Gone in 6 Seconds: How Thieves in Saint Petersburg Stole My Gear

Saint Petersburg is a beautiful, colourful, monumental city. Coupled with the behaviour and questionable fashion choices of some of its inhabitants, it’s a photographer’s paradise. It also has a very bad reputation for being a hotbed of most types of criminal activity, from corporate crime to kidnappings and murder, right down to petty theft. I thought this reputation seemed a little undeserved as this was my fourth visit in as many years with no incident; ultimately becoming exactly the reason I fell victim to its curse.

Spilt Blood

It’s a sunny winter morning and I’m taking a walk along the mighty River Neva in temperatures which would make zero feel like summer. We’d just arrived from Moscow by train and were taking advantage of  the time we had to burn before checking into the hotel. Blue skies bring out the best in Saint Petersburg’s notoriously colourful buildings, while the fresh snow glistens like a freshly steam-cleaned white carpet under the bridges traversing old Leningrad’s countless canals.

After shooting some of the major sights around the city, we headed back to the hotel along Nevsky Prospekt, a sprawling boulevard lined with colossal 19th century buildings painted in every pastel colour you could imagine, punctuated with variously-designed churches of different denominations.

As we rounded the corner and up a large side-street, a friendly young man ran up from behind me, thrust some calendars and hats in my face, and begged me to follow him to his souvenir store. As is my general policy with such things, I declined without breaking-step. I know where to find souvenirs without being corralled there by strangers.

He tried the same on Mirjana, who wasn’t enjoying her -15 degree surroundings and whisked him away with less than a word. He then decided to chase down someone behind us.

Five minutes later as we entered the hotel, it dawned on me that my camera was without a lens. Immediately realising where it had gone, my heart sank.

I couldn’t believe someone would be capable of removing the lens (requiring the pressing of a button on the front of the camera while twisting it 90 degrees, so I googled “how to steal a camera lens” and the first result made my heart skip a beat:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4YWaloz-Duw

Apart from the fact that my camera was not around my neck but over one shoulder and hanging to my side (and the fact that this guy noticed) this is basically how it went down.

Reading the frustrations of camera-owners on many forums, it became clear that this is an incredibly frequent occurrence blighting the experiences of many of those wishing to visit the so called “Venice of the North”.

What’s worse: there’s no way you can really stop it.

These thugs are no-doubt armed with knives, so any resistance once their hands are on your gear would almost-certainly result in personal injury, or at the very least the spine-chilling situation where you’re probably asked to hand over everything you own at knife-point.

It was all caught on camera and it’s in police hands, though as one officer said when asked about the prospects of seeing the lens again, “do you believe in miracles?”

All in all, given a few days to relax, I am glad it wasn’t worse. Mirjana could have been holding the camera and I could have seen what they were doing and tried to intervene, escalating the situation. We could have been asked to hand over everything, which, since we had just arrived, included iPhones, tablets and laptops, not to mention cash and passports.

I could do without replacing a $1000 lens that I need for my job, but in the end I still have my camera body, the photos on the SD card, and we both have our lives.

My advice? Saint Petersburg – and Russia more broadly – is not a place where you can let your guard down. Efforts to curb corruption and reform the police force clearly have not been successful, as this exact type of theft appears to happen daily. If you own a DSLR camera, hide it as best you can. Only have it on show while you’re shooting, and not when you’re walking. Be “that guy” and wear your backpack on the front. Every effort to make it harder for thieves to recognise you have expensive equipment are paramount, because once they know, there’s really nothing you can do.

Narrowing the Focus

Kosovo 2014 Map

After completing the first year of my communication (so-called) degree, plus the “Political Change in the Middle East” overseas exchange program in Turkey, it has become clearer to me where my interests lie. As is obvious, both travel and story-telling are my passion, but it has become increasingly apparent that a focus on international relations and long-form journalism is probably where I am going to end up. It’s no surprise then, that the most likely career-path is that of a foreign correspondent. Geographically, I am most passionate about Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

So, as the title goes, I am now lowering my sights and honing-in on my speciality. With that in mind, I present to you my travel plans for June through August:

Kosovo 2014 Map

Basically, I plan on checking out Cologne – only because I fly into Frankfurt with a few days to spare – before flying to Kyiv.

I’ve always loved Ukraine after travelling there twice, and I followed the Euromaidan protests from day one. I’ve made some contacts there who I will be meeting up with in order to gain a better insight into both the revolution and the ongoing conflict in the east. I’ll travel as far east as Russia will allow me (who knows what the situation there will be like) including to Crimea (again, if possible).

