How to film and photograph in dangerous locations.

Getting the shot, without getting shot! An Audio-Visual Exploration

Mark Shea filming in North Korea
Mark Shea filming in North Korea
I get a perverse joy out of filming in places I’ve been told are dangerous. It’s like capturing the unseen, the dark underbelly of humanity.

Below are three videos which capture some of the unique places I have had the opportunity to film. In two of the videos I have added no commentary, not wanting my own prejudices to influence the thoughts of the viewers. In both of these videos I had to engage in interesting techniques in order to get the shots without putting myself in danger.

In the last video I have provided some tips for those also wishing to film or photograph dangerous exotic locations.

An audio-visual exploration of the Tenderloin district of San Francisco

One interesting effect of tourism is that to make a place look ‘picture perfect’, you have to hide it’s problems! You have to have a place where you can contain all the homeless, substance users, parolees and mentally ill!

The Tenderloin district of San Francisco performs this role. Within it’s boundaries one can find most of the cities social services for an estimated 6,500 homeless people.

Home to theaters, burlesque houses, strip clubs and dive bars, the Tenderloin is a colourful neighbourhood. Waves of immigrants have also added to it’s diversity, providing a myriad of cultural cuisines, particularly South East Asian.

But is it also a high crime neighbourhood, particularly violent street crime such as robbery and aggravated assault. The San Francisco Police Department warn that seven out of ten violent crimes within the city occur within the Tenderloin.

Not exactly the place you want to get caught with a camera!

But despite the drug crime and prostitution, the pan-handling and despair. I felt a need to capture on film the underbelly of American urban decay.

There is no way a tourist could just wander the Tenderloin with a camera. I had to devise a method of filming that would not attract attention and allow me to capture authentic ‘street life’.

To do so I filmed this audio-visual study using video sunglasses. I then slowed the footage by 50% to try and capture the nuance of life in a dangerous neighbourhood. Watching the footage back at half speed, I was fascinated to see the quick glimpses towards me of all I passed. These were not the faces of happy people! I also found it fascinating that many living on the streets had brand new sport shoes!

I’ve added no voiceover, no comments. I want the viewer to explore their own feelings with this footage.

An audio-visual exploration of the The Red Light District of Fields Avenue.

Fields Avenue Walking Street developed to service the American Clark Air Base which was operational from 1903 to 1991. The infamous Angeles City Bars have remained and now service sex tourists from around the globe. Of late there has been a increase in South Korean ownership of both bars and brothels.

I heard about Angeles City while in Borneo. I was getting a flight from Kota Kinabulu to Clark International Airport and met a guy who had just flown in from the Philippines. He told me Angeles City was the cesspit of the Philippines, a vipers nest of crime, corruption and sleaze. He told me I should avoid it at all costs.

I decided I needed to film it!

I met an Australian bar owner who had been there since the days of the Clark Air Base. He told me South Korean Crime Gangs had recently started buying into Fields Avenue. He told me quite emphatically that I could be killed if I was caught filming.

I spent two nights casing out the Avenue. I found a bar where I was allowed to film inside (if I bought all the girls drinks!) The Aussie Bar Owner, seeing I was not going to leave without some footage, told me I could film from the roof of his bar. He told me if I was caught, he would deny knowing me.

Humans love a car wreck! We can’t help but stare at and judge other’s misfortune. How do you feel after watching the video?

Dennis O’Rourke’s ‘The Good Women of Bangkok is maybe the finest documentary ever made on Sex Tourism. Dennis became a paying customer of the prostitute he interviewed, no longer was he just the observer.

I detest Western Journalist who put a ‘holy than thou’ slant on these stories. The cold hard facts are that in a large part of the world, prostitution is one of the few options young women have to make big money!

I have added no commentary to this video, I want the viewer to watch it and judge via their own prejudices.

Three tips on how to film anywhere; slums, red light districts, museums, exhibitions, churches, and not get your video camera gear stolen.

No. 1 – Sometimes it is easier to just get your shot quickly without asking permission.
*But please be aware in some countries filming such things as public buildings can result in prison, so please read up on the laws of each location you visit

No. 2 Street crime is opportunistic and cowardly so reduce the risk of being a victim by particularly watching your back. Most street criminals will try and rob you by following you and approaching from behind, so be aware of your surroundings and if you are being followed just drop into the nearest hotel or cafe and inform the staff.

No. 3 If filming in a seedy or dangerous part of town, it is always handy to be with a local person who has a good grasp of the local language. This way if you do find yourself in a dangerous situation, they may be able to talk their way out of the situation.

I’d love to hear your comments below.

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6 thoughts on “How to film and photograph in dangerous locations.

  1. nice stuff Mark. I have been to Manila 3x in last couple of years and that is bad enough.,let alone Angeles City.Are those glasses available in Australia?

  2. Yes they are Jeff. There are a number of brands available now, best to check footage on youtube when making a decision.

  3. The videos with no words, just great music, are excellent. As they say ‘A picture speaks a thousand words’ Very interesting Mark.

  4. Yes Anne-Marie, leaves room for the viewer to make their own conclusions

  5. Good work Mark, I like your style of shooting. I have been following and watching a lot of your videos, you do some of the best travel videos around mate. Us Aussie’s have to stick together haha. Yes, I totally agree with Anne-Marie’s comment. The videos with only music was very compelling, you have chosen well with your music Mark. Keep up the good work Mark, love to see more of your videos. Cheers from Peter

  6. The video on homeless in America saddens me … here we are in the West playing up the poverty and dangerousness of third world countries, when some of the places in our own backyard are as bad or more dangerous!

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