Angry Dude Flips Bird

Dealing with confrontation as a photojournalist

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Who the hell is this guy? And why is he holding a can of lager in one hand, and giving me the Finger with the other?

We have to go way back to the winter of 2005 to get a bit of background story for today’s journal post, which I’ve decided to call “Angry Dude Flips Bird.” 

I was a 22-year-old wannabe photographer and on work experience at the Derby Telegraph (my future employer). I spent most of the week with a guy called Matt (great name) and he was fantastic at answering my questions and talking me through his thought-making processes during each photoshoot. 

Growing massive balls immediately

One afternoon we were sent to stand outside the court house in the city centre, where we were to wait for a local politician who had been accused of doctoring photos of naked children. For me it was the first time I’d been in a situation like that, and I didn’t know what to expect. I was excited, though.

We stood and talked about what would happen when he finally turned up, and I remember feeling anxious, nervous and cold all at the same time. And suddenly there he was, walking down the road with his partner.“Are you going to go and get him?” Matt asked me. All I could do was shake my head and watch in awe as Matt boldly strode forward, his camera swinging through the air as he brought it to his face. 

Oddly enough, Matt knew the politician in question, and they’d been in each other’s professional company on more than one occasion. Which is why I found it even harder to believe this was happening. In the blink of an eye Matt was in this guy’s face, walking backwards as he papped away. The politician smiled nervously for the camera. Was it automatic, I wondered, or had he been preparing for it all morning?

For me I was simply amazed that Matt had been able to react so swiftly and with full confidence. It would take me another five years to grow balls that big!

“I’m going to stab you to death if you don’t fuck off”

So let’s fast forward to modern(ish) times and to 2010 in particular. Standing outside courts trying to snag bad guys has become a weekly, sometimes daily, occurrence, and it doesn’t get any easier. The only difference now, is that I have an editor breathing down my neck if I don’t deliver the goods, so not getting the shot is no longer an option.

For a while there was a temporary bus shelter outside Derby Crown Court, which was a perfect hiding place for us photographers. It gave us a valid reason to be standing there in the freezing cold, rubbing our hands, with a huge lens sticking out of our jackets. Hey, maybe we were nerdy bus spotters! But when it was finally taken down I had to except the fact that I was going to be noticed. 

And noticed I was on more than one occasion. Dozens and dozens, in fact. Most of the time we didn’t actually know what the accused looked like, so we had to snap everyone that moved and then head inside to the courtroom to identify them. So you can imagine how pissed off the general public become when you snap them walking past for no apparent reason. The gentleman above was no exception.

He came staggering towards me with the beer in his hand and a look on his face that said, “I’m going to stab you to death if you don’t fuck off!” I snapped away, not sure if he was my man or not. 

A physical confrontation

Of course, he was in my face within seconds and I prepared for a physical confrontation. Perhaps a shove or a prod to the chest. Instead he started swearing and shouting, whilst demanding to know what I was up to. Naturally I told him – after all, it wasn’t likely he was the Confident Fraudster I was looking for. At this point he softened, especially when I told him my job was to photograph everyone entering court and that he shouldn’t take it personally.

It turns out that he had a date with the judge, and was there to show that he no longer had a drinking problem. It was 9:30am.

After saying to me, “I hope you get the fucker,” he necked the rest of the can and threw it in to the bin next to us. I watched as he stumbled up the steps and fumbled in his pockets for a cigarette. I remember hoping, for his sake, that the judge wouldn’t be close enough to smell his breath that morning.

Incidents like this weren’t exactly rare, either. Learning to dodge, avoid, and blag your way out of potential fights is an important part of becoming a seasoned photojournalist, so make sure you’re well armed. One freelance journalist I met from the national newspapers was a general when it came to identifying his victims. Not wanting to pussy-foot about, he would arrive outside court and come straight over to the freelance photographer the paper had hired to get the ‘snatch’ as we call it in the industry. He’d scan the mass of folk who had gathered outside to smoke a fag and make an informed decision based on the info he already had. Then he’d march over to them and ask for a light as he opened a packet of cigarettes. Within seconds they were having a friendly chat about this and that and the reporter was nodding and smiling enthusiastically along with his victim. 

Then he’d drop the bomb by asking, “Hang about… you’re not Joe Bloggs, are you? From Chellaston? I think I used to live near you.” Or words to that effect. And then, of course, the victim, if it was them, would confirm the details. At which point the reporter would look straight towards us and give us the thumbs up before walking away. The accused would turn to where his new friend had been looking, only to find a melee of photographers clicking away in his direction. It was effective.

Now I don’t doubt that this story will get many of you angry and annoyed. After all, most of these people were innocent until proven guilty. Well, we obeyed the law on all levels, and in many cases serious crimes had been committed. The victims were often pleased to see that justice was being served in the public eye as well as behind closed doors.

But what about our original guy up top? Well, his picture, alleged crime or name were ever printed in the newspaper, but I saved it for my own portfolio to show just how challenging and heated it can get being a photojournalist. The more I look at that photo the more I realise how lucky I was to not get a black eye or a damaged camera.

So be prepared if you’re getting in to that line of work. And make sure you have a good pair of running shoes.

This blog post originally appeared over at matthewjames.dk