A couple of Saturdays ago, I had gone out to a kick-ass abandoned warehouse to shoot a lingerie model for my portfolio. I’d been randomly visiting this warehouse on the Southside for two years trying to put together the shoot in my head. What did I want to do? How did I want to do it? Who owned this building? Did I need permission, or could I just walk in and do the shoot and walk out? There were no signs of ownership… not even a “keep out” sign. And every time I visited, I never saw a soul and nobody ever walked up to talk to me (I guess they didn’t see me either). So, I set up the shoot.
The warehouse is in a sketchy part of town, but I’d been there enough and I was confident we wouldn’t be bothered. My model, however, didn’t share the same confidence. As she was in the process of getting together her first outfit, I was outside bringing in equipment for the shoot. About 100 yards away, up the street toward some dilapidated houses, I saw three guys walking this way. They all looked young and rough and they were walking with purpose. I had “hidden” my model in a back room so she could change in relative privacy, so I knew that I was the only person these guys had seen. And if trouble started, I wanted to keep it that way.
The bigger of the three (the “leader” I suppose) waved his arm in my direction, but having dealt with homeless beggars and sketchy characters before I ignored him and mentally prepared myself for whatever might come. Since he didn’t garner my attention with his wave, he upped his effort and hollered at me, “Hey! That’s MY building!” Seeing the condition of these three didn’t instill me with confidence that this was indeed his building, so I figured they were some kind of redneck “gang” puffing up for their territory. Strange, but not out of the question. I noticed they weren’t carrying any tools or weapons, so I turned to face them and watched them approach. All three wore construction worker-type clothes, were dirty and tired-looking and had little headlamps on their foreheads. That was the point at which I knew everything was going to be okay. The two sidekicks seemed mellow and deferential (if not a little nervous), but the “leader” kept up his tough guy act. When he realized I wasn’t afraid of him, he came back down to earth and the three of us had a conversation about the building. It turns out that it wasn’t HIS building after all, but is private property that gets used fairly often for video shoots and the like and I needed to sign a waiver in order to shoot there. Apparently, he works for the owner of the building and is responsible for keeping an eye on it. We all parted on fair terms and I will be contacting the owner to get permission.
My model couldn’t have been happier.
I’ve usually had good luck going into a place and shooting it without permission. That’s actually how I got permission to shoot the North Park Theater in San Diego. The construction foreman there loved my photos so much that he shared them with the architect and the building’s owner. Everything snowballed after that. I was given official permission to enter the building any time I wanted (24/7) and was given a lobby wall to hang my framed photos in a permanent mini-gallery and sold 15 books of the images to the theater’s Board of Directors. It was that project that launched my Architectural Photography career. You can see that series here: http://holtwebb.smugmug.com/Portfolio/Decay/Una-Nuova-Vita/27791730_NcQqJr
So, despite what happened at the old Chattanooga warehouse, I will continue to shoot first and ask questions later. As they say, “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.” And I firmly believe that. I’ve tried to be an upstanding citizen and ask permission, but nine times out of ten I’m turned down — usually in an angry huff (not sure why that is). Property owners usually aren’t artists, and most don’t appreciate such creativity, so it’s easier for them to just say no. They tend to be suspicious of people and ideas that don’t fit into their personal view of the world. They don’t want you digging around their stuff and don’t want to be sued if you get hurt (just look at the story of Asher Love in Chattanooga who broke into an abandoned tower and wound up paralyzed when he fell through the floor — his family later sued the owner of the building for millions).
So, I will continue to be the adventurous explorer, but with a disclaimer: Be careful if you go in without permission. You are putting yourself at risk for injury and have absolutely no right to blame the owner of the building for your carelessness. You take the risk, you take the consequences. And if you do get good imagery from your bravery, congratulations. But, think twice about sharing that imagery with the building’s owners. They might not be as appreciative as you hope. 😉