Break It In, Play It Safe
A Travel Essay
What’s wrong with this picture? You’re lucky enough to be going on a photo safari in some exotic locale half way around the world. You want to be well equipped, so now you have a new fanny pack with a major camera brand logo on it, a new name brand photo backpack, new safari clothes (khaki of course) and maybe a new camera as well. Oh, and don’t forget the new hat. You’re lookin’ good and ready to go. However, there is a problem. In the eyes of people in most parts of the world you are probably advertising yourself as a “rich gringo.” For the more aggressive opportunists in these areas, you become their prime target. This is not to say it is at all possible to just blend in with the native population, even without the new equipment and cloths, but it’s not in your best interest to wave flags and draw attention to yourself and your assets.
New equipment can also turn into an expensive mess. Never, I repeat — never, take new equipment on an important, once-in-a-lifetime trip unless you have first taken the time to become familiar with it. In the case of a new camera, shoot some images with it, evaluate your results, learn to use your equipment before you leave home. New photo gear that you don’t know how to use is more trouble than it’s worth. To be comfortable and safe, take equipment and clothing that has been “broken in.”
No one wants to be a victim of crime. The best policy is not to take unnecessary risks. Be aware of your surroundings at all times. When I lost all the film I had purchased for a trip to the western United States because I thought it would be OK to leave it in a cooler on top of the cab of my pickup truck as I slept inside, I was obviously not being aware of my surroundings. Had I not been so weary from the road, the bars on the windows of the campground office might have provided a clue. Duh. Point is — why make yourself a target? Common sense should apply to all activities when traveling in the United States or outside the country.
You can’t always be totally alert and aware – we all get weary. This is one reason I prefer to use a small backpack or fanny pack for my camera equipment when traveling. The fanny pack keeps my equipment at my side and I don’t have to worry about an unattended camera bag taking off. Yes, it happens all the time. While on a group trip to Argentina, a fellow traveler who was standing a few feet away from me in the lobby of a very nice hotel in Buenos Aires, with a large number of people who were part of our group all around, had his video camera stolen. With that many eyes and ears around, it is hard to believe a thief could be so slick as to not be seen walking off with a camera bag. The victim had set the bag down and turned his eyes away for just a couple of seconds. That’s all the time it takes for you to become separated from your camera equipment, especially when you are focusing your attention — like, say, on the image in your viewfinder. If your equipment is not attached to your body, it might sprout legs and walk away.
At times, I find myself uncomfortable being the object of intense attention as I throw caution to the wind by wondering about a strange environment alone with a camera around my neck. Even one other person being with you lessens the risk considerably. This is not to say I won’t find myself doing the same thing again — hopefully soon. However, I have been to some sketchy locations where I pack my camera away and hope no one has seen me with it earlier in the day. I do try to be aware of my situation and alert to what is going on around me.
Just as a comfortable pair of shoes make walking more pleasurable, camera equipment that you know well will let you be more creative and productive. The less time you spend “fiddling” with your equipment, the less of a target for unwanted attention you are. Be discrete, be safe. It’s true, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. A little common sense, a reasonable amount of caution, and equipment you know well will help you have what every traveling photographer wants wherever they may go — a happy, safe, productive trip.