Banned. When photographers can’t shoot.

Beneath the partying veneer of the City of New Orleans is a deep religious culture that is wrapped in a shroud of mystery. In 1997 I met Mary Wakefield, a journalist from London who was doing a story on Voo Doo culture in New Orleans. She invited me to come along and shoot pictures. When we got to our destination my camera and I were banned. There was no negotiation, pleading or any of that. I was to leave. Mary very wisely distanced herself from me and did nothing to help my cause. If she had she would have probably been banned as well and missed her story.

It is odd to think of your camera as a liability. Especially when, in most circumstances, it is the golden key to interesting people and places. Understanding cultural taboos as they pertain to photography is a huge part of being a good photo journalist. Unfortunately it is also the most difficult.

Photo journalism is a reactionary profession. A shooter will hear of a story and leap to capture it visually. Rarely, unless you know where you are going to be stationed, do you have the time to know the mores of the culture you’re shooting. Having a strategy to avoid or overcome a bad situation brought about by having a camera can save you and your story.

Respect the situation you are in. If someone is upset by your camera, put it down and cover the lens. You want to convey that you are hearing them. This will give you a narrow window of opportunity to negotiate.

Explain why you are there and think quickly about why your presence benefits the people you are shooting.

Negotiate or bribe to get a limited number of shots. If you can create an opportunity lift the camera to your eye, you can shoot double quick to get whatever you can. It will be better than nothing.

Sneak the shot. This falls under a grey area of personal ethics and safety. You must be sure of your situation, and you must be grounded in your ethics. If you feel that the sneaking the image will not compromise your personal safety or your personal ethics then do it. But keep in mind that the backlash from the photograph can affect your reputation long after it’s been shot. If you compromise your reputation your career can be adversely and permanently affected.

Walk away. Knowing when to leave is probably the most valuable attribute you can possess. In my situation in New Orleans, I was burned, the people I wanted to shoot didn’t want to be shot. There was no reason to compromise my peer, Mary.

However, when I was stationed in Moscow, in 1989, when Gorbachev was in power, there was a fine line between taking advantage of the euphoria that everyone was feeling because the nation was going through a radical change, and crossing the line that the government (I was monitored) didn’t want me to cross. I pushed my luck a few times when I was told to not shoot certain things, and had my camera bag taken away, but I got a few shots. Ultimately I would talk to the right people and I’d get my gear back with a slap on the back and laugh. But there were a few times that I could sense that pushing my luck would have landed me in prison in a country that, at the time, did not stamp my passport. In other words, technically, I was never there if I happened to disappear.