#987. Anatomy of a Mugging

By Paul Perton | Opinion

Apr 04

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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  • Alan says:

    I think I fall into the Mr. Magoo school of safety. So far so good but you’ve made me reconsider my approach.
    I am a big guy — I allegedly look like a retired cop — and expect that helps. I try to carry a small-ish camera bag (Tenba DNA 15) but would prefer the slim model for a less camera-bag look. My small Lumix doesn’t immediately scream ‘expensive’ and that’s a benefit.
    I’m with you on distributing money amongst hotel safe, money belt and neck pouch and the same for back up usb keys. We got a pac-safe mesh bag to help secure our stuff from casual theft when left unattended and so far it hasn’t not worked (!).
    Our only truly scary incident was many years ago in Bangkok and I used your technique of splitting up — I stayed with the (unarmed) thieves and sent my wife toward a populated area. They gave up and we’ve been more careful since.
    The only time I’ve had my wrist grabbed I pulled it back very aggressively and shouted. One thing I’ve learned is that common courtesy is out the window.
    Your tradecraft of looking at reflections, wearing sunglasses, crossing streets and such is good stuff as is your list of escape routes. Situational awareness, as they like to say! Thanks for that.
    Beyond that, I’ve found that working quick and avoiding eye contact with human subjects generally fends off much negative reaction.
    Great post and lots of food for thought.

    • Paul Watson says:

      Alan – Thank you for such great comments. One thing I do realise is that everyone has their own method that goes with their style of photography, my way has worked for me. Believe me, Panama City, Colon, and Salvador, Fortaleza, Recife in Brazil, were some places I visited more than once, and it was just way too scary. Thanks again for the feedback.

    • jean pierre guaron says:

      Alan – your comment just reminded me. The mantra is NO JEWELLERY OF ANY KIND.

      You mentioned “wrist” – NO wrist watch, in a lot of these places – because if you wear one, you might find the bottom section of your forearm, complete with wrist, hand and wrist watch, slashed off with a machete.

      • pascaljappy says:

        My goodness, what kind of places do you guys visit ????
        More to the point, why ???

        • Paul Watson says:

          Umm, Ever been on a Rollercoaster. Its nothing like that..LOL. One of the things that often happens is Street Photographers tend to go exploring, we walk off the beaten pathways following butterflies and sometimes we manage to capture a scene that is so remarkable and breathtaking, that’s it’s worth it. I often walk around Cape Town City centre and suburbs on my own but believe me, I am vigilant, and there are some places that I would love to go, but I know better. I sometimes play the “open door ” game.. I walk around and on city blocks, I push and try and open any door that catches my interest and if it opens, I walk in. Most of the time these doors are back stairways or corridors between buildings, and I try and get upstairs and onto the top of the building. I do not break or damage anything, and if confronted, I apologise and say I was exploring. I have got to some awesome places this way. I had bored security guards give me a tour of these massive empty shells of buildings. I would never have experienced or seen some of these places if I never tried… I sometimes take one other person with me to go exploring, its an eye-opener.

  • percy seaton smythe says:

    very sage advice, always a good reminder….

  • jean pierre guaron says:

    If you must shoot Leica, put masking tape over those red dots.

    I use a “money belt” to hold up my trousers – on the back (the side facing my body), there’s a continuous pocket closed by a sip, that can hold several thousand dollars/euros/whatever.

    And when I need to have my passport on me, it’s in a bag hanging inside my shirt.

    I’m too old to run – never was any good at it anyway – so perhaps I can’t be as adventurous as some. But that is no protection, because these people turn up anywhere.

    Years ago, an Australian aborigine explained to me that for his people, looking people in the eye was the height of ill manners, so they’d cultivated the use of their lateral vision. And it came in handy for hunting, because they could see wild life in the bush out of the corner of their eyes when westerners in the same situation would simply starve to death.

    Maybe sunglasses help – especially if you need something cheap to chuck at this people – but they aren’t essential. If you follow the advice of our indigenous people, you can also train your eyes, and keep watch on people without them realising you are actually staring straight at them. It’s worth it, because while I don’t catch game in the bush, improving my lateral vision in that way is helpful in avoiding accidents, and in noticing photographic opportunities I might otherwise have passed by.

    Singapore is one of the safest places on the planet. Some idiots complain that it’s over-regulated. If that’s all we have to do to rid the world of muggers, I’m all in favour of over-regulation! I’ve wandered through ill-lit narrow back streets in the middle of the place, in the small hours of the morning, returning to my hotel after an evening at a nightclub, and never felt safer anywhere else in the world.

