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Meet the Bay Area Photographers Safety Group

by Leon Kunstenaar
Bay Area Photographers Organize for Safety in face of increasing armed robberies
Photographers are being robbed, usually at gunpoint, in broad daylight, especially in popular tourist areas such as the Palace of Fine Arts and Twin Peaks. Within hours, stolen equipment will be on sale in the streets. Camera theft has become a mini-industry proliferating in the Bay Area.*

Members of the Bay Area noted the police have not to date responded to these robberies with any success..**

What this group decided to call The Bay Area Photographers Safety Group held its first meeting on Tuesday, November 22nd. Attending were affiliates of Pro Bono Photo, Jack Owicki, founder of Pro Bono Photo, and Jaron Schneider, editor of the online photography site, PetaPixel. Several other photographers have since joined.

Schneider reported on his interactions with offices of San Francisco DA's Brook Jenkins and the Chief of SFDP police. He was told that until now, the consequences of getting caught for this type of crime were very mild, but that DA Jenkins had a corrective plan. Both the DA and the police Chief complained of a lack of resources needed to do an effective job, which as usual, boils down to funding.

Schneider said that public safety was really the police's job and that, in an ideal world, private individuals should not have to organize for their own safety. However, until the world become ideal, photographers still want to be safe while taking pictures.

The importance of photography to San Francisco was noted. In addition to the thousands of tourists who visit the City, there are countless local photography groups (for example, the 500 members of SF Carnival Photography; 2,200 members of SF Photography Walks; and the 16 Bay Area clubs that make up the Northern California Council of Camera Clubs). And there are of course the many professional photographers that choose to make San Francisco a backdrop for their clients. Attendees reported from news articles and personal experience that photographers from all of these groups are now rethinking whether or not to photograph in the City.

Non-photography organizations are also paying attention. Jack Owicki noted that the organizations that Pro Bono Photo cover have expressed enthusiastic cooperation for helping photographers stay safe during their events. However, because safety issues apply to a wide range of photographers from professionals, to volunteers, to tourists, Owicki suggested that The Bay Area Photographers Safety Group should exist as a separate group, as opposed to being part of Pro Bono Photo.

Other attendees shared their experiences and feelings about safety. One said he felt safer photographing in Paris than San Francisco. Another expressed pessimism about the City government’s commitment/ability to do anything to increase safety for photographers.

In discussing responses to armed robbery, the point was made that non-lethal defenses such as pepper spray actually expose the photographer to a more violent reaction from an armed criminal and, in fact, pepper spray is often particularly ineffective against criminals on drugs. Photographers were encouraged to take safety precautions before, during and after a photo shoot and to insure their equipment.

Pro Bono Photo has developed an initial, but extensive list of safety suggestions for its affiliate photographers. See below.

Several attendees mentioned contacts with various photographic groups and said that they would invite as many photographers as possible to join. The hope was expressed that as the group grew, it might be possible to hire security at covered events.

Photographers who wish to join the group, please send an email to


*In fact, this writer was recently robbed of a camera after covering a demonstration on Bryant Street, just a block from a police station.

**The San Francisco Chronicle reported on November 23rd that money had been found to increase patrols around the Palace of Fine Arts / Chesnut Street. But it noted that this is a short-term solution, since the funding is finite and also depends on police working overtime.


Safety Suggestions For Covering Events


Keep aware of what and who is around you at all times but especially where walking to and from events. Beware not only of loitering people but of loitering cars as possible getaway cars. Switch sides of the street or take other moves to avoid anything that looks troubling. Keep an eye out for stores you might need to walk into.

Don’t pay attention to phone/messages unless you are in a safe place. When you ever start to feel that you are in an unsafe place – and it does happen – learn to listen to that little voice in your head (thank you, Thomas Magnum) and change your environment.


Keep nothing in sight in your car. If there is anything that will be in your trunk, pre-plan so that you either don’t have to open your trunk in public – or have everything ready so that opening and closing it is only going to take a few seconds and won’t be obvious that you are leaving anything behind.

When loading or unloading the car don't gently and carefully arrange or rearrange stuff with doors open. Make it so you can get in and out quickly on the driver's side. Your gear should be packed in/from a back pack at the event with people around. Look around. That car that you think is waiting for your parking space might be a getaway car.

Plan your travel route, transportation, and parking in advance – this is critical at inner city locations.

While street parking may be cheaper, parking garages can be safer. However, broken glass such as at the Stocken/Sutter or 5th/Mission lots and people wandering around the floors suggests a clear avoidance.

Exit and enter your car quickly. On entering, lock the doors immediately and depart the lot asap.

Do not leave anything visible, especially items that would suggest you’re a photographer – such as a tripod.

Don’t leave any electronic devices turned-on. A blue tooth signal can be detected by someone walking by with a cell phone suggesting there is something to steal and worthy of a break-in.


The most dangerous condition is being alone on an empty street. Arrange with others to accompany each other to and especially from events. Both to cars and public transportation. This is one of the main functions of the photo safety group: to let everyone in the group know where you are going so that we contact each other to make arrangements.

Stay near others on bus stops and subway platforms and stay away from the tracks while waiting.

Your press card should only be out during the event. Otherwise thieves may surmise that your generic looking back pack contains equipment.

Don't walk down a quiet street with cameras showing. They should be in a generic looking back pack.

Pepper spray and noise makers can be useful. Test them at home first so you know what to expect. Be aware that it takes several seconds for pepper spray to hurt. That's time enough for someone to shoot. Do not use it when confronted with a gun. Use pepper spray only a last resort in a situation in which you feel you’re in mortal danger. Attackers on drugs may not be phased in the least by pepper spray. And any situation in which actual violence occurs is likely to leave us – the person not used to violent behavior – hurt or worse. Run or hand over your gear and file an insurance claim.]

Don't wear expensive looking clothes or jewelry. Don't use straps or back packs imprinted with camera brands. Back packs should not look like photo back packs which tend to look "boxier" because they contain semi rigid partitions. You can buy nondescript non-camera bags (e.g. Osprey makes one) and also (separately) camera bag inserts which will fit in them. This keeps gear safe without it looking like it is carrying anything expensive

Take everything out of your wallet that would be a real hassle to replace and put it in a neck hanging holder or in a leg holder. The Social Security Administration says to keep the card at home, not on you.

Carry as little money and as few credit cards as possible and in a front or zippered pocket. There are many travel web sites that tell of all the tricks that pickpockets use, check them out.

Deploy and pack away your camera gear while still within the rally crowd. Arrange with people in the group to help each other do this.

When returning to your car or transportation after a march walk quickly and determined, avoid alley shortcuts. However, don't stand out by looking fearful or paranoid. Just because a street has a lot of people on it does not mean it is necessarily safe, i.e., certain sections of Market Street.


Coordinate with event organizers ahead of time about what to look out for and perhaps assigning someone to accompany you to your car or public transportation. They have been very cooperative.

Insure your equipment. The first place to look is with a firm you already do business with, such as where you get your auto, renters, or homeowners insurance. I (Leon) pay $160/year for about $15K of equipment through my homeowner's policy.

List all your equipment's serial numbers and replacement costs as part of your policy. Items like memory cards, camera straps, back packs, clothing, spare glasses, etc. will not be covered under a photo equipment policy

Cover you camera's name plate with electrical tape.

Use air tags.

Again, do not resist someone with a gun.

After the event, put the memory cards in your pocket. If you end up robbed, insured, alive and have the pictures, you will be ok.
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