The Dentrimental Downer of the Digital Camera

On my way home up an undisclosed street in Boyle Heights at 11pm on a Monday night, I saw a news van parked in front of a food stand.*  The food stand were run by a familiar Breed Street family.  Since I had my digital point-and-shoot handy, I stopped and took a few photos (without the flash).  I was immediately approached by one of the individuals with the food team and her male sidekick.  They asked me in Spanish what I was taking the photos for.  I responded in my poor Spanish that the photos were just for me, that I lived in the neighborhood and that I was also a regular customer.  They proceeded to explain that they’ve been getting harassed by the cops and that all the Breed Street vendors were kicked out because of all the media hype.  Then the news reporter for the [undisclosed] news station approached me and explained that they were there doing the story to publicize the negative repercussions the Councilman’s office has had on the livelihoods of the Breed Street family businesses.

For a moment, I felt like a criminal for carrying a handheld camera.  Granted, from where I was standing and my lack of professionalism not having approached anyone for their consent, I did look like a suspicious onlooker with a possible ulterior motive.  But I’m just an ordinary girl living in an ordinary world with an affordable digital camera made for the consumer.  Why was I looked at as a threat?

Everyone has a camera these days, whether it’s a feature on their phone, a point-and-shoot within arm’s reach of their breast pocket, or an SLR slung around their shoulder.  In a time where communication is excitingly instant via the phone and internet, however, it is easy to overlook the flipside of all the hype.  People communicating and sharing information with each other on their own volition has become nearly detrimental to the livelihoods of the people we talk about on blogs like this.  We’ve become LA Times’ enablers.  We’ve even become, I dare say, enablers of gentrification.  It’s become quite apparent that anything “underground” is considered “cool” and “hip.”  Once it spreads word-of-mouth, we’ll see the information and all its details on a blog somewhere.  Then it becomes officially popular and the official news media go after their hot story secretly using the local blogs as their direct source of information.  Then it becomes a matter of control.  City councilmen suddenly become the faces of everything that’s been going on in their very own community that they didn’t know about before the LA Times article appeared.

Lesson learned: use caution when taking photos.

Solution: Should I just take pictures of landscape and candids at family barbeques to avoid any possible controversy?

*names will not be named

15 thoughts on “The Dentrimental Downer of the Digital Camera

  1. In the many years I have shot I have had guys flip me off, one guy pull a knife on me in LA, someone else swing a bottle at my head in OC and a soldier in Nicaragua point his AR-16 at my head from less than a meter away. But thousands of times more often I get a appreciative smile that I am shooting the persons pic.

    Digital cameras allow many more of us to document our lifes and culture accurately. The media will often not get it right because they are doing it someone else accross town who would not ever come to our neighborhoods, for ratings or for contests so we have to do it right ourselves.

    Keep shooting and posting.

  2. El Chavo got confronted once too by street vendors, he wrote a post about it somewhere on this site.
    Whenever I take pictures for the blog, I usually do it on the sly or I will ask permission first. I know a lot of people especially Latinos do not like having pictures taken of them without their consent.
    A few weeks ago, I was showing some visitors from Sweden around the Eastside. They wanted to take pics of people and various places, some people were responsive and had no problems. Others said ok as long as the pics weren’t going to be shown in the US. One woman told me privately that she was afraid she’d get harassed for selling food illegally in the street. I also think some folks have immigration issues and others (like me) just want to remain private.
    I was just in Mexico, and I’m super careful about taking photos of people there because it’s considered very rude to take a photo of a person without asking.

    I have to disagree with this statement:
    “People communicating and sharing information with each other on their own volition has become nearly detrimental to the livelihoods of the people we talk about on blogs like this.”

    Food vendors and other ambulantes were getting harassed and targeted long before people started blogging. Here in Lincoln Heights, we used to have way more yard sales, DVD vendors, belt vendors, eloteros, tamaleros and they all got targeted before anyone blogged about them.

    Also, the Los Angeles Times wrote an article about the Breed Street food a year before this blog was created. I can’t find the link online but I did save the article.

    The real problem is our huge and inefficient bureaucratic system that stifles and does not allow the traditional kind of everyday person entrepreneurship you find in Mexico.

