There is a growing issue here in Las Vegas about the rampant rise of street performers working for tips on the Las Vegas Strip and downtown on the Fremont Street Experience. This is a relatively recent development that has started growing in popularity over the last year or two where people dress in costume in front of the numerous Las Vegas tourist landmarks and pose with you for tips. A few nights ago I was doing a shoot on Fremont Street with a newlywed couple and in less than an hour, we met the rock band Kiss, Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, a Star Wars stormtrooper, Homer Simpson, and a wide cast of other characters…some in better costumes than others. A recent news report stated that some of these street "performers" earn as much as $700-$800 a day standing around and posing for photos with tourists.
Batman & Spiderman off-duty over by the MGM Grand.
The main reason of the rapid increase of these performers is two fold. First, the money. Obviously if you can throw together a cheesy costume, you'll earn enough to pay the rent and then some. Wear something elaborate and you can be earning a solid six-figure income. Sure beats waiting tables at Denny's if you're an out-of-work real estate agent, right? Here's the other main reason you're seeing so many of them…you don't need a permit or business license to do it. This has started to cause a lot of controversy between these entertainers and the local vendors who have to pay for their location, be a licensed business, carry insurance, and and have a permit to sell on the Strip or in the Fremont Street Experience. These entertainers can get away with this because all they are doing is standing around in a costume and people pay them tips. It wouldn't even be a shock if these street performers didn't pay their fare share in taxes either, but that's a whole other issue.
With the rise of these entertainers, I'm starting to see a whole other crop of people working for tips who don't have quite the ambitions of a guy willing to paint his face like Gene Simmons. Back in October, I was doing a shoot for a bachelorette party on the Strip here in Las Vegas and we were getting some awesome photos out in front of the Bellagio fountains. While we were waiting for the show to start, I noticed that there was someone walking around asking tourists if he could take their photo in front of the hotel in exchange for a tip. While this is normally something passers-by do for one another all the time (and something I've happily done literally hundreds of times for others) here was someone doing it for tips. Now I'm all for entrepreneurialism and I firmly believe that self-employment is the path to riches and success for everyone. I was even recently quoted in Picture Business & Mobile Lifestyle Magazine about how much I believe in capitalism and a free market for all. Yet there is a whole underlying issue here which I think is worthy of some awareness.
So here I am out in front of the Bellagio with this couple. The actual way I came to the realization about this "photographer" is due to the argument that ensued over his actions. Four college guys wanted to get their photo taken with "Batman" who was also standing there and so this public service photographer offered to take their picture for a tip. They got into pose and as the photographer stepped back with their shiny new camera. Being that this was in the evening and light was at a minimum, their camera was having difficulty focusing. Shot after shot, this 1-dollar photographer tried and tried to get a photo that was either in-focus or not all black. He just couldn't do it bot because of the limitations of the camera but also because of his limitations in knowledge on how to shoot such a shot. No biggie really, any passer-by would have had the same difficulty. As I was standing around with the couple I was with, the bride said to the foursome, "Hey, how about you let our guy take your photo?" and I gladly volunteered my services to help. I walked over to the group and the street photographer, not wanting to lose his tip said, "I've got, I've got it!" and tried a few more times in vain. Frustrated, and rather concede to someone else, he tossed the camera back to the college students and said, "I give up, here you go!" Not thinking that anyone would do such a thing, one of the four friends attempted to catch the camera but was unsuccessful and it fell to the sidewalk and smashed in pieces. The photographer shrugged his shoulders and walked away. The four, astonished at what just happened, tried to confront the picture taker but he ran from the scene. With numerous witnesses, the police were called and a report was filed. If this person was ever caught remains unknown.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago. I joke with my wife all the time that my second home is the "Welcome to Las Vegas" sign on south Las Vegas Boulevard. I was doing a shoot with a wonderful family of four here in Las Vegas on vacation. We were taking our time so as not to hog the area and be respectful of the others wanting to get their photos, we noticed another other professional photographers come and go with wedding couples now and then which is always fun to see.
