How to do street photography in bad neighborhood

Discussion in 'Beginner Questions' started by chi_siu|1, Oct 26, 2009.

  1. I've been wanting do some street photography in a bad neighborhood in SF for years but never done it cause I can't think of a safe way. I want to take photos of the projects, drug dealing, homelessness, prostitution and poor art students in that area. I don't want to use zoom lenses, maybe a 35mm or 50mm. It was suppose to be a topic I wanted to do in school for my semester final years ago about problem in SF. I never did cause I was kind of scared but i want to do it now. Anyone has this kind of experience that can share with me? Safety tips please.
  2. Small steps work best for this. First of all you WILL bring a bunch of attention to yourself if you go into a not-so-good neighborhood with a camera and the folks there don't know you. If you have access to a car this would be the way to go about it. Remember though a car makes for a really big target should someone take exception to your picture taking.
    Bottom line, it's probably not a good idea, but good luck..
  3. Hire a team of really big, heavily armed bodyguards???? I'm really not sure there is a safe way to do what you propose, especially where it involves drug dealers and prostitutes with overly protective pimps, all of whom value their privacy and will assumme that you are gathering info that won't benefit them in any way!
    If I were going to attempt this, I'd use a camera with a waist-level finder that I could casually use while appearing to be looking in some other direction. Bare in mind also that equipment like Hasselblads, Rollei's, etc., will probably be recognised as being valuable, adding a new demention to the danger involved.
  4. Thanks! What I'm trying to say is how to steal shots and stay away from attention. I think car is a good idea but can't really get involve with the scene. I don't know...guess I'm gonna put this off for some years again.
  5. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator

    "Stealing shots" is an incredibly stupid idea in this situation and will result in lousy shots and putting yourself in danger.

    The way to do this is to visit the area, try to meet some people, explain what you want to do, give them some sample prints that can help them understand, and then go back regularly.
  6. Jeff is right. The only way in is to "move" into the community somehow. Examine your own motives. Why are you taking these pictures? Is it just a "freak show" for you, or do you have something to give back to the community you are photographing?
  7. William Michael

    William Michael Moderator Staff Member

    "I want to take photos of the projects, drug dealing, homelessness, prostitution and poor art students in that area. I don't want to use zoom lenses, maybe a 35mm or 50mm. Anyone has this kind of experience that can share with me?"
    To do this type of work *(bold) you must have the mentality and experience of a seasoned War Journalist / Photographer.
    I have mixed in circles with those people.
    The closest I have pushed my limits is to photograph inside a club, where photography was banned - and that was for a "project".
    I expect if I had been caught I would have lost my camera and maybe a few teeth.
    I knew two of the group which is now referred to as the "Balibo Five" They lost a lot more. . .
  8. I want to point out some of the problems in that area, and also want people to see the human side of a bad reputation area. Mainly for public awareness and I work for public health, maybe my pics can convicnce my boss for a campaign on that area...hehe. I don't think there's a difference here where some photographers go to third world country and snapping shots.
    What is wrong with stealing shots? I suppose all photographers took a lot of pics when people are not aware of it.
  9. SCL


    You're a target with a big red bullseye on yourself, unless you have some local sponsorship. If you work for public health and they are having a fair in the area, you might take advantage of the opportunity to get acquainted with some of the local residents, explain your goal and how it might bring increased awareness to their issues, and see if they will make some introductions. Expect the possibility of losing your camera along the way if things go south.
  10. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator

    What is wrong with stealing shots? I suppose all photographers took a lot of pics when people are not aware of it.​
    In a neighborhood with drug dealing and other crime going on? You have to be kidding.
  11. From reading what you've typed so far, I would advise you to not do this. If you must, you need to start by making one human contact and work out from that. And it will take time without a single picture being made. You must be genuine and true, or they'll detect your bogusness and deal with you accordingly.
  12. If I'm not focusing the crime itself and actually taking pictures of families and students surrounded by problems then it should be a lot better. I'm not taking pictures when the crimes are dealing. More like an environmental thing. Kind of like kids playing in playground but things are also happening on the surroundings. My purpose is to show contrast. I know I'm not suppose to do this but I don't know...
  13. William Michael

    William Michael Moderator Staff Member

    "I want to take photos of . . . drug dealing . . . prostitution . . . in that area. I don't want to use zoom lenses, maybe a 35mm or 50mm . . . [I want to] really get involve with the scene.
    What is wrong with stealing shots? I suppose all photographers took a lot of pics when people are not aware of it."

