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Blend in with the Background

Do you want to be a successful and safe Travel Photographer? Then make sure that you Blend in with the Background.

There are a number of reasons why, as photographers, we might wish to be un-obtrusive:

  • Safely of the person
  • Security of possessions
  • Candid photographs
  • Involvement in events
  • Attention of officials

Safely of the person: Of prime concern to any traveller, and especially the Travel Photographer is one of personal safety. We shouldn't let our interest, hobby or job put that in jeopardy. Yet walk around with an expensive camera on view in some parts of the world and that is precisely what you are doing: putting your own life at risk. An expensive camera is often worth more than a year's salary in many countries you might visit, where people survive on a dollar or so per day. People may have no compunction in attacking you to get hold of what, to them, represents a small fortune. You won't be able to discuss or bargain with them. They are frightened and greedy individuals, frequently on drugs, who won't hold your life of any value if they see you stopping them from getting what they want.

Security of possessions: Even if you don't get hurt during a robbery, you aren't going to be happy to lose some or all of your camera equipment. Not only will the finanacial loss be annoying, but the fact that you, a Travel Photographer, now have no equipment to carry on the trip or journey with could be a much bigger problem. Even if you have the spare money with you, there may not be a camera store where you can buy a substitute for a thousand miles.

Candid photographs: When photographing people, it is nice to have the choice whether to take a candid shot or ask for a posed photo. If people have already noticed you wandering about with a camera in hand, you will lose the chance of the first option. Even if people don't think you may want to photograph them specifically, they will still understand what your general intentions are, and want to watch what will happen. They will stop the tasks that they are currently performing, and may call friends and family over to look at you. The photos that you take will be substantially different from what they might have been, and could even have lost most of the spontaneous appeal that attracted you to the scene in the first place.

Involvement in events: Even if we have no intention of becoming involved in a riot, rally, or political demonstration that we might stumble across when wandering the world to take Travel Photographs, events can sometimes spiral out of control, and our possession of a camera at such times may not be helpful. A foreigner with a camera often says just one thing in the minds of many people: Press and the Media. Press photographers are often a target for abuse or attack from both sides of the demonstration: the police and authorities think you want to capture un-necessary violence or lack of personal freedom for your newspaper in the West, whilst the demonstrators see you as a tool of the multi-national media companies, and a tool of the rich. You don't have body armour or a baton either, so you are worth puching a little, anyway, to vent some frustration.

Attention of officials: Whilst most members of the police and authorities in the countries you visit are used to the fact that foriegn tourists spend all of their time taking photographs, they will be used to tourists with small, handheld cameras that flash a lot. Present yourself with a couple of large SLRs hung around your neck, and maybe a tripod as well, and the authorities can get interested in a way that you would rather they didn't. It is unlikely that any self respecting spy would use cameras so blatantly, but there are other possibilities that might occur to them: the press, or a professional. In many parts of the world, investigative journalism is unheard of amongst the locals, and unwanted from the foreigners. An official may demand to see identification and check or even confiscate cameras if they suspect that you are working as a journalist. If they suspect that you are a professional, then you may require special permission to take photographs, even if a hundred tourists are doing exactly the same thing without it. It can be useless to argue the point. In many parts of the world, even if the authorities don't *really* susupect that you might be with the press or working as a professional photographer, they will *say* that they do as a pretext to asking for some payment, to *let you off* the charge.


We have seen a number of reasons why a Travel Photographer should try and blend in with the background, so how can this be achieved? Its not always easy. If your racial type is different from those of the majority in the country that you are visiting, you will already stand out. The reaction to foreigners in some countries can be surprisingly different from what you are used to back home: sometimes good, sometimes bad. To be a foreigner is one thing, but to be a foreigner with a camera is something else again. The possession of a camera, especially a big and expensive looking one, can cause a variety of reactions. As a very minimum, if you are trying to capture the essence of a location then the last thing that you want is a string of children running along behind you, clamorously shouting for one school-pen, one chocolate, one Birr, or whatever else the last group of tourists dished out.