After a short while, we noticed a "volunteer" photographer offering to take photos everyone out there…for a tip of course. Again, I have no problem with someone trying to earn a buck but more on this in a minute. As the five of us were out there getting our shots, we noticed this individual getting more and more pushy with the people out there as if he were an actual employee of the city hired to take photos for tourists, or something to that effect. He was really pushy and was herding everyone there as if he ran the location and it was obviously making people uncomfortable. So when I concluded the shoot with the family, they hopped into a taxi while I packed my gear and I noticed a wedding party in full Scottish ceremonial attire. The groom was in a full kilt and the bride was in a traditional Celtic dress. They looked awesome. While they were waiting in like to get some snapshots, I introduced myself as a professional photographer here in Las Vegas and gave them my business card. They told me they were here all the way from Scotland for their wedding and just wanted to get some photos of the sign on their wedding day. I told them that since they were so far from home and only have a tiny point-and-shoot camera with them that it would be my honor to shoot a few free shots for them and email it to them as a souvenir. Their eyes lit up and I shot a few pictures for them as a wedding gift. When we were done the groom gave me a firm handshake, the bride gave me a big hug, and they left with a big smile on their face.
As I began to pack my gear, our volunteer photographer stood right in front of me giving me an evil eye. Without getting into a long story as to our conversation, he told me how I was intruding on his "shift" (his exact words). He began to yell at me that I was stealing his customers and that it was his 'shift" to work out there. A bit confused, I explained that I didn't charge that couple anything and that the area was public property. Furthermore, I pointed out that other photographers along with their respective wedding parties and clients had shot there recently as well. He then began yelling at me some more and he kept insisting that I was intruding on his "shift". I then decided to raise my voice a little so as to be in earshot of the 20+ people next to us waiting to take their photos at the sign, "So, let me get this straight, are you an employee of the City of Las Vegas?" I said. He gave no answer but began yelling about his shift again. I asked again, "Are you an employee or representative by the City of Las Vegas? If so, can I see your government ID please?" I knew the answer already but I wanted to make him squirm a bit. Now, I realize that strange people do strange things and this guy going berserk on me was a distinct possibility. With so many witnesses nearby though, I wasn't too concerned.
Generally speaking, the police in Las Vegas are not particularly fond of the street performers. Knowing this, I asked the next question: "So, if this is your 'shift', I am to assume you are an employee of the City and are a professional photographer. If not, you are out here harassing people like myself as if this were an elementary school-level turf war." Just as he was about to speak I continued, "So answer me this…Do you have a business license? Are you insured? Do you have a website? Simpler yet, do you have a business card? My bet is you don't have any of those things so I'll tell you what, let's call the police and let them sort out the issue of your 'shift". I picked up my phone and acted as if I were calling the Metro police. As soon as our photographer friend saw this he began to walk away yelling epithets at me at the top of his lungs. I chuckled a bit as did some of the others nearby. As soon as he was out of earshot and began to ride away on his bicycle, two families walked up to me and thanked me as they felt really uncomfortable around this person. It was an interesting scenario indeed.
So here's the bottom line. Many street entertainers in Las Vegas are really great people just working out a way to carve out a buck for themselves. For that entrepreneurial spirit I applaud them. The challenge is, the more of them that pop up, the older ones start to think of their area as a "turf" and start to get very defensive about where they work which, in turn, means they are going to get much more aggressive to find people to pose with for family vacation photos. The best advice is, be careful out there and use a little common sense. If you are approached by these people and are uncomfortable with it, just walk away. You are under no obligation to pay anyone for standing on a street in a costume. If someone approaches you wanting to take your camera for a photo understand that these people are usually not licensed, or insured. While they may pretend to be official area photographers, they are not. I've heard from two other photographers here in Las Vegas stories about people on The Strip having their cameras stolen by people claiming to be "professional" photographers. Understand that those are not thieves are probably not insured or covered in case they damage anything of yours.
If you're looking to get some awesome vacation photos when you come to Las Vegas and don't want to settle on pictures out of your iPhone, contact a professional. One that's licensed and insured and is a real professional and if you want some stellar photos for your next trip to Vegas, be sure to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for availability and booking.
"A picture doesn't just say a thousand words, it captures a thousand memories." ~Adam Sternberg