I think it happened somewhere on Hope Street between W. 2nd & W. 3rd Streets, possibly a little after 8pm. It was the fourth day of November in 2011, a Friday night.
I was enjoying the urban grid of the streets of LA on what turned out to be a very clear night. It had been raining when I arrived from Seattle (perhaps it followed me?), but the rain seemed to purge the city of its pollution and clear the night sky, if only for a few hours.
On a sidewalk along Hope Street, I was preparing to capture a long exposure of the cluster of skyscrapers with the flowing traffic of a few cars. The tripod was set, and I was bubbling with anticipation of getting an exciting shot.
Occasionally, a pedestrian would walk by, almost always behind me. It seems most people are polite enough to not walk in front of a photographer when she or he is trying to capture an image at night. It seems to be a universal code in most populated areas, but I could be wrong. In fact, the example I am about to share somewhat undermines everything I’ve just written.
I’ve read in many photography books that it’s always good practice to keep both eyes open when looking through the viewfinder. This is because an interesting scene can catch the eye that’s not looking through the viewfinder and can help you predict and prepare for what’s about to come into your frame. (This is very helpful for long exposures of traffic and for action shots, particularly in contact sports. Try it!).
Another excellent reason to keep both eyes open when focusing on your subject matter is safety. With both eyes open, one can see people who are approaching, particularly those who may not necessarily care for what you are trying to do, and therefore, you can prepare yourself accordingly.
I neglected to apply the keep-both-eyes-open strategy when I was accosted by not even a pedestrian, but a cyclist. “Cyclist” is even too respectful a word for the idiotic hoodlum who basically appeared out of the darkness like a thug on a bike, which may or may not even have been his bike when I recall this story.
As I looked through the viewfinder with my right eye, my left eye was closed tight. That was my first mistake. My second error was letting my excitement of being in LA and obtaining some wonderful images overwhelm my typically exacerbated sense of awareness. I just wanted to enjoy the series of long exposures I was hoping to obtain on Hope Street (one of which I did obtain — the photo at the introduction of this article).
I was about to push the shutter button when two very strange things occurred at once.
The first was that my tripod seemed to have been instantly swiped from underneath my camera. Keep in mind, the camera is attached to the tripod, which is the custom for executing a long exposure image. Before I could even concentrate on this bewildering circumstance, the second event occurred which shocked me, and simultaneously, saved my camera.
I sometimes take long exposures with the camera strap around my neck. I think it gives me some odd sense of security for the camera, even though it’s already firmly attached to the tripod. On this occasion, the strap was around my neck and it felt like it had come alive and was actually trying to strangle me. The pain was so sharp. The strap tightened around my neck so quickly from the left that my head jerked to the left as the strap tugged me to the right. It was as if someone had grabbed the camera at 10 miles per hour – with me attached to it. (Turned out my assumption was fairly accurate). Even though my body had been dragged only a few steps, I managed to regain my stance almost immediately.
These two simultaneous events transpired within a span of ten seconds. It was quick.
When my eyes surveyed my surroundings, I saw that my camera, instead of being on my tripod, had fallen into my hands. My tripod, which was at its full extent ten seconds ago, was gone. My neck, now afflicted by a sharp pang of whiplash, was still able to move.
I looked to my right to see two hoodlums on bicycles riding down Hope Street. Both of them looked too large for the bikes they were riding. Focusing, I saw one of them riding down with my tripod in his right hand while cycling. The a$$ looked back at me for a moment. Seeing that he clearly failed to obtain the item he really wanted, he threw my tripod into the bushes before reaching the 3rd Street intersection. He and his buddy proceeded to cycle off into the darkness. A sense of unmitigated disgust for these two people flowed through my veins as I stared at them in a vicious stupor.
Needless to say, for the next minute, I was stunned and perplexed by what just happened. The next two minutes were spent in pure fury. Had I really traveled to LA just to be attacked less than six hours after arrival by two jacka$$es, both of whom were completely devoid of any sensible thought of what could have happened if one of them had successfully snatched the camera and dragged it down the hill with the strap still around my neck?
Seething, I resolved to spend the following five minutes recollecting my composure and donating some time to deeper thought.
I reviewed the facts:
1) A hoodlum tried to steal my camera, taking advantage of my ignorance of his approach on his bike. However, he failed.
2) The camera he tried to steal was still strapped around my neck. I held it in my hands. It wasn’t damaged.
3) The idiotic lowlife had thrown my tripod into the bushes, which I proceeded to collect. The tripod was not damaged either.
4) Aside from the immediate whiplash, I was breathing, and uninjured.
5) I still had three more days to photograph Los Angeles. All my gear was in tow, so instead of being angry, I decided to get back to what I was doing, only a million more times vigilant for the rest of the trip.
There was no point being mad about this and letting this spoil my experience of photographing in Los Angeles. The punk on a bike didn’t get away with any of my gear and, more importantly, my life was spared. This jacka$$ could have broken my neck and dragged me with him down the street, thus injuring himself in the process as well. My gear was functional. I was functional. The jacka$$ hadn’t approached me toting a gun or knife.
Additionally, I couldn’t be too upset because It was my own inattentiveness that precipitated the attack in the first case. It probably didn’t help that I was by myself, in the dark, on the poorly lit Hope Street in the City of Angels. Sometimes — and this is solely my personal observation — I feel the name of “Los Angeles” carries a most unfortunate irony, but I didn’t feel like coming down too hard on the entire city based on my personal experience of what took place within a period of a few minutes. Truth be told, the next 72 hours in LA were very enjoyable.
Lastly, I just didn’t have the energy to be angry.
In retrospect, had the camera strap not been around my neck, the hoodlum probably would have gotten away with my camera (whose name is Alphie, by the way). Alphie had already been through a bit (including a terrible two-foot drop onto concrete), so I was grateful he wasn’t stolen near the conclusion of 2011. The one thing that remains a mystery – and also a lifesaver – was how the camera detached itself from the tripod when the hoodlum cycled by. The camera’s tripod connector plate was fastened and locked to the tripod well in advance. In all other scenarios, I probably should have been both severely injured and out thousands of dollars to replace my camera gear, but that didn’t happen. I think I am also very fortunate that my frame and build prevented more serious injury. Clearly, the lowlifes did not discriminate with their targets. Another person may not have fared as well as myself. As a result, there were many things for which to be grateful that did NOT happen.
It was an eye-opening lesson for me (no pun intended!): always keep both eyes open when photographing; be extremely aware of one’s surroundings; try to be within sight of other people; and if possible, avoid being the only one taking photos in compromising locations.
In conclusion, I blame my own irresponsibility for what occurred on Hope Street, and I will (and have) never let such an episode repeat itself.
I hope this story helps to shine some light for photographers who love to capture images in very dark, secluded areas. I know my experience is far from isolated, but it was a well-learned lesson in safety which, like good health, can never be taken for granted.
Thanks for reading about this experience. If you have any similar experiences or guidance to provide, please feel free to share.