The solutions to decreasing risk as a photographer are limiting distractions and recognizing stress in the business of photography. Once you understand these you will be better equipped to keep the Grim Reaper at bay.
Photography is not off-shore oil drilling, police work, or firefighting. It’s not even a contact sport. I’ve never met an aspiring photographer who said, “I like photography, but I have a family. What would they do if something happened to me?” As risks go, photography is not midlife-crisis-motorcycle danger. Maybe a moped risk. Still, no profession or hobby is risk-free. But within every profession or hobby, there are degrees of risk. For physicians, working with Doctors Without Borders in parts of war-torn Africa carries more risk than being a podiatrist in Bakersfield. Athletes who compete in rock climbing or open wheel racing arguably have put more at risk than those on the PGA tour. So it is with photographers.
Keep in mind, this list is hardly scientific. I know of no formal statistical survey of deaths by photographers, as a class. Some entries on this list might even seem far-fetched. But common sense gives us a couple of themes. The first theme is distraction. Although some risk is systemic and immutable, for most photographers, the biggest risk to life and limb occurs when their attention is too focused on equipment, the golden hour, or the model. The second theme is stress. Typically, this occurs is when the various pressures of the business of photography mount. For both of these risks, a little mindfulness here goes a long way to keeping the Reaper’s cold hand away.
1. Death by Travel
A famous philosopher—or maybe Aerosmith—said, “Life’s a journey, not a destination.” But here’s the thing: death is actually a big fan of the journey, not the destination. The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists occupational deaths by activity, and across all types of jobs, transportation incidents were far and away the most common cause of work-related fatalities. Like any job that involves transportation—particularly road transportation at high speeds—travel photography involves a risk that studio portrait photographers don’t typically share.
Any time we step behind the wheel of a car, we are statistically at greater risk than staying at home (or in the studio). This is compounded when we are distracted. If you're thinking about the photo shoot or your equipment so much that you're not concentrating on driving, I have news for you: you're increasing the risk of a serious accident. It's compounded even further when we are driving to new and unfamiliar places, which is often the case for travel photographers.
So while the danger of standing in Yosemite Valley unfolding a tripod, and waiting for great lighting to capture nature’s awe-inspiring beauty isn’t particularly risky, the same can’t be said for driving on CA-120 before dawn to get into Yosemite in time for sunrise. There is a regular, demonstrable statistical risk involved in all travel, including travel photography.
How can you decrease the risk? Consider leaving the driving to the non-photographer. Or taking an Uber to your destination. Or just allowing more time to get there. It's a myth that multi-tasking is productive. If one of those tasks is driving an automobile, it's not only not productive, it's dangerous.
2. Death by Gravity
With all of the features on modern DSLRs, it’s a wonder we don’t get distracted more often. Add to the camera's built-in distractions our lighting equipment and modifiers, tripods, filters, time-lapse slider doohickeys and all manner of remote control thingamabobs. A modern photographer might saunter up to a mountaintop with more gear than an armored infantry division. She must master it, must know how light and time impact all her choices. But she has to make sure there’s enough memory and battery power, too. That’s a lot to keep track of. It’s a wonder she can remember to tie her shoes for the hike up.
I imagine with enough experience, every landscape photographer has probably had a close call with his equipment or himself. Earlier this year, I saw a tripod under the bridge at Multnomah Falls and wondered exactly what went through the photographer’s mind as he watched it tumble end-over-end to its final resting place below. Did play in slow motion? Was a camera attached to it at the time? Did the bystanders cringe? How close did the photographer come to jumping after it? It's easy to be distracted with beautiful surroundings, especially if they are new to us.
Before you step onto the precipice for that epic Vintage Vertigo capture, make sure to ask yourself, “What will one more step really get me?” If you still need a few extra feet, consider letting your monopod tackle the few extra inches. Or how about that drone you bought yourself for Christmas? Better him than you, buddy.
Darkness is a deceptive complication as well. Most landscapes benefit from golden hour sunlight. That usually means walking some distance before (or after) the sun is out. I cannot count the number of times I’ve set out to photograph a sunset, only to find that I nearly tripped several times and fell flat on my face (or my lens) because I didn’t have a flashlight for the walk back, or only had the dinky light on my smartphone to guide the way. One of the reason soldiers march instead of walking is that deliberately lifting boots up instead of dragging them decreases the chance of tripping. So if you must chimp your photos while walking through the woods, try marching instead of shuffling. Better yet, don’t do two things at once.
Patience and self-awareness take practice, like so much of photography. No photo is worth your life.
3. Death by Selfie
An absent-minded footstep in an attempt to secure a mountain-top landscape photo could happen to anyone. But Death by Selfie deserves its own category: a cocktail of distraction, vanity, and social media approval-seeking. While an extreme selfie might get you some instant infamy, it can also earn you a Darwin Award. If you need to be reminded that standing two feet in front of the American Bison making a duck face is not worth impressing your Instagram friends, you don’t need a photography blog. You need a therapist.
My wife and I recently took a short cruise on the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. The well-heeled millennial sitting next to me took more photos in the familiar arm-length selfie pose than he did of the surrounding world-class architecture. But at least he wasn’t steering the boat.
Many tragic and bizarre stories of selfie deaths have not escaped the notice of major media outlets. CBS News reported that in 2015 more people died by selfies than shark attacks. It’s common enough that the City of Pamplona, Spain has banned selfies during it’s annual “Running of the Bulls.” Last year, Rolling Stone listed a litany of examples, from selfie-stick turned lightning rod to two soldiers posing for a selfie with a live grenade. A live grenade. Russia, in particular, has seen such a rise in selfie deaths that the government has stepped in with a public safety campaign promoting safe selfies in an effort to curb the problem. (I trust “Never take a selfie after someone says, ‘Hold my beer.'” was tip #4.)
