"How do I know you're not some kind of…weirdo?"

Warped perceptionI stood on a North Toronto street earlier this week pondering the question that you had just tossed in my direction. If only I hadn’t left my “Non-Weirdos of Canada Club” membership card in my other pants.

This was the second time in about three years  that someone has challenged me for taking pictures on the street. The previous occasion involved a business owner on the Danforth who became quite belligerent after I took a picture of a ghost sign directly above his establishment. By the time he said he was going to call the police on me, I said that I was feeling threatened enough to call them myself, and pulled out my phone to do so. Unsurprisingly, he skulked away when I started dialling. Also unsurprisingly, the business—new at the time—lasted less than two months.

That experience came flooding back into my mind as you continued, “I’m going to go inside now and call the police…” If you’re serious, I’ll wait right here for them. You’ve essentially handcuffed me anyway; if I use this as my opportunity to walk away from your accusations,  it’ll just heighten your suspicions.

Why is it exactly that having a camera and taking pictures in public places marks someone as a weirdo? Or, more commonly these days, a terrorist? Good thing I didn’t have a “professional camera” with me. And even if I am some kind of weirdo, what exactly do you think I’m going to do when I get home with my illicit booty consisting of a picture of a quiet residential street?

“You can’t just go around taking pictures of people…” Actually, yes I can. If I’m standing on the sidewalk, I can take a picture of anyone or anything I can see. I may or may not be able to publish it, but there’s no law preventing me from taking it. That said, there are almost never people in the on-the-street pictures I take, simply because some people don’t like it and I really don’t want to deal with the hassle. Cars and rocks don’t usually get offended when they find themselves in front of my lens. I frequently go out of my way to keep people out of my pictures, and there certainly weren’t any in the two pictures you just watched me take.

“It’s an invasion of privacy…” Cars and grass have no privacy rights. Sorry.

“I can’t just let you come around here, taking pictures of kids…” Excuse me? Do you see any kids anywhere around here? I certainly don’t. I understand that you’re concerned for your children, but don’t accuse me of endangering them by taking a picture of something else entirely while they’re inside a school at least two blocks away.

“Our house was robbed a couple of months ago…” I’m sorry to hear that. Mine was broken into a few years ago and I know how terrible it feels. But I don’t see what that has to do with me unless the guy who broke into your place was armed with a point-and-shoot camera.

“If I see you in the neighbourhood again, acting all weird…” Can you define weird for me? I work just a couple of blocks away and this is on one of my regular commuting routes, so you’re pretty likely to see me again. Carrying my camera and stopping every once in a while to take pictures, is that weird? You might as well just call the police now and get it over with.

“How’d you like it if I took a picture of you?” How do I know you’re not some kind of weirdo? But seriously, go ahead. I’ll even pose for you. You’re welcome. We really should have turned around so that the sun was in front of me; you won’t get any detail in my face with that shot. Oh well.

“Where do you live? How’d you like it if I came to your house and harassed you?” Five minutes ago, I would have been happy to introduce myself and tell you all about what I do with the pictures I take in residential neighbourhoods. I even would have pointed you to this blog. But now that you’ve announced your intention to harass me, no thanks.

“Next time, you should just take your pictures and then leave.” Hmm, that’s exactly what I was doing when you drove your car in front of me and started treating me like a criminal for having a camera. If I’m guilty of anything, it’s of attempting to respond to your questions even though it’s clear you’re not interested in the answers.

But now that I’ve had some time to think about it, let me get back to your original question. Simply put, you don’t know that I’m not a weirdo. And you never will. But I can assure you that carrying a camera, or walking in a residential neighbourhood, or riding a bike, or wearing a purple t-shirt, or even not shaving for a week (guilty!) doesn’t make me any more or less of a weirdo than if I didn’t do any of those things. It’s a sad statement on the state of our society when the mere act of taking pictures is enough to make me a suspect in some imagined crime. Anyway, I’m sure I’ll see you around the neighbourhood again, but it won’t be by my choice.

6 thoughts on “"How do I know you're not some kind of…weirdo?"

