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Backstory: Scariest Encounter


Published December 28, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.

James Buck in Ethiopia - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • James Buck in Ethiopia

This "backstory" is a part of a collection of articles that describes some of the obstacles that Seven Days reporters faced while pursuing Vermont news, events and people in 2022.

I've been detained and threatened with arrest twice in my 20-year career as a photographer: first, by regime thugs while I was shooting revolutionary protests in Egypt; second, trying to photograph a train for Seven Days.

Wielding a camera can be dangerous. When I work in conflict zones, I feel a cautionary dread. That anxiety sometimes spills over when I shoot in "safe" places, too, because my nervous system doesn't know the difference.

The threat is in your mind, I say to myself when I'm working in Vermont.

Until one fall day, on a local shoot, it was standing right in front of me. I was at a campground in New Haven from which I was hoping to catch a passing Vermont Rail Systems train — with my camera. I had permission to photograph the anticipated locomotive but had accidentally parked on a private road.

The first person I encountered asked with mild curiosity what I was doing and helped me decipher the train schedule. But a few minutes later, a second person came roaring up on a lawn tractor and yelled at me to leave.

When I tried, he positioned the tractor in the road to block my exit, while speaking in an aggressive, menacing way. He wouldn't let me go until I showed him my photos. And there were none, of course, because the train hadn't come.

I felt the same full-body existential fear I experienced in Egypt. I could die here, I thought. Anything could happen.

Despite the terror, I tried to stay calm, friendly and open. I showed him the nonexistent photos and was eventually able to get away.

A few days later, the state police called to say the guy might press trespassing charges. I had to find a criminal defense lawyer, talk to Seven Days editors and ask prosecutors for advice. I lived under a cloud of fear for weeks. Happily, the paper supported me.

Even though it's only a misdemeanor, any kind of black mark could prevent me from doing the work I care most about: humanitarian photography in conflict and crisis zones. This year, I photographed relief efforts in Ukraine, Haiti, Ethiopia. Drought, starvation, war. I try to highlight aid work and bring in more dollars to help the afflicted.

I always thought that if I were to get into trouble in Vermont, it would be for shooting corrupt landlords or protesters burning copies of Seven Days. But it was for parking on a rural roadside, waiting for a train.