  3. Ahh yes we all have to point and shoot with discretion every now and then. I’ve never really had anyone go off on me to the point of violence, but I do get some negative feed back every now and then. And of course those evil eye looks. I totally agree with C that some people just don’t want pics of them taken, even though were you are in public space everything is game. For me, I wear my press pass and tell people I’m a college student and that some times calms them down and they’re like “oooohh ok puez.” It really is a matter of photo etiquette and whether people choose to practice it or not. People breaking the law don’t want pics of them. And again, like C said, the street vendor issue has always been around, way before us and before the times decided to write about it. It just happens that this time around, all the hype helped shut it down. I have first hand experience doing this stuff because I use to sell fruit and raspados in a cart. Competition is fierce and territorial and if someone doesn’t like you, chances are they’ll call the cops to ticket or remove you so they can sell.

  4. You raise some good questions regarding picture taking. I agree with Chimatli that blogging isn’t necessarily what brought the heat on Breed St, but that doesn’t mean some folks weren’t irresponsible in their urge to share the find with others.

    The Breed situation is a bit different, as the vendors were extra-legal. Some food sites irresponsibly went around giving addresses and all the pertinent info, cuz foodies always want to be in on crazy new food trends. As someone who has been on the other side of “legal” on different occasions, I know I wouldn’t want to have my photo taken during the process. But still, it’s not the exposure that causes the raids, its the political machinery. Why haven’t the marijuana “clinics” that opened after the moratorium not been raided? One just opened last month here in LH, and they have a big sign, they are not even trying to hide under the cover of night.

    If anything, blogs have been helpful in getting the word out to mobilize support, say for example against the taco truck ban. Bringing light to the raids on Breed might help in gathering public support. But I remember this issue from way back in the early 90’s when the city wanted to ban all ambulantes. Didn’t they come up with some ambulante zone on Brooklyn? And check out this article from 2000, hope it works:

    Blame needs to go squarely on the politicians that get swayed by the metiches that want to turn the Eastside into another suburb. It’s our parents and grandparents that are complaining about the vendors that’s really causing the problem.

  5. The double edged sword of exposure on the eastside. A while back we started a graffiti sanctuary in the alleys behind atlantic blvd, to give kids a place to express themselves legitimately. The alleys had been organically a piecing yard for decades (with owner consent), and when elacamp did a mural there thru the supervisor’s office we got public works to agree to not buff the graffiti murals that filled the alley like they used to do once or twice a year.

    Then I began inviting others to come paint there, and the word spread. At the same time taggers began killing innocent bystanders, and the supervisor got pissed and now these alleys are buffed constantly. The lame thing is that other alleyes filled with chicken scratch and gang tags have been left untouched, but this one ful of art is now burned because of exposure. Not to mention the fact that this is a total waste of finite resources (like buffing the LA river, while 2 art projects have been halted due to lack of funding) needed to improve other forms of blight in Eastlos.

    BTW, the 2 art projects i noted as being stalled for lack of funding both cost less than $8,000, whereas it cost millions to buff the LA river. What a damn shame.

    I have gotten a lot of shite taking flics without asking, I try to, but many folks doing extra legal stuff or who are socially ostracized are fearful of you being the chota, its just a sad fact of life here.

    Those vendors were cool people, they kicked me down with free comida once when i was fixing a tag on the homie chose’s mural nearby. Its a shame that they are now burned, as is what happens with many things that working class people create in this city. I have tons of things i have withheld sharing due to my fear of burning them. A while back that homeless encampment in baldwin park was burned because some dumbas grad student let everyone know about it.

  6. Thanks for this post—important topic! When I was in Cuba (where I was not supposed to be according to my country’s rules)–taking pictures was a very touchy subject. No one said anything, but I could just tell because people cleared out of my range, when I lifted my camera. Also, at the same sex marriage day in West LA, I had to recognize that a picture of this private moment could ruin someone’s entire life. The men fixing the roof on the house next to mine in Boyle Heights, got weird when I was taking pictures of them—so I had to go and explain that I was an artist and that I would use it in a painting or drawing. Due to the uncomfortableness that some pictures have caused, I have felt it best not to use them. Maybe with time passing, it will be different. Maybe going to Cuba won’t be a $10,000 fine anymore–or people that are gay can be open in our society. Can we describe what we are feeling in a blog or experiencing in the moment without having a picture to back it up or a map-link to point out its location?

  7. so we are victims of our own actions? I have to admit being guitly to some extent, i used to get so excited about this blog that i would go out and tell friends, that dont even live in the east side and probably dont deseve to know bout all the good stuff down here. I dont live in the eastside, i live in the south bay, but being that i was born in the east, i think i deserve to read and be part of the eastside atleast on the weekends when i saty with my girl lol.