    I disagree with my colleagues.
    For these shots you do not need: small steps; or body-guards; or to go back regularly and explain what you are doing, nor do you need local sponsorship.
    For these types of shots you need to have the mentality, fibre, metal acuity, resources and backing of a seasoned Front Line War Correspondent.
    You need to know the absolute liability involved and you need convey the understanding of that liability to those who are dependent upon you – it is best you have no dependants.
    Have you researched the "Balibo Five"?
    Their credentials and experience far exceeded yours - this is evident by the Laissez-faire attitude you bring to this discussion.
    But the combined experience, preparedness and credentials with ALL the local communities did naught for the Balibo Five, when the crunch came.
    In my professional opinion, you need to seriously reconsider the projects you wish to take on board: in no way are you prepared or experienced enough for the tasks you have outlined and which I have referenced above in this reply.
    I strongly advise you cease and desist, in this regard.
  14. William Michael

    William Michael Moderator Staff Member

    "I'm not taking pictures when the crimes are dealing. . . Kind of like kids playing in playground but things are also happening on the surroundings."

    When you depressed the shutter, you wouldn't even know if you were . . . or you weren't: (taking pictures of “the crimes are dealing”).

    You are way, way out of your depth.

  15. William Michael

    William Michael Moderator Staff Member

  16. William Michael

    William Michael Moderator Staff Member

  17. I agree I don't have the experience and confidence to do this type of project. But there's no way to practice unless it's real.
  18. Shoot with an Olympus XA or a Minox 35.
  19. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator

    Steve Levine's advice is terrible.
    People watch behavior, they can tell if someone is doing something without seeing the camera, especially if it is a neighborhood that doesn't take well to outsiders. Every stranger gets watched, you think they will miss the camera because it's small?

    Recipe for disaster...
  20. Many people will not go that kind of neighborhood even if they don't carry a camera. You will be safer in third world
    counties. Sandy
  21. rnt


    Use a view camera. Wear shorts and a loud tropical shirt. I remember reading about a photographer who did just that in either Iraq or Bosnia. He'd survived at least as far as the interview. He said that he was so unambiguously not trying to hide what he was doing that people left him alone. Of course they may have thought him insane and left him alone for that reason.
  22. A possible approach. If you're serious about trying to help, then consider volunteering in an organization that does work in that community. You'll meet people and once they don't see you as a threat you can probably convince some of them to let you photograph them. This can work if you want to photograph the people.
    As for safety, you might consider first walking around there in the middle of the day without camera, just to get the lay of the land, perhaps with a friend. Maybe you can strike up a conversation with one of those art students you mention.
  23. I was a teacher for 30 years in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Here's my advice:
    1. Don't do it. Good intentions will not protect you.
    2. If you ignore rule 1, get to know people in the area before you even bring a camera. After you've made contacts/friends only go around with them. I could walk around because people knew me. I wouldn't recommend you try that until people knew and trusted you.
    3. Never shoot drug dealers w/o their permission unless you want them to shoot back. Don't even approach them w/o a contact.
    4. Don't sneak around. Don't shoot anyone w/o permission.
    5. Don't carry a lot of gear.
    6. Only shoot during daylight.
    7. See Rule 1.
  24. why not treat it as a wildlife project. set up in a blind...on a balcony or roof, with an escape route., and a Long lens. It may be the only way to get any images in the area as the "in the scene" idea seems like a bad one.
    I lived in the absolutely worse area of a city (well just on the edge), and even after a year of mingling around the neighborhood and being recognized by the locals, I still would not have felt safe wiping out my gear and snapping a few shots. Even worse would be to try and steal a few. You will be "approached", if you're lucky, after they "only" beat you and smash your gear... they'll ask you if you are a nark.
  25. Oh man...I'm sadly to say the project is almost impossible for me due to my experience and a reality check. I drove by the neighborhood last night after work to get a feel of it and I felt very uncomfortable...everyone stared at me even little kids. The car in front of me got hit by water bottles twice from little boys. Can't imagine walking with a camera. I didn't think it was that bad couple months ago when we're held an event there. People seems nice but poverty drove them to bad choices in life.
  26. 90% of my students were good kids. The really bad kids were a small minority, but in an area with thousands of people, 5-10% comes to a lot of people. What I never understood was why so many of my kids were so good given the environment they grew up in.
    A lot of middle class people pass judgement on these kids (and adults) having no idea of what goes on where they live. Warren Buffet, the financial genius, talks about the "Overian Lottery". Others call it the luck of the draw. I just want people to ask themselves if they were born and raised in one of those neighborhoods, do they think that they would still be the fine upstanding people they are today?
  27. david_henderson