    One thing to avoid – people coming up to you on the street, offering you “stuff”. I’ve never done drugs myself, I’ve never had the slightest interest in “stuff”, so I couldn’t tell you what “stuff” is. But using my duplicitous eyesight to keep watch on them and simultaneously scan my surroundings, I suddenly realised that the seller was not alone – there was a couple of guys standing in the shadows of a building on the corner of the street, watching us. And it suddenly occurred to me that they might be cops, trying to catch someone in the act of buying drugs. I can’t say they were – but it did make me think – who’d want to be suddenly grabbed and slammed in a gaol in a foreign country, with no access to a phone, a lawyer, or their families?

    • Paul Watson says:

      Awesome advice – I think that it always depends on where you are and how you carry yourself. I did allot of Singapore, I learnt how to hang out in Hotel Entrances, then get the courtesy bus to a busy tourist spot, then find a bus back to another Hotel, use the WIFI, and repeat. I did huge sections of Singapore this way, just chatted and was very friendly with the bus drivers, and no worries.
      Rio De Janerio was pretty hectic, on my second to last evening, I was cornered by 3 very manly she men. Another came rushing up to my defence ( I felt so special ) and told them off. I remember chatting to this same lady-man and giving her some of the food that I was eating. Paid off in the long run. I saw her the next evening at a street party and bought her a beer while trying to fend off her rather large hands.

  • Mel says:

    Thank you for the sage advice. I have seen video bloggers travel with large backpacks to hold all their gear – blogging camera gear, still photo gear, drone, etc. – and I don’t know how they get away with it. I have been carrying a small shoulder bag but I will rethink about using a sling bag. Much appreciated.

  • Jean-Claude Louis says:


    Thank you for your advice and sharing your experience. I would like to add a few comments. Like you, I’ve been in some ‘hot’ places, the slums of Kampala, Guayaquil, Mumbai, Guatemala, some shady areas of Cairo, Chicago, New York, and many more.

    The first thing I ask myself before venturing in those places is: WHY? Why do I want to go there, what’s the idea, do I have a goal, it is worth the risks involved? Next is: WHAT? What do I try to achieve, what’s the focus of my visit, what will I do with my images?

    The HOW, and all the safety precautions that come with it, is addressed only after the first two questions have been resolved. If I decide it’s a go, I never venture in such places alone; I’m always accompanied by a local person, a guide, a friend. I found out many times that being with a person who speaks the language and understands the culture and local rules acts as a shield, prevents problems and facilitates acceptance.

    During such outings, most of the photographs are taken with the approval or knowledge of the subjects. And I travel light, keeping the gear to a minimum – one small camera and one lens – and no camera bag, even no backpack.

    All the best

    • Paul Watson says:

      Could not agree more. Here in my hometown of Cape Town, We had a Photography meet in an area called Woodstock , the organiser tried to get the police to just keep an eye on us. We met a local called Raseed , and he walked with us. We were approached at least 4 times to hand over our gear. we are talking 8 people here, men and woman, and Raseed stepped up each time, and these guys backed off and apologised. Raseed was very well respected in the area.
      Thank you for the words, appreciated .

  • Patrick says:

    Wonderful shots, and I see a generous supply of contrast therein, each opening plenty of options for imaginations…..really impressive!
    Very useful advice for street photography too. Thanks for sharing, Paul.

    • Paul Watson says:

      Thank you Patrick, As I have got older, I seem to be taking fewer photos on the streets, I have become more focussed and thoughtful. That one shot with the man with the red shorts on, That shot .. Those are the Steps of St Theresa in Rio, bad part of town, that man is a chilian born artist called Jorge Selarón. The local name for those steps is Escadaria Selarón. He would ask people from all over the world to send him Tiles and he cemented those tiles on those stairs. A huge job. But every day, hundreds of people would flock to these steps and it was amazing. Lone guitarists, tourists, singers, tarot card, street cafes. 2 months after this very photo was taken Jorge was found dead on his beloved steps.

  • John Rayner says:

    A good read, Paul, and some very wise words, indeedy. I’m more of a stroller but with an erratic path – crossing streets often, backtracking etc. Still managed to have my gear taken, tho’ but that will not stop me doing what I love. We’ll get together after the Lockdown, yes ?

  • Dan says:

    Great article. As a practitioner of Japanese martial arts I can vouch that zanshin (awareness) is a fundamental part of the art. Which is exactly what the article suggests – an ounce of preparedness can save one a world of hurt. Often the simple act of crossing the street can get you out of trouble.

    • Paul Watson says:

      Thank you Dan. Appreciate the reply. I often rely on my intuition, you know that “spider-sense ” one gets when danger is around the corner. I react, quickly before I have to physically encounter the problem. Yea, sometimes I feel like such an idiot for moving to the other side of the road, or about turning abruptly, and I can’t see any danger. But I still have learnt to trust my instinct…

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