this area. Although I never had anything happen until the last ten years or so. And that is after shooting pictures since the 70’s. Maybe I am getting more shady looking in my old age. Or maybe things like 9/11 has made some people more comfortable in expressing their paranoia.

    1. Jim Avatar

      Great point — someone with nefarious intentions has many options to take pictures very inconspicuously.

      My experience with this kind of shooting has been limited to the past 5 years or so — before that, I just didn’t take that many photos. So I don’t have a past to compare this present to!

  12. zorgor Avatar

    Yeah — it makes you wonder what they’re hiding when they get that agitated about someone taking a photo. So at a Meijer I used to shop at they had a sign above the fresh fish that was a gradated chart of types of fish flavor from mild to ‘pronounced’. I never was much of a fish fan, but I’d kept reading that it’s so healthy. This I thought was my guide to the world of pelagic delights. If only there were some way to retain this information… I had my camera with me, so I took a photo of the sign for later analysis and continued shopping. Mere minutes later, the manager sought me out with two other employees flanking her a few steps behind in a clearly defensive wedge formation. The looks on their faces said they all thought I might make trouble… A ruckus, a kerfuffle, an incident that might call for security. I really don’t know what they thought I was — a secret shopper? A corporate spy from Kroger? A reporter working on some kind of exposé or some kind of whistle blower? But they made it clear that they did not appreciate people taking pictures in the store, and let me know that this sort of thing just was “not done”, and that I should have known this…?!? Anyway I explained what I was up to — which included shopping — and then the manager seemed to realize they’d over-reacted as they retreated to the ‘back room’.

    I never bought any fish from them, but still have the photo. I wonder what it is about the fish that they’d like to hide? Funny how one knee-jerk reaction can at a stroke prevent a loyal customer from ever buying fish and raise vague suspicions at the same time.

    1. Jim Avatar

      I’ve had a post idea in the back of my head for months now, and it involves shooting a few photos inside the Meijer I go to. I think your experience there may cause me to move that post idea into the “never mind” file.

      I guess I can see how a store might not want people to take photos inside, but the manager at that Meijer should have handled you much more deftly.

      1. zorgor Avatar

        Yeah, I think she made the mistake of going along with the freaking-out that the person who “spotted” me and told her must have already been already deep into.

        Yeah, don’t take any pictures in Meijer! They’ll do worse than send an e-mail about suspicious people in the parking lot! They’ll send their goons!!

        I still can’t believe that nonsense about photos in the parking lot… Still just shaking my head.

    2. SS Avatar

      I had a similar experience in another store. Only, they didn’t realize how much they were overreacting. I deleted those photos rather than get into a futile argument with those m****s. If its a secret, then don’t put it out in public!

  13. Joe shoots resurrected cameras Avatar

    It’s crazy times we live in, so many rights infringed in the name of stopping terrorism, and then when a real terrorist strike happens, they blame it on anything but terrorism. I’m not a huge fan of the ACLU, but they do have a nice printer-friendly page you can carry around with you if you are ever stopped and/or harassed, by cops or anyone else. It’s good to know what your photographic rights are.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yeah, well, fortunately I’ve not encountered a cop trying to get me to stop taking pictures. Yet. Hope I never.

      1. Kevin Thomas Avatar
        Kevin Thomas

        So, we have a monthly photo contest at work (I can even proudly say I’ve gotten a couple of other people to at least try film). One month the theme was black and white, so I loaded up a Petri 7S with HP5 and started shooting. Then I had the genius idea to take some photos of police cars – black-and-whites in black and white, right? And where better than the nearest police station? So off I go on a Sunday afternoon, and soon I’m taking pictures of the cars through the chain link fence… Until a cop car pulls up. The policeman was polite but very concerned with why I was taking pictures… Until I showed him my 40+ year old camera and explained I was using film. “They still make that?” he asked. Won’t be taking pictures at the police station again – the next time might not be so easy to get out of.

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          I’ve had the same experience a couple of times — showing my 40 year old film camera makes me suddenly not look like a criminal.

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