Paul Watson is a Cape Town-based photographer. He travels a lot (not as much now as he used to – Ed) and has had more than his fair share of experiences. He shares some sage words with DearSusan readers…
As an avid street photographer and adventurer, I have walked many miles in many cities across the world. I saw some extremely dangerous situations and through experience and a bit of wisdom laced with luck, I managed to get away from danger
Firstly, a ^%%$^ disclaimer, I do not want someone saying and pointing fingers “But Paul said so “ .. So use your common dog f**k. We fear things because they stop us doing stupid things or going into dangerous areas. So don’t think you are immune to been attacked and robbed on the street. So common sense, think before you hit the streets
I have been messing around doing street photography for, well, a pretty long time. And I have also been lucky enough to have been to some massive cities (Rio De Janerio, Panama City, Athens, Baltimore, Johannesburg, Singapore, Cape Town) just to name a few.
One needs to treat the streets as if you were in any big city, the streets are dangerous, unpredictable and full of surprises. How you react, before, during and after a “surprise” attack will lessen your chance of serious injury or even death. And please do not think I am trying to scare you or make you fearful. The reality is, if you are careless on any big city street, any city, any country, you are inviting trouble.
So I hope you will gain a small bit of insight from my ramblings and experiences, no one expects you to follow any of this advice. Every city and scenario is different, and I do not incorporate all these techniques every time I shoot on the street. I use these techniques while doing street photography and I don’t see why you cannot use them while exploring a city on foot.
What to Wear? Gucci or Prada?
I always try and wear what the locals wear, you want to blend in, and not stick out. So spend a small amount of time taking note of how the locals dress and try to match up as close as possible.
I am sure you have seen tourist with those loud Hawaiian shirts that just screen “tourist”, so unless you are in Hawaii, then look for something else to wear. I also prefer to wear darker clothing on the streets, you are able to blend in better.
Try not to wear expensive branded clothing. Just think plain and boring. You want to blend in and camouflage yourself, you are in stealth mode.
Umm Yes Fishing Waistcoats in shades of brown, peek caps with “Canon” in bright letters and Camera bags that scream, “Mug me, steal from me “are not recommended.
I always make sure that I can run with the shoes I have on. No slippery smooth soles.
In Rio, Flip flops or those plastic sandals are the in thing, but I promise you, to try and run in those things is really not advisable. And many times the “not so nice folk have those on, so if you are able to quickly sprint away they will not be able to keep up.
Even in the very humid cities like Singapore and Rio, I would wear closed shoes, jeans and a big baggy T-shirt. A Big shirt is able to hide your camera bag, so I always try and match the shirt with my camera bag. And most times that’s a Black shirt with my sling bag.
Sunglassses ALWAYS. Hiding one’s eyes hides your intention, and where you are looking. Practice using your eyeballs to scan all around you, and try not to move your head and make it look obvious. Cheap sunglasses are also strongly advisable. If you are approached and threatened and told to hand over your items, take off sunglasses and throw it near mugger. He will bend down to pick it up, and that’s when you run.
Use reflective surfaces, car windows, shop fronts, to scan behind you. If you have any big bulky bag, rather catch a taxi, Having big bags and been weighted down, not only makes you a target but hinders you. You become an easy target.
Do NOT have branded clothing on, A Canon beanie, or even a Canon Bag, Prada handbag. You might as well be blowing a foghorn to potential muggers. They like branded stuff. So don’t let them see it. ( yes, I know I mentioned it already)
I carry my Camera in a sling bag that neatly tucks under my left arm. Just make sure that if you have a bag it’s not that obvious. Also, look at your pockets, see that lovely shape of a wallet and a cell phone, yes? Well, Mr Mugger has seen it as well. Inner jacket Pockets, or leave your wallet at home and stash money in sock or underwear.
I sometimes hit the streets and I don’t take my wallet, I put some notes in my underwear, and in my pocket, I carry loose coins. There is a reason for this. Don’t keep your money and your camera together. If your camera is taken from you, at least you have some hidden money to get out of the area and get to safety.
And the coins? In Durban, (coastal city in South Africa)I was followed by 2 men on the way to a night club. I knew they were following me, and when I tried to get into a shop to take refuge, the shop keeper saw what was about to happen and closed the shop doors on me. I had my back up against the wall, and these two guys said “hand it over”, I grabbed the coins in my pocket and threw it just in front of them. As they bent down to pick up the coins, I bolted into the busy street and ran up the road. I was long gone before they had picked up all the coins.
2 sets of eyes are better than one. So if you can have a person with you, but make sure that you brief them, and if approached, both run in opposite directions. Your buddy can be your biggest hindrance if they do not take things seriously.
Most of the time, I do my own thing.
Anatomy of a Mugging:
So what happens? Firstly they check you out, the size you up and then pounce.
