Yesterday I mentioned that almost immediately upon my arrival in Brussels on Wednesday, I found myself in a conflict with a local.
Here's the story.
At about 10:30 a.m., I was walking on the Avenue de Stalingrad from the train station to the center of the city. I was noticing the interesting shopfronts, many with Arabic writing and Middle Eastern or North African names and themes. The avenue has a wide median with trees and benches, and I was standing in the median taking pictures of a tree shadow across a closed shop.
Suddenly a young, bearded, brown-eyed man came out of a doorway and, yelling at the top of his lungs, ran straight at me.
I scarcely had time to react before he grabbed me by the jacket and shook me, yelling in my face something about mon maison -- probably "Why are you taking pictures of my house?" (As mentioned, I was photographing an apparently vacant shop, not the windows he pointed to above the shop, in what was not a house but clearly a multi-story apartment building. But I understand the confusion.)
I tried to explain but the guy didn't want to hear it. He pushed me and hit my camera several times and bellowed "DELETE! DELETE! DELETE!" inches from my face.
People were emerging from shops up and down the street to watch this very loud spectacle.
I've always wondered what I would do if asked (!) to delete a photo. In some cases, I might try to state my case in a friendly way -- but that was clearly not the path to take here. This guy was flat-out enraged. I have been challenged by people before while taking pictures, but never with this much volume, venom and violence.
So I deleted the pictures, allowing him to watch as I did so. (They weren't that great anyway.)
When I finished, he grabbed my jacket again and pushed me backwards, so that I very nearly fell. I turned right around and walked away, wanting only to get out of there. I passed an old man on a bench, who looked at me sympathetically and wobbled his hand beside his head -- the international "crazy" gesture. I nodded in agreement.
Now, I know that street photography is not everybody's thing. But photographing the exterior of an urban building, on a street that visitors must frequent often, hardly seems transgressive. Google Streetview? Real estate agents? His reaction was clearly off the charts -- unless he was genuinely mentally ill, or traumatized, or hiding something, or all three. And who knows. Maybe he was.
I considered going to the police. But in the end, I wasn't hurt, my camera wasn't damaged, and while being pushed around and manhandled could perhaps be considered some kind of assault, I didn't want to spend my one day in Brussels in a police station. I felt like it was best to let the whole thing lie.
(Photo: A sculpture known as La Pasionara, on Avenue de Stalingrad, just a short distance from where my altercation occurred. Ironically, it represents freedom of personal expression.)