One day a few weeks ago, I was walking around the King Street area of Old Town Alexandria. I was practicing my street photography techniques with both my Holga 120CFN and my Nikon N60 with a 50 mm prime lens. In particular, I was working on taking candid portraits of people I encountered as I walked around town. A first set of those photos can be seen in this post. But the day ended frustratingly and scarily as I was assaulted by the man I photographed above.
I was down close to the waterfront at the end of King Street when I encountered a man who was very unhappy that I took his photograph. I had turned the corner and saw the man sitting on the bench with his hands behind his head, relaxing. I thought he would make for a good candid portrait, so as I walked by I crouched down and photographed him.
As soon as I stood up to continue walking he leaped up and angrily grabbed my left arm while interrogating me. He wanted to know why I took his picture, who I was, what I was doing, etc. I didn’t really get a chance to answer him because my adrenaline soared in response.
I raised my voice to his level and told him to get his hands off me. I told him what he was doing was assault. But he didn’t seem to care and continued demanding me to answer his questions and to delete the photo or to give him my camera.
I stood my ground refusing to give into his demands and continued to tell him he was assaulting me and that I was calling the police. As I tried to fumble with my phone, I spotted a police officer sitting in his cruiser no more than 25 feet from us. So I walked over to the officer as this guy still held onto my arm.
Immediately the officer jumped out of his cruiser and verbally cut down this man. The officer furiously explained that what the man was doing was assault and that I could press charges. The man let go of me and explained that I took his photo without asking and that’s why he grabbed me. The officer then asked him one simple question: “Were you in a public place when he took your photo?” The man responded that he was and the officer proceeded to explain that I had every right to photograph him while he was in public and that he has no expectation of privacy when he is in a public place.
At this point I was extremely relieved that the police understood the law regarding public photography and that they were on my side. Once the man realized that I could have him arrested he changed his attitude, slightly. I told the police that if the man was willing to apologize to me and that he understood that grabbing someone because they took your photo was wrong, then I wouldn’t press charges. The man flippantly apologized and began to walk away.
This blew the officer’s top. At this point the officer pulled out his handcuffs and told the man to never to walk away from an officer and that he would handcuff him if he didn’t cooperate. The man decided to cooperate and the officer then asked for our IDs to write up a report.
As the officer wrote his report in the cruiser, the man and I stood to the side on the curb. During so the man continued to mock me as a photographer and vaguely threaten to sue me and such while I stopped responding or making eye contact with the man. The officer’s backup arrived and was brought up to speed.
As the two police officers were talking, the man then began slowly approaching the two policemen. The officers noticed and again yelled at him to never sneak up on a police officer. They ordered him to sit on the ground against a fence. The backup officer actually pointed to me and asked him, “Why can’t you be good and be quiet and mind your own business like this guy over here?” I chuckled on the inside about this but remained stoic.
As the officers began to interrogate him about his sobriety (they smelled beer on his breathe), the original officer gave me my ID back and a card with the police report number. He told me I have up to year to change my mind and press charges. He then told me to go home and went back to deal with the other guy.
At this point I walked up the street and headed home.
The situation really shook me up for a couple of days. I was really frightened to do any more street photography. But I eventually realized that I shouldn’t let someone scare me out of my passion for photography. Only a couple days later I was in Chinatown photographing people on the street and had a great time.
In retrospect, I probably should have pressed charges (I still can actually), but I’m not going to. I didn’t want to press charges because I didn’t want to ruin this guy’s life with an assault charge. I don’t know this man but a lot of people in the area are federal workers or contractors, many with security clearances. Getting arrested could easily get someone fired around here. Not that it would have been my fault, but I decided to do the Christian thing and try to forgive.
Admittedly for a few days after the incident I wasn’t willing to forgive. I was angry, confused and frightened. But after I went back out to Chinatown to do some street photography those feelings began to quickly subside. I’ve been forgiven for lots of things over my life by both God and my loved ones. I don’t see why I shouldn’t forgive this guy for a momentary lapse in judgment.
Ultimately, knowing my rights and standing my ground without getting violent helped me out the most. I follow Carlos Miller’s advocacy work regarding photographer’s rights and I am very familiar with my rights in the United States regarding photography. If it wasn’t for his work, my limited understanding of the law and my ability to stay assertive rather than get violent, then things could have been worse.
Looking back on the incident, the only thing that still makes me angry is the crowd. As the man grabbed my arm and we yelled at each other, I also yelled for help and for someone to call the police. A crowd of onlookers began to form, including a trolley driver that got out of his car to watch. But no one did anything to intervene. No one called the police, no one tried to step in. I guess he would have had to start hitting me or something worse to at least elicit someone calling the cops.