Frightening encounters: Meeting people with guns at night

Frightening encounters: Meeting people with guns at night

Part of being a night photographer is to know where to go, what to do and when to leave.

One of the most common questions I get asked is whether I have had frightening encounters with people when I am photographing at night. Although I’ve been lucky, the answer is a definite yes. I’ll mention a few.

A not-so-abandoned motel at night near historic Route 66 in Ash Fork, AZ.

“You better get that stuff the f*** away from here!”

Sometimes what you think is abandoned is not quite abandoned. Certainly, this was the case with an old motel in Ash Fork, Arizona. I pulled up to this dilapidated motel with overgrown shrubs and weeds. I took a quick test shot to see if my light painting was on point. Right after the shot, the office door about five feet from me whipped open. From inside, a squatter angrily yelled, “You better get that stuff the f*** away from here!”

While it’s perfectly OK to take photos from the sidewalk, I didn’t argue. Better to leave. I didn’t ask if he had any vacancies either.

What you are seeing is my one and only test shot, so my sky is much darker than usual since this was a relatively short 30-second exposure. Good thing my light painting was OK.

Two Guns, AZ along Route 66. Night photo with handheld light painting.
Two Guns, AZ along Route 66. Night photo with handheld light painting.

“That’s far enough!”

“Hey, what are you doing?!?” The voice came from the nearby RV that was boondocking near this abandoned structure at Two Guns, AZ, an abandoned rest stop along Interstate 40.

When you are a night photographer, a lot of questions begin with that question. I waved and slowly walked over to talk.

“That’s far enough! I’ve got a gun!” he said behind the screen door of the RV.

“That’s alright, I don’t want any trouble,” I calmly explained. “How are you?” Asking how someone is often defuses the situation and opens the door for conversation. Sometimes.

“Are you going to be here long?”

I assured him that we would be quiet. “That’s good, I’m trying to get some sleep,” he replied. We began to talk. “You have a nice RV,” I mentioned. A compliment sometimes gets people to loosen up. And sure enough, he began talking more conversationally. He was driving an RV cross-country, and he liked stopping here.

He had already been here two days. “Yesterday, some kids were skateboarding in that pool there,” jerking his head toward the empty graffiti-stained pool nearby. “I thought you might be one of those guys again.”

“No, we’re just a few night photographers, just taking photos.”

“We get a few of you around here too.”

We wished each other well. I got on to taking photos. He got on to sleeping with his gun nearby.

Two Guns gas station, AZ. "Route 66 Abandoned: Under a Western Moon" by Ken Lee
Two Guns gas station, AZ. “Route 66 Abandoned: Under a Western Moon” by Ken Lee

“Just so you know, I’ve got a gun”

I was at Two Guns, AZ for the second night in a row. Shortly after taking this photo, I walked outside, set up my camera tripod, and began looking through it. I had been near the service station for about half an hour.

A guy had been standing there for about 10 minutes, watching me as I got focus.

“Hey, what are you doing?” The time-honored phrase to begin a conversation at night.

I resisted the urge to reply, “I’m peering through a camera on a tripod. You can’t tell I’m making sushi?”

“I’m taking photos.”

“That’s good. Some people come by here to take photos.”

He was speaking quietly, so I lifted up my head and took a couple of steps toward him.

“Just so you know, I’ve got a gun.”

“Seems like a lot of people do.”

“I thought you might have been one of those boys that was around here last week. They were throwing rocks at my RV.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. Not to worry, I’m not a boy. And I have no rocks. I’m just here to take photos.”

“That’s good. I’ll let you do that.” This struck me as hilarious since it looked like he was boondocking.

He began talking some more. He said that he was watching the property for an owner that wanted to turn the place into a glamping area. I almost laughed out loud. Two Guns was just off the Interstate, with constant trucks and cars whooshing by, in the middle of nowhere.

It wasn’t particularly beautiful or scenic either. There were far more desirable places that people might glamp. “I watch this place, make sure it’s OK. I clean up too.” The place was not very clean. If he had worked even a day cleaning, the place would have been far cleaner. There were no dumpsters or garbage cans anywhere either. “Hey, that’s great! Sounds like the owner really trusts you,” I said. “You bet.”

He started to walk off, then stopped. “Don’t be thinking about stealing that,” he muttered, waving his hand at two ATVs on a trailer.

“Not to worry, your ATV is safe with me.”

Mojave Tropico, which no longer exists. Night photo with handheld light painting.
Mojave Tropico, which no longer exists. Night photo with handheld light painting.

“You’ll have to leave now”

We were photographing at what looked to be an unused former film location. The Antelope Valley has a number of them. This was called Mojave Tropico.

I had just begun a test shot when a white base-level pickup pulled up. A few of my night photographers friends and I have an ongoing joke. It seems like every time security shows up, they are driving a white base-level pickup.

I continued light painting and going about my business, then clicked off the camera. Then I casually walked toward the truck. I often walk over to these white base-level pickups slowly while waving and smiling. This shows that I don’t believe I am doing anything wrong and that I am friendly. It has worked quite well so far.

“Hi, may I help you?” I said. This is also something I say quite often if someone shows up, security or not. It might indicate that I am helpful, sure, but I do it because it implies that I am supposed to be here and connotes an air of authority.

That didn’t work this time, though.

“Hey, what are you doing here?” The time-honored question.

“Taking night photos! Beautiful night for it. I can show you what we’re doing if you’d like!” I was pulling out all the stops this time, knowing we were just about to be asked to leave.

“Thanks, but no. You’re not allowed to be here.” The person was very friendly but firm. They were from the mine, which apparently now owned the property. “You’ll have to leave.”

“I understand,” I replied. “We’ll pack up and be on our way.”