  8. Im sorry but my personal opinion on photo taking “in public view” is okay- alright with me.
    And like mi madre always told me …”No hagas algo bueno que aparesca malo o algo malo que aparesca bueno.”

    something i got from a website a few years back and saved for my reference:

    The Ten Legal Commandments of Photography

    I. Anyone in a public place can take pictures of anything they want. Public places include parks, sidewalks, malls, etc. Malls? Yeah. Even though it’s technically private property, being open to the public makes it public space.

    II. If you are on public property, you can take pictures of private property. If a building, for example, is visible from the sidewalk, it’s fair game.

    III. If you are on private property and are asked not to take pictures, you are obligated to honor that request. This includes posted signs.

    IV. Sensitive government buildings (military bases, nuclear facilities) can prohibit photography if it is deemed a threat to national security.

    V. People can be photographed if they are in public (without their consent) unless they have secluded themselves and can expect a reasonable degree of privacy. Kids swimming in a fountain? Okay. Somebody entering their PIN at the ATM? Not okay.

    VI. The following can almost always be photographed from public places, despite popular opinion:

    * accident & fire scenes, criminal activities
    * bridges & other infrastructure, transportation facilities (i.e. airports)
    * industrial facilities, Superfund sites
    * public utilities, residential & commercial buildings
    * children, celebrities, law enforcement officers
    * UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, Chuck Norris

    VII. Although “security” is often given as the reason somebody doesn’t want you to take photos, it’s rarely valid. Taking a photo of a publicly visible subject does not constitute terrorism, nor does it infringe on a company’s trade secrets.

    VIII. If you are challenged, you do not have to explain why you are taking pictures, nor to you have to disclose your identity (except in some cases when questioned by a law enforcement officer.)

    IX. Private parties have very limited rights to detain you against your will, and can be subject to legal action if they harass you.

    X. If someone tries to confiscate your camera and/or film, you don’t have to give it to them. If they take it by force or threaten you, they can be liable for things like theft and coercion. Even law enforcement officers need a court order.

    -In the end im always camara ready in appearance (and i try to carry my 2 cameras with me at all times) – because “big brother” or el vato de la esquina is watching.

    So don’t pick your nose in the elevator 🙂

  9. My problem has been that cameras have not been used enough to stir up shit, and instead are used for socializing and, let’s face it, self promotion. Myspace and Facebook have most Americans using their fancy new technology to get riveting, surreal photos..of their selves. 50 different shots in front of the bathroom mirror. Here’s me smiling. Here’s me giving the smoochy look. Here’s my mean mug. One with my tongue hanging out, like KISS. A Heisman trophy pose. One with my middle finger. And, of course, a little sample of my tramp stamp. Bhhapa, is your point really that we need more of this, and less pictures of social injustice!?!?

  10. Gee, good question RobThomas. I guess my point is that taking photos of anything beyond a self-absorbed profile pic for facebook/myspace is challenging. And for the amateur photographer who may not have the professional or interpersonal skills to engage in a particular setting as a professional photographer would, it could be a frightening experience.
    My other point is is that it’s just so ironic. It’s ironic that in a time when the average person has the resources at their fingertips to be their own historian, there is a resistance to the overexposure and overdocumenting of culture and history in the making. Another ironic point is that we document the overdocumenting. Where does it end?! What will happen next?! Can someone send me an e-margarita on the rocks w/o salt, please?! 🙂

  11. I agree with El Chavo. The current popularity of street food should be used as a lever to try and legitimize it.

    The real people targeting vendors are (always) other restuarants, residents, and competitors. Now, it’s politicians trying to save their butts… because the restaurants and complainer residents are way more likely to vote and give campaign donations.

    Seriously – I imagine that approximately 100% of these complainers will vote or donate, and it’s a key issue for them. 100% easily, and their complaints will even cause friends to make protest votes.

    I imagine, for the customers, it’s barely an issue at all.

    Legitimizing the business would provide protection. The only problem would be that legal food carts cost $5,000 and upwards, and legalized vending zones would probably charge rent.

  12. There is a reason why a “non professional” camera is called a point and shoot. No one needs permission in public spaces, no one. Or as my uncle would say: “Me vale madre!”

  13. I’ve learned more than once that cameras and food vendors don’t mix.

    Slightly off topic, I went to Breed Street once and saw a boiling pot of oil unattended and waist high. It looked like a terrible accident was going to happen. Always regretted not saying something but they probably would have resented the intrusion.

    On the positive side, my Word Verification is “Trippy”

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