The Life in My Years

An anthology of life

“Renowned Bay Area wildlife photographer robbed of camera at gunpoint outside of Oakland park.”

That was the headline of a story in the June 5th edition of The San Francisco Chronicle.

I was initially made aware of this story while watching the local television news (link here). Stories of photographers getting relieved of their prized, and very expensive equipment, while still relatively rare, are becoming more and more prevalent, and each new story gives me more pause.

This most recent story has left me shaken. Maybe it’s because of the fact that the photographer is in his early seventies and I’m right on the cusp of seventy. It wasn’t so many years ago that I felt less vulnerable. Now, in my older age, I’ve begun to appreciate the feeling of vulnerability that can dog those of us who are getting up there. In retrospect, whatever fearlessness that I might have felt during my younger days was grounded in a large measure of foolishness. Regardless of age, we’re all potential victims, especially when we’re packing around thousands of dollars worth of photographic equipment. Or maybe it’s just that, over the years, trying to go about a normal life has become more and more dangerous.

Maybe it’s the location of the incident that’s left me rattled. Joaquin Miller Park is high in the hills above Oakland’s urban center, part of a chain of forested regional parks where I used to go running. That I’ve always considered the regional parks to be crime free havens is another example of misplaced assurance (just ask any female jogger who carries pepper spray or has as her running partner a large dog with a large set of teeth).

There are few things that I enjoy as much as going out on a photo excursion, but, as I hear more and more stories of photographers being mugged, the enjoyment wanes as trepidation increases.

Over the years I’ve felt the need to establish some rules, which include:

Stay away from the peaks. There is no better city panorama to be found in San Francisco than the view from Twin Peaks. That said, I wouldn’t go to Twin Peaks with or without my camera, ever since the story broke a few years ago about a television news crew that was robbed of their equipment at gunpoint. Once a romantic overlook, Twin Peaks has become known more for muggings than for the view.
No photo art at the Fine Arts. I stopped going to the Palace of Fine Arts when word got out among muggers and smash and grab thieves that the area is a target rich environment. The Palace of Fine Arts has long been a favorite background for wedding photos, but, in recent years, photographers have increasingly declined to accept jobs to shoot at the Palace of Fine Arts.
Travel light. While filming a course at San Francisco’s Crissy Field, an instructor for the photo website Kelby One, set up his camera on a tripod, walked a short distance away and then watched helplessly as a car stopped and a passenger jumped from the car and stole the gear. Recognizing that the more I carry, the more vulnerable and profitable I appear, I assiduously consider what equipment I need and what I can do without. Am I really going to use that tripod? Do I need a macro today?
Know when to say no. When I feel like the environment might be a bit iffy, I’ll shoot from my car or just blow off the shot and the location completely.
Stop, look and listen. Wherever I am, I always keep my head on a swivel, not an easy or a pleasant thing to have to do when trying to engage in photography.
NOakland. Oakland has long been 100 percent out of the question. Part of the reason for that is that I’m more acquainted with San Francisco than I am with Oakland. Most of the reason is that Oakland is, plain and simple, more dangerous
Strip down (the car). Whether I’m going out for a photo op or just visiting San Francisco, or Oakland, or San Jose, I empty my car COMPLETELY (I mean COMPLETELY. No spare dimes in the cup holder) and I make sure that I’ve left the storage area in my hatchback uncovered. If it’s too warm for the jacket I brought, I stuff the jacket in a bag and shove the bag in the spare tire compartment.

Quitin’ time?
Maybe it’s time to just give up on San Francisco. In researching for this post, I came across an article in the website PetaPixel documenting incidents which illustrate that you aren’t even safe once you’re in your car and driving home. Thieves will follow you to your car and then follow you home or, as in one instance noted in the article, thieves are brazen enough to break into your car as you’re in the car, stuck in traffic. If I want a hobby with the potential of getting myself killed I can take up base jumping or wingsuit flying. Unless you’re a correspondent in a war zone, photography should be safe and benign.

Vox pop
But, back to the story about Mr. Roach, the wildlife photographer. Mr. Roach was gratified to find that, in the end, some of his faith in the goodness of people was restored. His post on the website Nextdoor, relating his experience, was met with a wave of community support, along with a GoFundMe campaign started by a total stranger. As of this writing, the GoFundMe raised over $13,723 before being paused. That’s the good news.

The discouraging news comes via Twitter, the sociopath Elon Musk’s personal manure pile (No, I do not have a Twitter account. I do lurk though, whenever I feel the urge to go dumpster diving). The comments are a sad commentary.

Not at all unexpected were suggestions that Mr. Roach wouldn’t have been robbed if had he been carrying his own gun. Of course, this is America where a gun is often viewed as the universal elixir for societal inconveniences. Certainly, Mr. Roach could’ve carried a gun but what good would it have done given that he was surprised by the assailants who were themselves armed? The fact that the assailants were gun toting teens (that were likely stolen from “law abiding” and, apparently, careless citizens) is just more proof of how serious America’s gun problem has become; a problem that won’t be solved by putting more guns in circulation.