  1. Ugh. Its stories like this that make me even more leery of taking street shots.

    I also have a “professional” camera (Canon XTi). I took it to work one day, and was I was walking back into the building I’VE WORKED AT FOR OVER A DECADE, the security guard, who I’ve never seen actually get off his chair, leaped up with a rate of acceleration that would get him Olympic gold if this were a sport, and asked me where I was going. I flashed my security card and without a word, got in the elevator. Maybe its my earring…

    I know what you mean about kids as well. Once my wife and friend of hers and I took her two children (4 and 7) to our local park (again, someplace I’ve been going to for almost a decade). Now, this was the first week with my new “professional” camera, but I wanted to get some “kids in action” shots: rolling down the hill, splashing water, etc. I wanted to try to get this darn shutter speed figured out…Harmless stuff, and I made VERY sure to only get the kids we had brought with us as much as possible. Pretty much every other adult in the park looked at me like I was wearing a raincoat on a sunny day.

    The dumbest “you can’t do that” comment ever made to me: I was standing on my own front porch taking pictures of my own wind vane! I didn’t even notice the family on the sidewalk half a block down…

  2. I remember reading Dylan’s account. As someone who has worked inside the “sensitive building” mentioned in his post, I understand why it warrants extra security. As for whether security or safety is somehow compromised by someone taking a picture of the building—with or without a professional camera—the idea is laughable. It’s as if pictures are somehow equivalent to the blueprints that allowed the Rebel Alliance to find the one weakness in the Death Star, thus enabling them to blow it to smithereens. Have to keep those snapshots out of the hands of the enemy!

    As for whether the building is some kind of secret, that’s hard to believe when the City of Toronto issues a media advisory containing the building’s address and function, then asks the media—in the same release, no less—not to report on it. And they harass people just for taking pictures in the neighbourhood? Sheesh. Maybe they should remove the giant brass letters in the lobby that spell out—in even more detail—the building’s function. Nah, better just to keep people from taking pictures of it. Then no one will know where it is or what’s inside.

    The problem I see is that some people seem to have lost the ability to filter information for themselves. Instead of evaluating other people’s actions in context, they simply consult a mental checklist of what they’ve been told are suspicious behaviours (“Taking pictures? Check. Professional camera? Check. Terrorist? Must be!”). Yay, we’re all suspects.

  3. I work half a block from the headquarters of the Canadian Army in Ontario (which is called some dumb thing like “Land Force Central Area) or something.

    Before 9/11, it was festooned with all manner of identifiers: flags, HUGE sign, lettering on doors and windows, etc. You couldn’t miss it.

    Now? Er, not so much. Nary a trace that the army is still there (and I believe they are). Now, it is in a very architecturally nice and interesting building to photograph, and I can understand the security aspect, with our troops in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s use of suicide bombers, etc. But if you don’t know the army is even there, what can they do? It is a dilemma, like you mention about the press release above.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/10212406@N06/2057293803/in/set-72157603273008182/#/edit

    As well, I don’t think enough people are informed how relatively inexpensive “professional” cameras (and lenses) are these days. I’m an amateur, full stop. I don’t make any money off my hobby, and don’t expect to. My 300mm lens was part of the deal (geeze, don’t they read the Best Buy flyers?). I’ve been hassled because of that lens STANDING BESIDE SOMEONE TAKING PICTURES WITH A CELL PHONE, who is standing beside someone with a point and shoot.

    Geeze, just because I can’t disguise it…

  4. It’s really bizarre that some people (especially security types) have come to equate “SLR” with “troublemaker.” And the bigger the lens, the more trouble you are. If they’re really concerned about people taking pictures for nefarious purposes, they shouldn’t worry about the guy hauling his big honking kit around in plain view; they should watch for the guy with the buttonhole camera in his shoe.

    I also have a “professional camera” and, like you, am pure amateur. I don’t even carry it with me most days. It’s funny that people never look at my bike or power tools and ask if I’m a professional cyclist or cabinet maker, but that’s always the first question when the SLR comes out. And it’s been like that for the 20+ years I’ve been using SLRs, even when I was using really cheap and banged up ones.

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