I was walking down 6th Ave at around 16th St. at around 6PM when I spotted this sunglasses seller on the sidewalk. He seemed like a cheerful, relaxed guy -- he was in the middle of an extremely affable exchange with a passerby, laughing and giving a thubms-up while trying to push his wares. As I passed his stand, I glanced over and saw that he was in nice light, the late afternoon sun separating him nicely from the buildings across the street.
What better way to test out the $1,800 Canon 85mm f/1.2L lens I had rented from Adorama about three minutes earlier?
In my experience, the guys in New York selling sunglasses, counterfeit designer purses, etc. can be pretty wary of photographers, and who can blame them? Their legal status is sometimes suspect, they routinely get hassled (or worse) by cops, and can be forgiven for misunderstanding the motivation of strangers on the street taking their photos.
Knowing this, I was trying to be quick about grabbing a profile of this guy, mostly because I was curious about the sharpness of this lens at f/1.2. I try not to be too sneaky when taking street photos, and anyone who's seen the lens I'm talking about knows just how impossible it is to be sneaky with it anyway. He turned and looked at me just as I was pressing the shutter... I thought nothing of this except that I now probably had a better photo than what I intended.
By the time I lowered my camera, he had already rounded the sunglasses table on his way toward me. It was so fast that it took me a couple of seconds to realize what was happening. He was screaming in my face, which I initially perceived as a joke, until I realized, to my great surprise, that he was gripping my left wrist and twisting my arm, hard.
His hand that wasn't holding my wrist was curled into a fist that he was brandishing in my face as he demanded repeatedly why I took his picture. I tried to reason with him, telling him to chill out, that it was a public street, and that I take pictures of all kinds of people around New York. He called me a liar and again demanded to know why I took his picture. I told him if he felt that bad about it, I would erase his picture right in front of him, if he would just relax and let go of me. Instead, with the hand that wasn't still trying to twist my left arm, he grabbed for my camera.
At this point I decided that, no matter what, I was keeping my photo of this guy. In a few seconds, people walking by began to take notice of our little dance -- him still twisting my arm and grabbing for my camera, me trying to twist away and protect my brand new 5D with the nearly $2K uninsured piece of glass that I had attached to it a couple of minutes earlier.
Some girl shouted, "the photographer is always right!" over her shoulder as she walked by. While I certainly appreciated the sentiment, it did little to improve my situation. More helpfully, a couple of guys stopped and started pleading with my new friend to let me go, in vain. One of them was holding a cell phone, and I told him to call the police, hoping this would have a cooling effect. It didn't exactly work, but by this time a small crowd was gathering around us, and they were on my side. Finally the psychopath let go, and me and my equipment were able to go on unharmed.
This unfortunate experience has left me with a couple of conclusions.
First, I already know this, but I'd like to repeat it here: New York tends to get a bad rap, which is largely undeserved. Within about 30 seconds, at least two strangers had stopped to try to help me out. Without their intervention, things might have spiraled out of control - either through him breaking my camera/lens/arm (more likely), or through me giving the side of his skull the business end of the Canon 5D's magnesium alloy body (less likely).
Second, I cannot believe how sharp this lens is at f/1.2. It's otherworldly - not to mention the incredibly creamy bokeh... I will own this one day.
So there's the story of this picture. It was hard-won, I'd say. He's a handsome gent, if completely insane and dangerous. If you're walking buy a sunglasses table at around 16th and 6th, watch yourselves.
Also, out of curiosity, if you've read this far: has anything like this ever happened to you?
As for the ethics/morals/logistics/etc. of taking candid photos in public, there's lots of that in the comments.