I've been in a lot of scary situations doing my photo work for national news magazines, mostly feature stories in big cities, where I was variously threatened with guns, knives and assorted blunt objects by various citizens because I was often interrupting their street business or venturing onto turf where I was an inviting target with expensive bangles on my shoulders. Amazingly, by either guile, luck, inspiration or 45 caliber solutions, I was able to make it through many such adventures with only vivid memories and amazingly high levels of adrenaline in my bloodstream as a consequence.
Another scary moment, this time with a wild animal, is also worth the telling and the telling is devoid of any politically correct risk.
I was on a really fun assignment to shoot vacationers all over the state of Michigan. One innocuous location was the bank of the Huron River, not far from Ann Arbor, where canoers launched their crafts for a day trip on the river. All in all, a very non-risky job.
Just before sunset, when I finished shooting the boaters, I turned into the very tree shaded, dark forested land adjoining the river bank which would take me, by shortcut, to where my van was parked. I had a 300mm lens on the camera with ISO 50 Fuji Velvia loaded aboard (all you people who started with digital only, take note - this was FILM) Just short of the van, my assistant, about 30 feet away from me at the vehicle, in an exaggerated stage whisper called out "don't move, David." I stopped in my tracks. I asked him what he was talking about. He said to turn around 180 degrees, very, very slowly. I did. What I saw was literally unbelievable. Staring right into my eyes, about 15 feet away, was what looked exactly like a black panther, weighing about 150 to 175 pounds, with some huge fangs showing in his open mouth! I was too freaked out for a moment to know what to do but stare. And, stare I did, until my autopilot idiot photo genes kicked in. I very slowly backed straight back a few steps and asked my assistant to hand me a camera loaded with ISO 400 film and an f/2.0 short lens to get a shot of this insane scene - black panthers are definitely not native to Michigan. I quickly got the camera, not taking my eyes off the big cat, and slooooowly walked forward to try to get a decent shot with the fast wide angle. For every step I took towards him, he backed up, making the distance between us constant. Finally, after about 20 steps in our mutual dance, he sidestepped behind a rock about 10 feet in diameter. When I slowly moved forward, afraid he might leaped around the rock at me at any moment, he had to have run straight back behind the rock, further into the dense woods, so that when I finally mustered the courage to peak around the rock, he was nowhere to be seen.
Just about then, the utter stupidity of my behavior dawned on me; there I was, actively invading the space of a very large predator cat, instead of trying to do the opposite. All of a sudden, my knees felt awful rubbery, and I hit myself on the forehead about twenty times, counting my naive blessings.
When I went home that night, I told my wife (then girl friend) about my adventure and tried to decide if I should inform some authority, or even a news organization, about it. I decided not to, because I didn't have a picture proof and I felt they'd just think I was a crackpot of some sort, because "there are no black panthers in Michigan." Then, much to my surprise, about two weeks later, newspapers and local TV stations in the metro area started reporting horses, cattle and dogs being killed at night in the same area I spotted the panther in, and some people even reported seeing what they too thought was a black panther fleeing the scene of some of the kills. The matter was never resolved as far as I know, but, as I was definitely the only person of those reported to have seen this cat close-up, I was probably alone in knowing that it was not just a story but a very real predator cat - most likely to be a potentially deadly black panther, probably a lost exotic (and illegal) pet or zoo/circus animal loose and lost in the not too wild woods of suburban Michigan.