One of the things they do is say “Hi, Excuse me “, you stop, they walk right up to you, and they have you. They sometimes grab your wrist and threaten you with a knife or gun.
Its game over if this happens, just hand over your stuff and hope they will not hurt you.
If you are vigilant and aware, you will notice how they first size you up, they then wait for a moment when you are distracted and when the opportunity comes they will take it
So I always say to myself, I will NOT acknowledge any whistling, or greetings or requests on the street. I play deaf.
Or one of my other tricks was to get a cheap pair of headphones, stick them in my ears, I never plugged them in, I put the wire into my pocket as if it’s going to a device./ It’s amazing how even muggers will subconsciously not disturb you while you have headphones on, because it’s too much of a mission to get the persons attention. You also have a legitimate excuse for not responding to any beggars or requests. But keep your ears on high alert, and with your headphones in your ears and nothing playing, they will think that you cannot hear them.
Yeah, Spy vs Spy, Bourne Identity and all that, this has worked for me.
If I am going to a new city, I plan my route.
I also walk with purpose, I do not hang around, or dawdle, I walk, fast and with vigour.
Let me tell you muggers are pretty lazy, and trying to keep up with a guy with long legs is not how they want to do business.
Do not hang around in one area, and also make sure you are not going to put yourself in a dead-end.
I also got into a habit of changing direction very suddenly. like 180 turns, then back up a side street.
I also will criss-cross streets for no reason, well, not that people who might follow you will be aware of.
I don’t aim to be predictable and believe me, a Mugger wants a theft to go down as quietly, routinely and as quick as possible,
If there are two of you, make sure that you both have a way of communicating to each other, a single word like or a sentence will alert your friend, but also not let the bad guys know you have spotted them. A bit like a safe word. And when it’s time to take action, then make sure you have a pre-arranged place to meet if you get separated.
And when its time to take action and evade the muggers, both go in opposite directions.
Places of Refuge…
Shops and Hotels are some excellent places to just walk into if you feel threatened. Approach the shop keeper and quietly explain that you are feeling threatened. If it means you buying a coke, and while paying, quietly explain to the shop keeper. Most of the time, they will be more than happy to let you wait it out or even call security. If the muggers are waiting outside the shop for you, Phone for a taxi or Uber, and leave as soon as the transport arrives.
Trust your gut feeling. I cannot tell you how many times, I have felt like I am been watched or followed. I trust my instinct and will find a place to wait it out. Churches (Not all Churches are open ), Shopping malls, and even Night clubs ( Walk up to bouncers and talk to them ). They will help you out, just be polite and genuine, just say you are feeling threatened( yes, even if you are a man ), and ask if you can just wait near them until the danger has gone.
I have knocked on a person’s door and asked if I could get off the street as I felt I was been followed. I explained I was from South Africa, and not only did I make a new friend, but they were also very happy to help.
You can also take refuge in Taxis that have just dropped off a passenger, or If I bus has stopped, just hop on a bus and have a quick word with the driver. I also take note of Subway Entrances, the majority of Subway entrances have security guards.
In some places, you were able to buy a Subway pass and it also works with the busses. I would make sure that I had a pass so that I could quickly climb onto the bus or go to the subway and many times the muggers would not have money or will give up and look for easier prey.
Move with people, if there is no one at the subway station, stay near the ticket booth, or near the ticket entrances, and don’t think that just because you are in a subway station that someone can’t mug you on the platform.
Try and make yourself less of a target. Hit and runs(snatch and grabs )often occur, and usually, it’s because the victim is distracted, and muggers are able to snatch an item from them.
So checking messages or making a call with your cell phone on the streets is a bad move. Having your camera around your neck with a strap in the open is also a bad move. I have heard of people been slashed as the muggers slice the strap and grab your camera and run.
An underarm sling bag allows your one hand to rest on your camera, I wrap the strap around my wrist a few times, and only take the camera out and take a photo when safe, and then it’s quick and the camera is hidden from view.
Make sure your cell is on silent, nothing worse than a loud ring to alert all the nasty opportunists in the area.
With all my travels, I always took note of new areas I was exploring. One of the best ways to see if it’s a bad area is looking at the houses on the street front, if the doors are barred up and windows have thick burglar bars, then be aware. Look for things like cars with broken side windows, and if you start walking into very industrial wasteland type places, move and retrace your steps or look for people who are moving and walking, do not move towards small groups that are just hanging around.
One thing I do promise you and that is when you are in a new city, it’s like a wonderland, everything seems so awesome, things are begging to have their photos taken, and it’s like shooting off a machine gun. And here it is where I urge you to stop, take a breath and caution yourself. You will either become a target as you are so distracted and awestruck, that you probably have your shoes stolen with everything else. Or you could be smart and blend in and look like a local and be left alone.
I wish you luck on the streets and I hope some small part of this essay helps when you need it most.
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