Other commenters suggested that it’s all the fault of the “liberal left,” and its “soft on crime,” policies. It is true, that property crimes are lower on the lists of both police and prosecutors.

Maybe Mr. Roach came closest to getting it right when he said, “They were young kids, clearly somebody’s telling them to do what they’re doing and teaching them what to do. They’re as much victims as I am, if you ask me.”

So, whatta ya gonna do about it?
As I took my walk this morning (sans camera and with my large dog) I considered the problem and possible solutions.

Walk around strapped? A civilized society that relies on the arming of its citizens in order to secure civility has stopped being civilized. What does it say about a society in which people almost feel compelled to arm themselves in order to feel some sense of security?

More police presence, more investigative work, more arrests and more prosecutions? Sure. But we’d better be ready to spend more on police, on prosecutors and on prisons. We’ll have to accept the idea that prisons may sprout up near our neighborhoods. And don’t start whining about the cost of incarceration. Want to avoid recidivism? Stop allowing prisons to be warehouses and be willing to spend more money on rehabilitation and job training.

Mark Twain put it succinctly, “Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail. What you gain at one end you lose at the other. It’s like feeding a dog on his own tail. It won’t fatten the dog.”

Maybe we should spend more money and more energy on the front end and improve schools, value teachers and pay them accordingly while generally increasing opportunity. Maybe we should stop and consider the repercussions of our growing income inequality.

In the meantime, I guess I’ll just limit my photo excursions even more and keep hoping that I won’t end up as the subject of a news story about a photographer being mugged.

To my readers (And the questions don’t necessarily have to relate specifically to photography):
Do you feel vulnerable when you’re out shooting?
Has that sense of vulnerability increased over the years?
What precautions, if any, do you take?
Have you eliminated places and sites that you once thought safe that you now consider too risky?
What do you think are some solutions?

16 thoughts on “Warning: Use of this device could result in serious injury or death to the operator

  1. mistermuse says:

    Even the 1970s TV detective, Kojak, wouldn’t be safe using a Kodak these days.

    1. Paul says:

      They’re merciless. They’d probably mug him for his lollipops.

  2. Fortunately, I still feel safe where I live. But I am more aware than ever. And I do worry about what might happen someday. Sadly, we will never all agree on the same solutions for the problems our nation faces. It is heartbreaking 💔

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Lisa,
      “Sadly, we will never all agree on the same solutions for the problems our nation faces.” Well, I think that a majority are of a single mind as to how some of our problems might be solved. The problem is, those who sit in power listen to money over constituents.
      During three weeks in Spain I never once felt any fear over being mugged by a robber armed with a gun.
      Sadly I don’t think that any workable solutions to our problems will be found during my lifetime. I can only hope for better things for my children and my grandchildren.
      Thank you for reading and commenting.

      1. Yes, indeed you make a good point. Well, let’s try and stay hopeful, and I hope you have a great weekend, Paul!

  3. Toonsarah says:

    This isn’t something I’ve heard of as a concern here in the UK, but I’m not saying it wouldn’t happen (although here you’re more likely to be robbed at knife point than gun point, knives being far easier to come by). Certainly mobile phone theft is a big issue, usually a grab and run crime while the phone is in use. There are a few places here where I might feel uncomfortable using an expensive camera and certainly some abroad. When we were in Medellín (Colombia) recently we were warned by a guide not to walk through one small part of the city centre with our cameras visible. Generally in dubious areas I find a small pocketable point and shoot camera a better choice as you can keep it tucked in a pocket or bag when not in use and in any case it looks less valuable and therefore less worth stealing.

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Sarah, No doubt it isn’t a concern in the UK. You folks don’t have a rampant gun problem and many of the camera thefts here are carried out by thieves who are armed with guns. Cell phone theft seems to be a universal problem. During our trip to Spain I felt safe though I did stay aware of my surroundings. I had heard that Barcelona can be problematic so I amped up my vigilance during the time that we were there. At no time did I worry about having a gun stuck in my side. The pocket camera is an idea that I may have to look into, though I’m going to be cutting back on my trips to San Francisco.
      Thank you for reading and commenting.

  4. alison41 says:

    Par for the course in South Africa. Crime is very high here. I never drive with open windows, and always lock the doors. I’m super careful not to leave anything valuable on the seats. Hyper precaution is a way of life here.

  5. Anne Sandler says:

    This is always on my mind. I carry one camera and one lens or an extra lens on a small bag around my waist. I go out with a group to do photography. We are all seniors and stick together. Also we try to pick venues where there are people walking around. Our gun laws do need to be changed. In Australia, it’s against the law to own a gun.

    1. Paul says:

      Good precautions, Anne. I usually keep to high traffic areas as well.
      “Our gun laws do need to be changed. ” In other states they are being changed – in the wrong direction.
      Spain has VERY strict gun laws, so I felt pretty safe. There’s also a large police presence in the cities.
      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  6. Steve Johnson says:

    I’ve been wanting to comment on this.