    Look, some people have a social skill that helps them start and conduct conversations comfortably with people who aren't like them at all, and to win them over. You should know whether you're like that or not. If you do, then doing and saying the right things is going to come naturally; If not , no amount of advice or preparation is going to get you what you want, just put you in a tough and potentially dangerous place. If you do what you describe you're likely to have a very short time to do or say the right thing. You won't have time to assess the pros and cons of approach x and y, it has to be fast and natural, not stilted and rehearsed. From what you've said so far, i'd be having doubts over whether |I'd got it.
  28. My advice was based on only losing a $100 P&S when you get your a-- whupped.
  29. People in those neighborhoods are notorious for kicking out outsiders. You won't stand a chance even without a camera.
  30. After I told my approach to a film student, he now wanted to go along and gave me a suggestion. He said we can rent a very good video camera with selective focus and just drive around the neighborhood. Then pick out still frames and edit in photoshop. Hmmmm...seems like a good idea. Do those still frames from video camera have photographic quality? He said the fashion industry is doing it for it must be good enough.
  31. They probably think you're undercover cops. If not, they'll resent the implied voyeurism and act accordingly. You'll be attacked.
    Please don't do it. I don't want to see you on the news. Someone else's enthusiasm in trying to drag you into this does not make it a good idea.
  32. Chi, if it's any consolation, I would feel very uncomfortable making fashion photos for really rich people. I usually bump around the local woods to make a lot of my photos. You can't be everything to everyone.
    Maybe you're just not involved and incorporated into the area enough yet to do a great job at this. I would imagine that the people who go there and do well are probably saying right now, "All I've got are these ho-hum photos of people doing wrong stuff. I want to make a picture of a lion!"
    Besides, if you just "go by" and make some pictures, that's like tourism. Is that what you want?
    And, if you get the "cool" photos of the bad stuff in this world, what about everything else that may be much more boring, but just as much a part of the story? All of that stuff will take time.
    +1 for the reality check. While not impossible, if you have to post a question about how am I going to do this, and your personal safety, then I guess the only prudent answer would be, you're not ready enough to make the photo right.
    I don't do war or crime photography, but I imagine that it'd be better to err on the side of prudence when you feel your task is at odds with your physical and social safety.
    Sometimes when I go into the woods to make some photos, I see these places that look like they would be good vantage points, but for one reason or another, I end up passing them up; frequently it is because I feel that I am prepared enough to get in, but not prepared, at the time, to get back out safe and strong. So, I pass those over. Probably not nearly the same as the crime photos, but I think there's something in there that you ought to feel and decide right with anytime you're doing anything that might cause you trouble later.
  33. I'm pretty sure there's somebody somewhere who would call me out and tell me I'm a wimp for not taking on everything; but, I'm also pretty sure that some of the people I've worked with in blue-collar jobs would be quick to ask me once I got out, "How could you be so stupid, after all we've been through?"
    If it feels like a small challenge that wakes you up a little bit, it's probably a "Go." If you think it's gonna run you over and destroy you, then you need to let it go by.
    I'd say pass this over.
  34. As someone who shoots in these kind of neighborhoods quite frequently I'd like to suggest that you wait until you know more about the people and they know more about you. Read "Gang Leader for a Day" to understand more about working with this segment of the population.

    Please don't drive around with a video camera. You will look like a cop and very well might get shot at. Before we serve any high-risk warrant we drive by the property in question at least twice with a video camera. Not a good idea unless you're wearing a vest and can handle armed threats that might pop up.

    Talk to some local charities that work in the area. Volunteer. Get to know people. That's really your most viable way in.

