Tuesday, October 15, 2013

When an Audience is Not Okay

I like to think I'm invisible.

When I'm out on the streets, I like to think that I just blend in with the crowd, and, thankfully, most of the time, I do. I'm not saying that I have any kind of celebrity status or any kind of fame, whereby people come up to me and ask, "Are you Ross Brown? That writer and blogger, and photo guy?" Cos, believe me, I have no such illusions.

But Ottawa is a small town and I know a lot of people. It's amazing how I can find myself downtown, or in the Byward Market, or in Westboro, and I'll run into people that I haven't seen in years. Or people who I haven't seen in weeks. Or months.

But inevitably, wherever I go in this city, there's a decent chance that I'm going to run into a familiar face. Back me up, Ottawans: am I right?

And yet, there are times when I want to go about my business or get to where I'm going without stopping to say hello. Without interruption.

I'm shy, after all.

But there is one place in particular where I truly wish I were invisible: Bate Island.

For the most part, I am. I will drive onto the island and pull into the same parking space, hop out of my car with my camera in hand, walk to my spot, take my picture, and then haul out of there. I don't tend to linger, unless the lighting is particularly nice in other spots, and I take a couple more shots.

But me doing so is rare, and I almost never do it in the morning.

These days, the sun is rising later, and so I arrive on the island in the waxing glow of daylight and I have to take my shots with a tripod. If the weather is overcast, it can be dark. And, last Friday, it was so foggy that I could see very little. My Bate Island Project photo, a one-minute exposure, showed nothing but the bush at the end of the island. It was a little creepy.

If I truly were invisible, I'd have no problem. I would set up my shot, take it, and leave, totally unnoticed. But for a couple of weeks, now, I've had an audience for my morning shots.

The first time I noticed him, it wasn't until I had set my camera on my tripod and had taken a series of shots, exposures from about 30 to 50 seconds. On my last, longest exposure, I happened to look around while counting out the time, when I saw him. A man, in shadow, sitting on a nearby picnic table.

He didn't seem to be doing anything. He was just sitting there, looking in my direction. In the dim light, I couldn't make out his face. He was wearing a dark baseball cap and was wearing a striped sweater. He didn't say anything; he didn't move. He just sat there.

I finished counting to 50, packed up my equipment, and headed straight for my car. This is the photo I was taking when I noticed him: you can also see it better here, on Flickr.

That was on a Tuesday morning. I don't always arrive at the same time for my morning shots, and I only arrive really early, before sunrise, a couple of times each week. It wasn't until that Friday when I returned for another pre-dawn shot.

This time, as I walked past the picnic table, I saw that it was vacant. In fact, nothing stirred that unseasonably mild morning. I set up my equipment and started taking shots. It was another overcast sky, with only a slight clearing in the east, which shed a slight purple glow to the sky over the downtown core. Here is the shot, on Flickr:

Just as I finished snapping this shot, I heard footsteps from behind me. I turned around and, only 10 to 15 feet from me, and closing, was the guy I had seen on Tuesday. He was heading straight for me.

Startled, I unclipped my camera from the tripod, threw it onto my shoulder, and picked up the tripod, holding it diagonally in front of me, like it was a weapon. I snapped the legs together so that it looked like a heavy staff.

"Good morning," I said in a firm (and probably unfriendly) voice. I had a good look at the man. He was an older man, somewhere in his mid to late sixties, with grey hair under his ball cap and a weathered face, as though he had spent most of his years working outside. He wore a dark blue windbreaker, which was unzipped, and his round belly extended beyond the confines of the jacket.

As soon as I spoke, he made a sharp 90-degree turn to my left and headed straight for a posted plaque (I've seen the plaque hundreds of times but have never actually looked at it; no doubt, it describes the trees on the island or how the island has been used in the past). Keeping my eyes on him while I retracted the tripod legs, but ready to wield it if the need arose, I watched the man make to read the plaque, in near darkness, before wandering toward the parking lot, where his car was parked a few spaces from mine.

My equipment packed, I made my way to my own car. The man was sitting in his own, with the engine off, when I jumped in my car, locked the doors, and sped off to work.

I saw the man, who I now call Creepy Guy, on the following Tuesday, wandering around the park but keeping a safe distance from me while I took my photos. Two mornings later, his car (a deep red Toyota Corolla, maybe five or six years old, with Québec plates) was pulling into the lot as I was pulling out. And last Friday, he was sitting in his car when I pulled into the parking lot. While I was setting up my camera and tripod, he got out of his car and stood by it, just watching me from a distance.

Folks, today is the third Tuesday since I had first seen Creepy Guy. Depending on when you read this post, I am either a few hours away from taking my Bate Island Project shot or have already taken it. I don't like audiences when I'm alone in a dimly lit setting. I don't like an audience that has already tried to approach me, who didn't explain his reason for coming up to me, or has attempted any communication.

But the project will continue. If I see Creepy Guy again, I'm taking his picture. I'm getting his license-plate number. And I'm posting them.

Because if I should become invisible, I want you to know where to start looking.


  1. Sounds like the beginning to a good story...mysterious creepy guy...dark and isolated area...just don't get killed in the first chapter :)

  2. Maybe he's blogging about "Suspicious Camera Guy"...