    These days, unless my dogs go with me, or I’m shooting with friends or a client, I just don’t chance it and stick with my phone. I’m pretty paranoid with my gear, which stems from all my years of living in Hayward. I’m aware of whose around me, including who’s leaving at the same parking area at the same time. It’s kinda sad.

    When my friend and I go out to San Francisco for Fleet Week, we always pay for a roundtrip pedicab ride. The + mile walk from the Embarcadero station to Aquatic Park, then back again is too much for me. But even if I felt healthy, I’d still take the ride as it’s gets us out of the crowded walkways & harm. Though, the ride home on BART is sure is sketchy. It does have me thinking if going out there is worth it, anymore.

    Be safe out there!

    1. Paul says:

      Hi Steve,
      “It’s kinda sad.” The understatement of the month.
      I think my San Francisco days are numbered and when I do go, there will be a lot of places off the itinerary, such as the Mission, Fort Point, Union Square, Fisherman’s Wharf. I suppose that some would depend on the time of day.
      Your idea of who’s leaving a parking area at the same time is one I should take note of.
      Taking Lexi along on a shoot is kind of out of the question. The stabilizing system on my gear isn’t quite stout enough to absorb the pulling, jumping and tugging.
      I felt incredibly safe in Spain. There’s a noticeable police presence in many areas and Spain doesn’t have a 2nd amendment and does have real, honest to goodness gun laws. That said I did latch on to my bag, making certain it was either over my shoulder or in my wife’s possession while I was actively involved in shooting. In Madrid I had no qualms about bringing my tripod for some nighttime shots on Gran Via at 11 at night. Plenty of people and plenty of police.

  7. robinwinter says:

    I don’t photograph landscapes very often but I do paint plein air, (as Robin Gowen,) which means a similar pursuit plus a lot of vulnerability. To deal with this, I either plan to go out with other painters, or my husband accompanies me, and most of the time we are in areas we know fairly well. (I’m amazed at how differently paintings of the same view will emerge from under the brush when I think I already know every hill and tree. Repetition doesn’t mean copy– far from it.)

    I also have done a fair bit of work in two of the University of California Reserves, which means restricted access– everyone who comes in, registers. For photographers looking for landscapes, these reserves might be a good opportunity. Call the office for permission ahead of time, because policies and availability do vary according to season and the other groups doing research in the reserves.

    Perhaps the biggest advantage I have in long hours spent painting is that I am rarely near other people, or centers of human habitation, and the kind of equipment I have, though quite expensive, is battered, and requires a level of familiarity to give it ‘value’. I don’t expect to see a headline “Plein Air Painter Plundered of Pigments” any time soon. I hope I’m right about that!

    1. Paul says:

      I’ve seen your work online. Very nice – but I still had to look up plein air painting. I’ve seen painters at out at Crissy Field and the Marina Green in San Francisco quite often.

      For me, it’s put a crimp in urban photography and some of the Bay Area regional parks. I’m starting to do a project on suburban life and I feel pretty safe with that. That said, I’m always open to options so I checked on some of the UC reserves and there are plenty in the Berkeley and Davis spheres. Thank you for the tip. I’ll pass it on to a couple of photographer friends.

      If we ever get to the point that there’s a market for fencing brushes and easels then we’re far gone, beyond any possible redemption.

      Thank you for reading and commenting

  8. Paul, This blog might put a crimp in our road trips. Our teardrop trailer doesn’t have any storage space so our tow car is ALWAYS filled with personal gear: clothing, cameras, binoculars, etc. We have rarely felt unsafe although thoughts of our car and contents in a crowded tourist parking lot have invaded our peace of mind on hikes in the natural world. We have traveled extensively in the US and Canada – the latter with less anxiety.
    Oh, to go back to the days when the NRA focused on hunter safety for hunters of game animals rather than promoters of handgun and AR-15 sales. As a teen in rural NY I did bring home small game as food for our table. Hunting for food seems less common with White Tailed Deer becoming pests with few wild predators to control their population. We now live in a world where, “I’m protecting what is mine and if I don’t have much, I’ll steal it.” Another tragedy of inequity between the haves and have-nots. Stewart

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Stewart, I’m not certain how much of a crimp it will put.
      I think you should take precautions when you can in urban areas and in some particular touristy areas. My post focused mostly on San Francisco and some of the East Bay Regional Parks. Sad to say, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that major parks such as Yellowstone and Yosemite might require precautions.

      When I took my road trips through the Southwest, the Midwest and the Mountain States I had no cares at all. Thieves are looking for target rich environments. That’s places like the parking lot at the Golden Gate Bridge viewing area. They aren’t going to mess around with a dirt lot at the Cadillac Ranch in Texas.

      Before leaving on a trip I would do some research on the internet to determine if any of the places that plan to visit have problems with theft. You’re planning a Hwy 395 trip. I don’t think there would be any problems along that route. Reno maybe. It all depends on where you plan to go.

      Finally, I’m not going to let criminals completely run my life. I’ll still go to San Francisco, but I will be even more vigilant than I have been.

      Thank you again for reading and commenting.

Would love to hear from you

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