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Mystery Vancouver Protest Photographer Snapping Pictures of Faces and Shoes

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"Alan": Mystery Protest Photographer in Vancouver. Photo: Sandra Cuffe
"Alan": Mystery Protest Photographer in Vancouver. Photo: Sandra Cuffe

Saturday's climate justice action in Vancouver was well-attended. Many people were out, both participating and snapping photos. Media also came to record and cover the story.

One photographer in particular stood out for me, however. I remembered him from a protest against Vancouver-based mining giant Goldcorp's AGM a few years back, probably in May 2007 or so. At that time, he stood out even more, since there were relatively few people at the demo, and even fewer photographers, all of them known to the organizers.

At the Goldcorp protest a few years back, the behaviour of the mystery photographer taking close-ups of everyone's face was noticeable, so I asked him for his name and media credentials. I seem to remember that he said his name was "Alan," that he refused to give a last name, and that he said that he did not work for anyone nor publish his photos anywhere. I'm terrible with names and faces, so his behaviour must have been incredibly suspicious for me to have made a mental post-it note that survived a few years.

A friend told me that she has seen him at protests and demonstrations in Vancouver in the past three years, always attending alone, taking photographs of protest participants. And there he was again two days ago, taking pictures almost non-stop during the rally and direct action.

He stood up above the rally at the beginning, when people were gathering and listening to speakers. During the direct action, he mingled in the crowd to get better close-ups of all the people up and down the lines passing sandbags to the blockade at the World Trade Centre doors.

I have personally witnessed a radical labour movement guy being called out in the middle of a protest for being an undercover cop, when he had simply broken off from the union march because he stood in solidarity with the more radical march and action. He was judged based on his clothing, shoes, and the fact that he was walking alone in the march. It was pretty heartbreaking.

All of this is to say that I do not take raising suspicions about someone in public lightly. Whatsoever. I have never done so before.

What prompted me to do so was the fact that during the climate justice action on the weekend, I noticed that "Alan" was taking photographs of people's shoes. At first, I wondered why he was taking so many pictures of the concrete ground.

When I saw him out of the corner of my eye snapping a shot of *my* shoes, I started to wonder. (They're Clarks, women's size 9, "Alan", and all of Clarks' unstructured/unstitched treads are probably the same.)

Why would someone who professes to be just some random independent photographer who does not publish their photos anywhere be taking photos of people's shoes? Maybe it sounds paranoid, but I can't think of many reasons. Here are the ones I've come up with:

1. Shoe fetish. I mean, some people like shoes a lot, right? I saw these purple boots a couple weeks ago and they were *sexy* - that's right FH, they were hot! Of course, I don't really have a shoe fetish and simply complemented her, but some folks are *really* into shoes. Who am I to judge if someone wants to do a photo-essay on activist footwear for their own amusement?

2. Identification via shoes. Another possibility would be that photographs of shoes could help to identify someone if their face were covered. It might be a really cold day during the winter, and people might cover their faces almost entirely with a scarf, for example.

3. Identification via treads. A third idea was brought up by someone else when I mentioned the mystery photographer at the rally: that once shoes are identified, the tread pattern can easily be identified. Of course, this is a pretty common thing used in criminal investigations when there are shoeprints left behind. They totally do that on CSI, right? Of course, it could all be part of some visual art project and have absolutely nothing to do with treads.

I snapped a few photos of the mystery photographer myself, quite obviously. Later, after I noticed the whole shoes thing, he seemed to be trying to avoid me when I was approaching with my point-and-shoot set to the video setting, but I managed to catch up and face him eventually.

Me: Hi, I remember you from another protest a few years back. What media do you work for again?

"Alan": I don't. I'm independent.

Me: Where do you publish your photos?

"Alan": I don't.

In retrospect, I totally should have asked about the shoe fetish.

Anyways, if anyone is trying to conceal their identity because they're going to a masquerade ball or something of the sort, don't forget your shoes, unless you want to further contribute to the personal photo project "Alan" has been assembling over the years.

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the shoe photographing gives him away

this is serious. Taking photos of shoes is a major concern of police evidence gathering in ongoing investigations. 

I've even talked with some police on this. You can follow it as prominent in court cases too. We should really figure out who this guy is. You probably just cost him his contract with the RCMP or CSIS Sandra. Now we'll have to figure out who the new guy is. And good work.

Greg is very right on the use

Greg is very right on the use of shoe photography as a means of secondary identification.  Diversity of shoe selection has developed them into an increasing tactic. 


'Alan' isn't very good at his job, apparently. 

no attempt to blend in

yeah, it took me a while to figure out what was going on with the shoe shots. pretty creepy, actually. someone must be putting together a massive photo bank with faces/shoes/etc of anyone attending any protest.

but this guy was in no way really "undercover" unless the RCMP/CSIS have really really bad Undercover 101 training. he never [edited out a long sentence of examples. if their undercover work is that awful, i don't want to give them tips!]

and i've already seen one new guy recently, at least. he had an even bigger camera. and was around between the art gallery and the hotel where the Fraser Institute had its reception the other eve, taking pictures of all movement in front of and near the hotel lobby... if only i had as good a telephoto lens as these guys...

  They actually pay guys


They actually pay guys with photographic memories to keep tabs of people. Companies in conjunction with the RCMP would pay $500 a day back in the '90s. These photographic memories who put hundreds and hundreds of faces to particular places even after years, were very valuable. They could serve people with papers, injunctions, summons, etc., and remember the exact times they were served, where, in conjunction with who else was served in what timeline , etc. It's very valuable in court. 

When I was a kid my grandma would make me where a hood and carry a sign at rallies, because there were photographers on roofs n shit. It's hard to get a good shot, one way or another if you want the angles on everyone present you have to get down in the crowd I think, unless you got dozens of angles from outside the crowd. I think many just get paid so much, and figure 'why not go down with them, not like they're dangerous'. 

I think rallies might be wise to keep big signs, banners and tarps totally dedicated to just surrounding and blocking out videographers and photographers. I've seen this done before and it works. Of course if that actually started to work we'd maybe see photographer infiltrators. The Media Coop needs to be vigilant. 

when you were a kid?

Your grandma took you to rallies? That's awesome!

he was at the heart attack

he was at the heart attack action as well, as well as one against goldcorp... questioned him both times, same response. thanks for posting.

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