    If you don't know it already make sure to learn how to read body language. Also learn how to deescalate a situation that is threatening to turn violent/dangerous.

    Be very, very careful.
  35. Mikael, the book you recommended is very close to what I'm trying to do except in a different medium. I'll order the book before I make the decision. I was very childish and immature to not think this through. My amibition blinded me for years but my consciousness did keep me from doing it. I have to admit my motive came from doing good things and some selfishness and desire for a series of photos. I still remember I got the idea from an exhibit for a photographer (forgot the name) in SFMOMA, the work was portraying the war in iraq or afganistan. But all the artworks were fake...the soilders, bombs, tanks, victims were all setups. It's good for Hollywood but I was angry for that type of work being display in MOMA. I felt the photos were not accurate and I cannot trust it. So I wanted to do my own complex project that is real. Not talking about a couple good ones. I want to do a journal and touch upon all perspectives of poverty, struggles and violence that middle class ignores. I don't want the pictures of dealing drugs and money. I want the human side; people working, kids going to school, groceries shoping, etc. when the environment is always a threat. I want to show how people are affected by its environment and no one there to help them. Even though I work for public health, but I really don't know the primary reason for the project. For society or portfolio...I'm not clear.
  36. I wouldn't say childish and immature, just that to really explore any environment, you have to learn about the environment. Think of it as the first steps. In medicine, one of the precepts is , "First, do no harm." By asking questions and working on your feelings, you didn't blunder into a bad situation and didn't get yourself hurt nor aggravate the "bad." Had you had a bad experience, word gets out, maybe even press coverage and the negative reputations get reinforced.
    Your project is just going to take some more time and preparation to accomplish. If you are trying to show "normal" life in a bad neighborhood, there are people who live or work in the area that can provide help to you in studying the locale, whether it's local social service agencies, charities, religious bodies, etc.
  37. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator

    I still remember I got the idea from an exhibit for a photographer (forgot the name) in SFMOMA, the work was portraying the war in iraq or afganistan. But all the artworks were fake...the soilders, bombs, tanks, victims were all setups. It's good for Hollywood but I was angry for that type of work being display in MOMA. I felt the photos were not accurate and I cannot trust it.​
    You have completely misunderstood An-My Lê's work, which is what you appear to be referring to. I suggest reading her statements and some of the critics' writing about it. It was not represented as portraying the war itself.
  38. Walk through the neighborhood everyday (at whichever time you actually want to shoot), with a tiny camera slung over your shoulder without taking a single shot. Gradually spend more time in the neighborhood and then start taking a couple of shots a day (start with architecture shots). Should be possible to do it all in a month.
    Derek and Beverly Joubert have movies where they explain how to film wild animals in Botswana. This is similar.
  39. Wild animals in Botswana are not armed!.I can not believe how naive some people are.
  40. Hmmm, well street photoraphy is all about how you present and express urself. Be presentable and be friendly and I am sure you would get a lot of street potraits.
    I have made a lot of street potraits of people;
    Well, if people refuse immediately say "its okay" and leave it. Sometimes if u r lucky they might call u back.
    good luck!!!! hope u will get the courage to go ahead to ur neighbourhood and get some good pics
  41. Wild animals kill only for food when they are hungry. They never molest and they don't trade in narcotics or other contraband. They never, never break the Jungle Law. Regards, sp.
  42. I'd believe wild animals would be armed to the teeth, and claws of course. As for the Jungle law, I know it but, do they? I'd still make my presence known and the fact that I'm not food, nor carry money for food, nor a threat to their food.
  43. Wild animals do indeed kill for reasons other than food. This is well documented. And irrelevant to this discussion.
  44. I want to take photos of the projects, drug dealing, homelessness, prostitution and poor art students in that area.​
  45. Riley, if you'll read the entire thread in context the original poster has discussed his intentions and motivations pretty thoroughly.
  46. Oh, my apologies. Should have read more carefully.
    It seems that a lot of the time people go into these types of projects for the wrong reasons, and it just isn't good for anyone. The city I'm from has a pretty bad homelesness/drug problem, and there's inevitably a bunch of people wandering around snapping photos like it's a zoo. Doesn't seem to help much.
    Anyway, sorry - you've got good intentions and it sounds like a great project. Hope it works out eventually.

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