ANEWS hat

If you see an older guy wearing this hat taking camera-phone pictures at a public event, it’s probably me. Photo by Terry Smith.

Hello, I’m the older gent who often shows up at local news and community events and makes a nuisance of himself, snapping lots of close-up photos with his camera phone.

But it can be awkward since unlike past generations of photojournalists, I don’t look like a news photographer. This is because I don’t carry a big, fancy camera, the sort of high-octane rig that instantly marks the owner as a photojournalist or some other type of professional shooter. Nope, it’s just relatively ordinary me with my trusty iPhone.

This is increasingly what you’re seeing at newspapers large and small, as management turns over traditional news photography duties to the reporting (and sometimes, editing) staff. It’s not ideal going without the dedicated services of a professional news photographer, but that’s the way it is. Anyway, I’ve been shooting news photos as a reporter  and editor since 1978, so I guess I am a professional news photographer, albeit with a dinky phone camera.

Some of the recent events I’ve photographed for the paper include the Athens Criterium, the Nelsonville Music Festival, Drag Queen Story Time at the Athens Public Library, the Under the Elms Concert Series, Move-Out weekend at OU, the Athens Marathon, and OU’s Moms Weekend.

So where’s the problem?

It has to do with mistaken identity. Unless I make personal contact, it’s doubtful the people I’m photographing realize I’m shooting for a print publication and its website. I just look like an intrusive – or worse, creepy – dude snapping lots of pictures.

This can create disconcerting situations where people wonder who the hell I am, furtively moving in close to take multiple camera-phone photos of people. (And proximity is important, to compensate for the limitations of a camera phone.) When the people I’m photographing are children or young women, I feel even more conspicuous, knowing how folks might make negative (and false!) assumptions about my motives.

My eldest daughter has repeatedly suggested that I do more to distinguish myself as a news photographer while out covering local news or events. And she’s very good at inspecting my photos to find a background image of someone giving me a dirty look.

Last Wednesday, as part of photographing the Under the Elms summer concert series at OU, I shot a platter of chocolate cupcakes, to possibly use as a detail pic in a photo spread (not just “possibly”; I did use it, and you can see the photo gallery here). No big deal, but after sending my family a picture of the chocolate cupcakes (I was taunting them; they all love chocolate), my daughter replied with a close-up image from the deep background of the cupcake photo.

It shows a woman in sunglasses who’s apparently sending the stink-eye my way. In the middle distance are two younger women in shorts serving food from buffet warmers. My daughter and I each conjectured separately that the sunglasses woman suspected I was a perv who was pretending to photograph the cupcakes while sneaking a picture of the two ladies serving food. (Alternative scenario: she had just hit by a twinge of indigestion as she looked into space.)

I will resist the temptation to remark that the two female servers “are not my type.” It’s a good line with current political resonance, but I didn’t notice them when I framed the shot (which got cropped anyway).

So this is a problem. I don’t want people thinking awful things about me while I’m doing my job, but damnit, I’m going to do it anyway.

Even before Under the Elms last Wednesday, I had started wearing an “Athens News” ballcap when on assignment, and more recently, started carrying a lanyard around my neck that identifies me as a news photographer, when shooting events where it’s important that people know I’m on the job.

I wore the hat on Saturday while shooting the Drag Queen Story Time at the Athens Public Library. Perhaps it worked, since when I plopped down Indian-style on the floor in position to take photographs, next to a bunch of kids intently watching the drag queens, nobody appeared to pay me any mind.

Over the next few months or years, if you see a fellow wearing a black “Athens News” cap (see photo) skulking around taking photos of people at public events, I hope you’ll realize that it’s probably me, doing my job. If you see my cap flying as an angry husband or father beats the snot out of me, please call the proper authorities, and do it before you pull out your iPhone camera.

Also, I must admit that my plan to clearly identify myself as a journalist, in this day and age, might actually be riskier than going incognito.

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