Unless the situation deteriorates any further, I will fly from Kharkiv to Pristina, Kosovo, where I’m enrolled in a 5 week summer-school program. The course is run by the American University in Kosovo, and focuses on conflict journalism, as well as post-conflict transformation and development. During the 5 weeks, the university will take the group to parts of Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia, which will certainly add to the learning experience given the recent histories of those places.

Finally, after the course I will fly up to Munich for a week to catch up with old friends from across Europe who are converging on the city for the very same reason.

I honestly can’t decide which part of the trip I am most excited for!

 

Crossing Bridges

As the headline goes, I am very excited about continuing to journey across this little bridge in my life. It’s a metaphorical bridge of course, transporting me from my existence of almost vagabondism, to one with (a sense of) purpose: this whole “journalism” thing. This philosophical musing brings me to an actual, real bridge – perhaps the most exciting in the world – which crosses the Bosphoros in Istanbul.

Actually, there are two such bridges, and neither have any particularly interesting traits. They’re not iconic like the one in Sydney Harbour, nor are they historically significant like London’s Tower Bridge. They’re also not particularly long or architecturally ground-breaking like San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.

What makes them – and moreover, Istanbul – so appealing is the fact that they connect Europe with Asia. The geography-nerd in me is excited to venture into the Caucasus for the first time, and my history-obsessed mind can’t wait to explore the remnants of the old Greek and Muslim civilisations. The bridges themselves aren’t even 50 years old, but the collision and continuing amalgamation of east and west that defines Istanbul has been occurring for almost two millennia.

The reason for my travel to that region is simple. A “Political Change in the Middle East” course was advertised in my “Israel and the Middle East” history class. I applied, and was accepted. Naturally, I had to turn the three-week course into something more substantial. Here’s what I came up with:

Travel Map

I’m travelling to Montenegro and Albania with another student from the course; something that was easy to organise, courtesy of Facebook. He’s part-Albanian, and we will spend New Years Eve there, just for something a bit different. After that, we’ll fly to Istanbul for the course, which will also take us to Gallipoli and Ankara. Hopefully I can find my great-great-uncle’s grave there (nobody in my family has visited before, despite their best intentions to).

After the course, I’ll head straight to Israel; a place I found both fun and intensely intriguing. I have plenty of friends there and may attempt to access Gaza or the West Bank to do a little bit of journalism.

Finally, my cousin Liv will join me in Tel Aviv, and we will fly to Georgia and make our way around there, with a brief jaunt in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan.

So that’s where my focus is at the moment. I’m back in Melbourne earning as much money as I possibly can, in the hopes that I can buy myself a new DSLR and add another string to my professional bow. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my first year back at University since 2007, but more on that soon.

The Superclásico, River Plate vs. Boca Juniors

A note to readers: I forgot to bring two memory cards, so I had to share one card between my camera and my video camera. Once the match started, I used only the video camera, and the footage is too large to upload on the internet here. I will update this with the footage once I get home.

I had always intended on making it to a Boca Juniors game, given their status as one of the biggest/most successful football clubs in the world, but when I found out that Buenos Aires’ biggest derby – the Superclásico – was being played, I had to be there. It was completely sold-out, but a guy at our hostel had 10 tickets for sale, each costing 750 pesos ($150).

Not cheap, but this was the first Superclásico Buenos Aires had witnessed in 17 months, after River were relegated to the “B” competition. By all reports, this was the game that stops the nation. We had to do it.

In the end, we had a group of about 10. The game was up in the affluent North, at Estadio Monumental Antonio Vespucio Liberti, the homeground of River Plate, the Millionarios. We caught the Subte to Belgrano, and followed the flow of fans from there to the stadium. Continue reading

Chernobyl and Pripyat

The day started with an alarm, this one at 7am. John and I were straight up and into the shower; both absolutely electric (no pun intended) with anticipation for the the day’s activities. We opened the curtains of our hotel room’s window to a stunningly clear day. Perfect for shooting photos.

We checked the clothing guidelines for the tour: no shorts, no open shoes. Damn, one place I can’t wear my thongs.

It was about 28 degrees outside, so jeans weren’t the most comfortable option but we had no other appropriate option. We walked out of the hotel and soaked in a beautiful Kiev morning. Continue reading