We are unlikely to be able to hide completely, but the more we can blend in with the background, the easier our job as photographers will be. Its all a question of degree. Here, then, are some ideas to help:

  1. Dress Conservatively: Don't wear anything too unusual. The more you look like the locals, the less notice you will get, though be careful of going too far. A Western face in full local dress will be quickly noticed, and such an unusual event will be the source of much attention. Better to stick to the universal shirt and dark trousers, with which you will blend in anywhere.
  2. Dress as a Tourist: If there are a lot of tourists around, dress like one. You won't fool anyone anyway, so dressing like a tourist will help you blend in with the masses that snap away regardless. A tourist who takes a photo of the wrong item will just get a finger wagged at him by the guard, whilst a professional who does the same thing may get arrested.
  3. Don't Advertise: The expensive brand-names of the world are on everyone's lips these days, and many people have an idea which brands are cheap and which are expensive. Proud though you may be of your latest purchase, there is no point shouting to the world about it by using a neck strap with the manufacturer's name and camera model number stamped on it. Use a thick felt pen to write over the branding, or buy a more anonymous strap from your local camera store. Scuff out the model number on your camera body - it will then only be recognised by other enthusiasts.
  4. Disguise Expense: The more you can hide the true value of things, the less they will attract attention. Your camera bag should be as scruffy and battered as possible. If it doesn't look like a camera bag at all, even better.
  5. Keep things Hidden: Don't wander about with all your cameras on display - get them out when needed. Keep your spare in its bag until you are ready to use it. Don't sit with a camera in your lap: put your coat over it instead, hold it between your knees, or between you and a wall. Who knows when a person may strike a particular pose, and if they haven't seen your camera at the ready, they won't be expecting you to quickly raise it to your eye for a shot.
  6. Don't make Eye Contact: People recognise eye-contact on a sub-concious level. A small amount of eye contact is normal as we all look about us in a crowded street or market scene. A little more is tolerated, especially if the subject is an attractive woman, well used to the stares of men. Any more than that, though is unusual, and people start to wonder just why you are looking at them so much. If you have a camera in your hand, they will soon put two and two together, and guess that you are sizing up your next photo.
  7. Get yourself Ignored: When you arrive at a new scene, the temptation is to start taking photos straight away, but do that and you will be of as much interest to the people there as they are to you. Candid shots will be impossible. An alternative plan is needed. They've all seen your camera, so take 3 or 4 shots initially, then sit at a cafe, buy a cup of tea, and wait a while. The people who are staring will soon get bored, and even the children will stop pestering you eventually. Take a photo every now and then, just so people get used to seeing you use the camera. Once they have all returned to what they were doing, you can now start to really take photos, and the candid shots you wanted will be there again.
  8. Hide behind others: If photographing some action where plenty of people are present, the gaps between bystanders can often be an excellent location for candid photography. Select a pair of bystanders who are talking together, and use their cover as a vantage point for you shots. Of course you won't be hidden completely, but some of you will be, and the more that is hidden, the less you will be noticed: its all a question of degree.
  9. Use Gadgets: It is possible to buy right-angled lenses to help take candid shots. These devices look like a normal telephoto lens, but halfway down the body have a hole in the side: an internal mirror directs the view from the side of the lens rather than the front. I am not in favour of these for three reasons: (a) The quality of such devices is poor, and the mirror can get very dusty. (b) If someone *does* spot you using it, then it is obvious that you are up to no good, whereas with a normal lens, you might stray on a subject *by mistake*. (c) They are much longer than a normal lens, and thus will attract unwanted attention just by that fact.

Some final comments about Blending In: for security reasons mentioned above, we should not advertise ourselves even when we are not taking photographs. Keep cameras hidden in your hotel room, so as not to tempt a maid or cleaner. Use hotel safes when available - they often have room for a camera body and a couple of lenses as well as your travel money and documents. For more bulky bags, you should chain them to an imovable object such as bed or radiator. You might like to try a PacSafe mesh protection, but use it inside your bag, not around it, as that way from the outside it does not appear that any special means have been taken, thus alerting someone that there is something of value inside. You can even buy a movement alarm for your bag or suitcase that will set off a loud noise if it is physically disturbed, though these should only be used in a temporary situation, like an airport or railway waiting room. Don't leave them connected to your bag in your hotel room if you are away for the day, as the cleaner may knock your bag and set it off quite inadvertently, and then have no means of shutting the alarm off. The guests in an adjacent room, sleeping late after a difficult flight, will not be best pleased with such devices!


Read other articles in the Tim's Tips series...

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