It’s a fair criticism that perhaps these deaths have less to do with the act or art of photography and more to do with society’s burgeoning need to seek social media popularity. Still, the end product–however conflated with the goals of the photographer/subject–is a digital image. So it's fair game.
If you’re wondering about the breakdown in selfie deaths between men and women, it’s a bit like car accidents. Women have more fender-benders but men are more likely to be involved in fatalities. It’s the same with selfies: women take more of them, but guys have the dubious distinction being more likely to die during a selfie.
4. Death by Conflict
On a more serious note, the Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 48 journalists were killed in 2016 (for which motives have been confirmed). Unsurprisingly, many of these are related to the areas of the world with the most civil and political unrest, or where active armed conflicts occur. The largest number of these occurred in Syria (14).
While the CPJ’s statistics encompass photo and print journalists, photographers are not immune from the risks that other journalists face. Earlier this year, two photographers were shot in Brazil while capturing images of conflict between police and protesters in São Paulo. The CPJ also reports that on October 5, 2017, men dressed as police entered the central Mexico home of Edgar Daniel Esqueda Castro, a photographer who covers crime and society for local news outlets, and abducted him. Four journalists have been killed in 2017 alone in Mexico, the deadliest country for journalists in the Western Hemisphere. A National Geographic article notes that in 2013, approximately one-quarter of the 70 journalists killed that year were photographers.
These statistics are a sobering reminder of the commitment of photojournalists to making us aware of the conflicts on our big blue marble. But even awareness comes at a high price. Let us resolve to put that information to good use by lending aide and ending conflict and oppression where we are able.
5. Death by Bridezilla (or Groom Kong)
It’s only a matter of time, people.
As someone who would sooner get a root canal sans Novocaine than voluntarily photograph a wedding, I’m in constant amazement at the combination of patience and creativity that must accompany that particular branch of the photographic arts.
Although wedding photographers occasionally get to stand up for themselves, like the Texas photographer who won a defamation suit against a bride and groom in August of 2017, whenever the collaboration between the wedding party and the photographer turns south, the photographer seems to bear the brunt of the conflict. Whether it’s disappointment about how the bridesmaids all look puffy, or how the photos in a candle-lit ceremony are too dark and moody, there’s no shortage of reasons for the photographer to be blamed as the scapegoat.
In 2015, a photographer got into a feud with a bride which spilled over into social media, with the bride claiming that the photographer called her ‘ugly’ and the photographer claiming his Facebook account was hacked. Yikes. It all apparently began when the bride expressed dissatisfaction with 90% of the 1500 photographs (1500!) of the wedding and then it spiraled down from there.
A great many human conflicts result when expectations don’t meet reality. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes observed:
Love is the master key that opens the gates of happiness, of hatred, of jealousy, and, most easily of all, the gate of fear.
Perhaps the fear that Justice Holmes observed is represented within the wedding ceremony itself. The pressure involved in having a storybook wedding may be self-imposed, but the fear of unmet expectations is no less stifling for the bride and groom. That fear might be at the heart of many a conflict with the wedding photographer.
Before photographing a wedding, set aside all the technical and artistic consideration for a moment and consider whether you are compatible with this particular client. Is she going to be disappointed no matter what? Is it possible that nothing you can do will make the bride and groom look like Kim and Kanye? Do you really want to work with someone who idolizes Kim and Kayne?
6. Death by Stress
For those involved in professional photography, stress can be a very real threat. All small businesses have a certain level of stress inherent in the daily concern with revenue and expenses. But most professional photographers also face competition from the very technology that fuels and advances the industry. The commoditization of photography means more clients think they are buying a good, not a service. Real or perceived, the gap between what a professional photographer can do and what a do-it-yourselfer thinks he can do seems to narrow. Does $2,500 pay for “the services of a wedding photographer” or does it buy “wedding photos” for the bride and groom? The difference is subtle but has a powerful impact on the client’s perception of value.
The increased accessibility of digital photography and post-processing also brings more hobbyists into the ranks of professional photographers who would not have had the capital to do so in the film days. That flood increases the supply of professional photographers and creates a “race to the bottom” force that drives the price of photography services down. Again, more stress.
Time deadlines can be inflexible as well. Publishers, art directors, wedding planners, and even parents expecting senior portraits often don’t understand that time deadlines are cumulative and seasonal. It’s not just Client A’s deadline the photographer must respect, but Clients B through Z as well. Clients get tunnel vision about their own demands. That’s a stress factor.
Learn to manage client expectations as to time. The client may be flexible. But even if they aren't, you're better off if the client uses another photographer because you are just too “in demand” to meet her time requirements, than you are to commit to work and not finish it on deadline.
7. Death by Gear-Lifting-Induced Heart Attack
Do you spend more time processing photos than shooting them? I do. But spending eight hours a day post-processing photos is not exercise. “Round-tripping” from Lightroom to Photoshop might have a nice exercisey-ring to it, but still, it’s not exercise.
Every winter when I venture out to shovel the first snow of the season, my wife—who has a nursing background—always warns me to take my time, not to overdo things. It’s a little-known decoration of the holiday season: men adorning the local emergency rooms from seasonally festive myocardial infarctions related to snow in the driveway. Well, that and bad eggnog.
Ask yourself a simple question: what’s the heaviest thing you lift on a weekly basis? If your answer was “a backpack full of camera equipment” then consider yourself a candidate.
Ours Is But to Do and Die
Although photography may not be the most dangerous profession (or hobby), it has its own set of risks. The phrase of consolation, “He died doing what he loved” is sometimes just a tactful way to say, “He liked it so much he wasn't paying attention.” Neither job nor hobby is worth death. By paying attention to the distractions and stress that surround you, you're really paying attention to those that want you around.