Something that happened last week really hit home for me. Everyone probably already has heard, as it has been reported by almost every single news agency in the world; Australian photographer Brett Costello was robbed of $40,000 of camera gear in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil last week while in town to cover the Olympics. However, this article isn't about him specifically.
Most of the readers don't know, but I live in Lima, Peru, which is right next to Brazil for us that are geographically challenged. I would like to share with everyone what I have dealt with and continue to deal with on a daily basis as a professional photographer working in South America. Besides telling everyone about my own personal experiences, I hope to bring light to this subject that maybe many outsiders don't realize is going on here, and start a discussion.
People usually associate being mugged with dark alleys or in an empty parking lot at night like in the main image above. Not in Lima, Peru, Not in South America. People are robbed here on a daily basis, broad daylight, and with lots of people around. Especially artists such as photographers and videographers, as we rely on using expensive equipment to make our art, we are constantly a target.
Unfortunately in my almost five years of living and working in Lima, I have been a victim of theft twice, and had a third close call. The first time was a face to face mugging where I did not loose any of my camera gear, but I did loose many other possessions, the second time was a robbery I wasn't present for, but that time I did lose a lot of photography equipment.
Let me explain, I won't get into tons of details (If anyone is that curious about the details, just ask me in the comments, and I will be happy to explain and answer any questions you have), but the first time I was robbed, it was very similar to what happened to Mr. Costello in Brazil last week, minus the decoy to distract me. They robbed me of everything I had on me at the time, middle of the day, sun out, public place with people nearby, two police officers just around the corner. They were very well organized and prepared, it was over in seconds and they jumped in a getaway car that was waiting and gone in the blink of the eye. They knew exactly what they were doing, and seemed like they had done it a thousand times.
Also just like in Rio de Janeiro, nobody seemed surprised, not even the police. After I located two officers nearby maybe a minute later and told them what just happened to me. They seemed very nonchalant, told me it is over, they are gone already. I knew everything they took was gone forever, and I would never see it again,
It was also was reported a few days ago, Mr. Costello ended up catching two of the guys who robbed him, by noticing them inside an Olympic venue wearing his very vest they stole from him! And one the criminals is actually from Peru! I am curious if these criminals actually traveled into Brazil from Peru just to steal at the Olympics, knowing how many thousands of photographers are there with expensive equipment, I wouldn't be shocked at all. These criminals are smart and very well calculated for the most part. Unfortunately Mr. Costello probably will never see any of his gear again either, like me. As they do here in Lima, the goods exchange hands multiple times, and then pawned off almost immediately.
The second time I was a victim of robbery here in South America, I was not present, and did not have to deal with being robbed face to face again. But the company that I work for was doing a video production, and I lent them a bunch of my equipment for the job. A camera, a couple lenses, my tripod, and a few accessories. I was supposed to have it all returned to me in 24 hours, but that never happened. They were a group of eight people working on the video shoot together that day, but two guys with guns robbed them all! They took everything they had. They thought they felt safe in numbers, but it doesn't matter. Even if you are a group of twenty people, they will use five guys with guns, and nothing you can do it about. Your life is worth more than anything, so you just have to give them what they want, and not fight back. You can replace a camera, you can not replace your life.
I even had a third close call, when working at an event here in Lima. I had a shoulder bag on, and lucky enough I felt something not right. I turned around to find someone with there hand inside my bag! I had an extra lens in there, and If I did not feel him and turn around at that moment, he would have taken the lens and took off.
Cameras and lenses are so expensive in Peru. Depending on what, and how much gear you are buying, it can even be cheaper with airfare to fly to New York, and buy it at B&H, than buying it here in Lima alone.
For example, a Canon 5D Mark III as of today is $2,599 brand new at B&H; here right now in Lima at an authorized Canon seller, it costs $3,562.26. A Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM costs $125 at B&H today, and is $191.13 here in Lima. That is over a $1,000 difference to buy the combo! Not only can I fly to New York to buy it at B&H, I can also see my family, and I will still have a few hundred dollars left over. Amazing!
I know people can be robbed anytime, anywhere, no place is 100% safe; but it is an epidemic here in Lima, Peru, and from what I read and hear it a huge issue in all of South America. Unfortunately I feel this will not be the only story of a photographer being robbed we all hear about in the news before the Olympics come to end in a couple of weeks. And not just the thousands of professionals there working, but also the more than half a million tourists expected to visit Rio over the next two weeks. The criminals know they have been coming for years, and I am sure have been planning this for months in advance.
It is disgusting what goes on, but it is actually the one and only thing I dislike about living in Peru; the crime and the delinquency. Everything else here is great for me and I am very happy. Besides these bad people ruining it for everyone else, the majority of the people here are amazing. They are over the top friendly, strangers make you feel like family, the food is outstanding, costs of living is less, just a wonderful culture. The funny thing is, even with all the crime, for some reason, I feel less stress in my life living here, I am not sure why that is exactly, or how to describe that, but it is the truth. It is very sad for me to see such a beautiful place have such an ugly side to it.So what I do now, ever since I lost my gear, for any session of photos I do, an armed, off duty police officer comes with us and stays at our side the entire day while we work. I know this doesn't guarantee me that I won't be a victim and get my gear stolen again; the criminals can easily just send two guys with guns and rob me very easily, but the police officer is a deterrent, and so far has worked out. Knock on wood.
If anyone wants to share there own personal stories of having photo or video equipment stolen, be it in the United States, while abroad, working on an assignment, or just out shooting for fun, feel free to share. Maybe your story can prevent someone from experiencing the same fate in the future. Crime happens everywhere, but it is on an whole other level here in South America.