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Stealth Photography

This is an off topic post.

Most people don’t think of me as a photographer, but it’s true, I am. Not a good one, mind you, but a photographer. I take a lot of photos. Some days I take hundreds, and they all pretty much look the same. Crappy. Nor am I interested in any of the photos I take, rather I delete them from the camera as soon as possible. I don’t even own a camera; rather I borrow my wife’s cheap Canon with the broken auto-cover lens cap, and I take that little battery sucking clunker with me every few days, taking photos all over Phoenix. Some days it even puts my personal safety in jeopardy, but I do it, and I have gotten very stealthy at it. I am a Stealth Photographer.

What I photograph is ‘distressed’ properties. Hundreds of them every month. In good neighborhoods and bad, but mostly bad. I drive through some streets where every third house is vacant or abandoned; foreclosed upon and bank owned in many cases, but often the bank simply has not had the time to process the paperwork. There are so many foreclosures that the banks cannot keep up, and values are dropping fast enough that the banks have trouble understanding what the real market value might be. So in order to assess value, in Phoenix it has become customary for banks to contract with real estate brokers to offer an opinion of value on a property. This is all part of what is called a Broker Price Opinion, or BPO for short. Think of it as “appraisal lite”. And as my wife is a real estate broker, she gets a lot of these requests to gauge relative market value.

Wanting to help my wife out as much as possible, I take part in this effort by driving past the homes and taking photos of homes the banks are interested in. And when you are in a place where the neighbors are not so neighborly, you learn some tricks for not attracting attention. Especially in the late afternoon when there are 10-20 people hanging around, drinking beer, waiting for the Sherriff to come and evict them. This is not a real Kodak moment. You will get lots of unwanted attention if you are blatant about it and walk up and start shooting pictures of someone’s house. Best case scenario they throw a bottle at you, but it goes downhill from there quickly. 

So this is how I became a Stealth Photographer. I am a master with the tiny silver camera, sitting it on the top of the door of the silver car and surreptitiously taking my shots. How to hold the camera by the rear view mirror but pointing out the side window so it looks like I am adjusting the mirror. I have learned how to drive just fast enough not to attract attention, but slow enough so the autofocus works. I have learned how to set the camera on the roof with left hand, shooting across the roof of the car. My favorite maneuver is the ‘Look left, shoot right’ because it does not look like you are taking a picture if you are not looking at the property. Front, both sides, street, address and anything else the bank wants, so there are usually two passes to be made. There is a lot to be said about body language, when to make eye contact, and confidence in order to avoid confrontation for personal safety and security. I have done this often enough now that it is totally safe and seldom does anyone know what I am doing.

Sometimes I go inside the homes to assess condition and provide interior shots. I count bedrooms, holes in the walls, determine if any appliances or air conditioning units still remain. Usually the appliances are gone, and occasionally the light fixtures, ceiling fans, light switches, garage door opener and everything else of value has disappeared. One home someone had even taken the granite counters. Whether it is a $30k farmer’s shack or a $2M dollar home in Scottsdale, the remains are remarkably consistent with old clothes, broken children’s toys, empty 1.75?s of vodka and beer bottles being what is left behind.

For months now I have been hearing these ads on the radio about crime in Phoenix escalating. The Sherriff’s office attribute much of this to illegal immigration, with Mexican Mafia ‘Coyotes’ making a lot of money bringing people across the border, then dropping immigrants into abandon houses. The radio ads say if you suspect a home of being a ‘drop house’ for illegal immigrants to call the police. I had been ridiculing the ads as propaganda and not paying them much attention with immigration numbers were supposed to be way down in Arizona. Until this last week … when I walked into a drop house. That got my attention in a hurry! They thankfully left out the back door before I came in the front, leaving nothing save chicken wings, broken glass, beer and toiletries items. This could have been a very bad moment if the ‘Coyotes’ had still been inside. Believe me, this was a ‘threat model’ I had not considered, and blindly ignored some of the warnings right in front of my ears. So let’s just say I am now taking this very seriously and making some adjustments to my routine.

—Adrian Lane

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By Christopher  on  09/21  at  09:40 AM

Have you looked into those spy magazines, they actually have cameras that look like radar detectors and mount in/on the rear view mirror.  I never had a need for that type of stuff, but you got me thinking about that.

By Rob  on  09/21  at  11:28 PM

This sort of experience might inspire me to do this sort of work with an armed partner. Not obviously armed, but armed nonetheless.

In truth, I can’‘t even imagine the sort of neighborhoods you’‘re talking about. I guess I really do live in a Colorado bubble.

By Paul  on  09/24  at  03:05 PM

Understanding that snaps which have been taken surreptitiously are probably not the best advert for the neighbourhood, I suppose the sad irony is that you’‘re trying to portray the house and neighbourhood in the best light, but by resenting your presence, the residents are doing the exact opposite.

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