Dealing with (Infrequent) Confrontation – Don’t Let It Get You Down!

One of my instant pals, Jake, recently posted about his experience with a rather assertive member of the public, asking for people’s thoughts. Don’t let the rare run in with the public put you off getting out with your camera. Let’s spend a few minutes thinking through it.

Let’s start with the facts.

Read the Arts Law website and download the info sheet. According to The Arts Law Centre of Australia, there are very few restrictions on what you can photograph in normal “street” situations. Their website also states that you can shoot people and things on private land from public land. Familiarise yourself with this advice so that you can be confident about what you can and can’t do.

But there is more to it than simply being “right”. There is no point in being “right” if someone is about to smash your camera on a misconception…

Some guiding principles to help you navigate a confrontation.

Principle 1 : Nobody ever “wins” an argument.

Mostly, what happens, is each side hardens their position and belief in their position. Try arguing politics or football teams with me someday. I try to steer clear of arguments as nobody every changes their mind about something. If someone confronts you bleating on about some imaginary right to privacy, you are not going to be able to convince them otherwise.

Principle 2 : Normal people avoid conflict.

Someone who is prepared to confront you is probably not going to “let it go” easily. Most people avoid interpersonal conflict, even to the point of being completely disadvantaged by not “making a big deal.” These kinds of people can vary from just plain assertive to quite aggressive. They will continue to push their case as long as you engage with them. These people often have an imagined idea of the law gleaned from a few episodes of CSI or Law & Order, which they cannot let go of.

Principle 3 : “Won’t somebody think of the children?”

The kind of person who may confront you is often a shrill defender of some kind of imagined human right and believe monsters are hiding in plain sight everywhere. The usual subjects on their hit list is anyone under 18. Look, I generally avoid obviously photographing individual children as parents are, quite rightly, very protective. But a large group of teenage schoolkids is another affair. Usually the person confronting is not directly related to your subject but feel they have to take it up. These are not people you can reason with.

Principle 4 : The Mall Cop.

In this group are security guards and other workers who are vaguely responsible for a venue or similar. They are often over-officious and quite bored. Questioning you helps kill the time and makes them feel important. They will often threaten to call the police and other authorities. Generally speaking, they are not likely to really do much except get a bit excited. The only exception are bouncers – these are not people to annoy or question. Why would you argue with someone who chooses a job where they have to fight people?


Your Action Plan.

Knowing how you are going to respond to different types of confrontation in advance gives you confidence and the power to not let it overcome you. Most people are sheep and follow orders if given – unless they are prepared to question authority.

I usually wear earphones whilst out, listening to music or the footy, quietly. It is important to still be aware of noises around you, but having earphones in gives you an excuse to ignore people at the first instance.

Rule #1 : Don’t Look Dodgy in the First Place.

There are some very specific thoughts here on “Inconspicuosity” – the art of remaining unnoticed.

Sometimes, the more you try to hide, the more noticeable you become. Always keep moving. Don’t hide your camera. Just point, shoot, and move on. Don’t give people time to think about what you are doing. Don’t linger too long on a shot.

If you try to hide your camera, you may as well get a Pedo-Bear t-shirt to go with it. I have never had a need to hide my camera, and only very occasionally take a “hip shot” – just pointing the camera in the general direction and hitting the shutter button without putting the camera up to your face.

Rule #2 : Keep Moving

If someone does confront you, the easiest thing is to just avoid the situation entirely. Firstly, I don’t even acknowledge the person if I have my headphones on. If the person persists, I make a point of pulling them out and asking what I can do for them. A little bit of time can often reduce their initial courage. But I keep moving. They are interrupting me, without my permission, so I don’t have to engage with them.

Normally there is an escalation process that goes something like this.

What are you taking photos of?

“I am a fine art street photographer” and smile.

I don’t answer anything else really. All other questions from people bent on confrontation are “why” based or “you can’t do that” statements. As I disengage and walk off, I always say “it is perfectly legal for me to take photographs in a public place” – with confidence. But I am always disengaging.

Rule #3 : ABCD – Always be constantly disengaging.

There is simply no point in engaging at all. There is no spot or opportunity that is worth stopping and getting into a slanging match over. You can always come back later in the day. Confrontation is just an energy vampire. Such a drag. Let it go. There is nothing to be gained by proving you are “right”.

Disengaging is the least hassle. You are not going to “win” an argument and change the other person’s mind. The situation is just going to escalate.

Rule #4 : Judo works.

Take a fluid approach – if you know your rights, you don’t have to worry too much about anything serious. If someone threatens to call the police, agree with them, mentioning that they will confirm what you have already said.

Don’t participate in their fantasy. Don’t assent to them inspecting your gear, memory card, or film. It will just embolden them further. Disengage and move on… A repetitive mantra that works!

Rule #5 : Don’t get punched for being a smart ass.

Despite being in the “right”, do not get sucked into arguments. You can never be sure how stable a stranger actually is, or their propensity for aggression. And think carefully about what you shoot. Some situations you might spot as “potentials” for street photography are highly charged. A police arrest. A bouncer arguing with a patron. Someone who has been physically hurt. Photographing these kinds of situations borders on photojournalism and comes with a high level of risk. People are not thinking straight and are likely to lash out at the nearest target.

Being “right” is no consolation if you have a black eye and broken camera. Don’t escalate the situation by arguing.

Disengaging is always the best path – you may not realise the position you are in sometimes. One of the very few times I have been confronted, I found completely confounding. I was on a corner of Spencer Street, looking onto a park. It was only later, when I did a google map search that I realised I was out the front of the Melbourne Remand Centre with a big bertha medium format camera. No wonder I was not welcome, and I was quite glad I disengaged and moved on instead of arguing my “right” to be there…


But don’t sweat it.

I have been pursuing an interest in street photography now for ten years plus. Over this journey, I have been confronted less than ten times. If you worry about it too much, you will start to give off a creepy, stalker feel. Be happy, confident, and friendly. It is often something that new photographers lose sleep over unnecessarily.

If you are being confronted often, then you probably need to get out with another photographer to observe your technique. You might be throwing off a suss vibe to the public without realising it, or taking photos of the wrong things.

Don’t let your fear of conflict keep you on the couch. Manage it with confidence, and keep shooting!


4 Responses to “Dealing with (Infrequent) Confrontation – Don’t Let It Get You Down!”

  1. All good advice As you say it is rare and in my experience it is more often not the people I am photographing. A couple of times I’ve allowed myself to be drawn into an argument and its each tjme been really unpleasant Oddly it happened twice in one day in the mall Often its a lot to do with our own mood and the “vibe” we give off. As for children I have had a few occasions when oarents have challenged me but only on I think two or three occasions have they really objected after I explained what I am doing In fact I once has a parent thank me for photographing their kids and on several occasions parents have asked me to send copies I’ve even had really nice email thank yous when I have sone so NEVERdo I hang around schoola or play areas etc I have a business card that says I’m a social documentary photography with my website and email and I never hesitate to give it to people It has even disarmed over zealous police! Always when confrontation happens it makes me sick with anxiety and doubts about myself and what Im doing. Otgers who feel likewise could do a lot worse than read your advice On my blog and site I have a kind of motto or “guideing principle” Love Compassion and empathy are my guides



  1. Learn to Fear the Missed Opportunity | Inconspicuosity - September 27, 2015

    […] Dealing with Confrontation […]


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