Photographing protests and civil disobedience is a unique challenge with opportunities abound thanks to the current political climate in the United States and around the world. Protest photography is especially captivating as it allows you to practice street photography skills while also getting a taste for very raw, real human emotion. However, photographing a protest and walking away with unique images is by far the hardest part of the whole experience. Not only are 99% of the protesters armed with cameras themselves, but the chaotic nature of protests can be very overwhelming.
I’ve attended and photographed my fair share of protests from Occupy Wall Street to Shut Down Bangkok, and most recently the Inauguration of President Donald Trump and ensuing Women’s March on Washington. Sometimes I’m on assignment to cover protests, and other times I’ve attended out of sheer personal interest. In every case, I’ve found the events to be extremely eye-opening while also providing ample opportunity to exercise my photography skills.
With these unsettling times in the USA and world in general, there will be many opportunities to partake in protest or activism photography. If you choose to do so, check out these 5 tips on how to photograph a protest. To be clear, this post and accompanying photos are not being published as a political statement of any kind. Rather, they are intended as purely objective, journalistic images.
1. Equip yourself.
First off, make sure you’re properly equipped to shoot the protest. In general, the basic event photography kit is best since it includes a telephoto lens to zoom in from afar, a wide-angle lens to show the crowd and establish a sense of place, and a mid-range zoom that you can carry all day. I’d also recommend throwing in a prime lens such as the Canon 50mm lens to be more discrete and low profile if necessary. During the recent Inauguration Day protests and Women’s March on Washington, I tried shooting with a mirrorless camera instead of a DSLR.
During the recent Inauguration Day protests and Women’s March on Washington, I tried shooting with the Sony a6300 mirrorless camera with 24-240mm lens instead of my usual DSLR. While I appreciated the compact body of the Sony, I found that it had too much delay between shots to effectively capture high action shots. Thus, I would highly recommend investing in a DSLR over a mirrorless camera for shooting protests.
2. Dress for the occasion.
In addition to proper camera gear, you also want to dress properly. For protest and activist photography, this means a solid pair of walking shoes and clothing that you can flexibly move around in for long periods of time. If it’s cold out or rain is expected, layer up and stick a packable rain coat or poncho in your bag. Also, don’t forget sunglasses or a scarf that can act as a shield in the event of pepper spray or tear gas from the police. Which leads to my next tip…
3. Always mind the police. Be attentive and alert.
Whether it is a violent or non-violent protest, there will almost certainly be a heavy police presence. Generally speaking, they will keep their distance as long as it remains a non-violent protest. But it only takes one dissenter or anarchist to get the police on their guard. It isn’t unusual for them to use crowd management tactics such as pepper spray, rubber bullets, or tear gas. Always be alert and at the first sign of pandemonium, get out of the way or risk being injured or even arrested. In the event of chaos, it’s always better to be behind the police, instead of in front of them to avoid getting wrapped up in the violence.
4. Follow event organizer social media accounts and hashtags.
During a large-scale protest or event, it can be difficult to keep tabs on what’s going on. For example, the Women’s March on Washington had such a big turnout that it was hard to navigate. Even though I was surrounded by people, one seemed to know what was going on. This is when social media, particularly Twitter, can come in handy. Before the protest, try to find and follow the main Twitter accounts of event organizers and the hashtags that they’ll be using. During the event, keep up with the accounts and hashtags for the scoop on what’s going on, where meetings and events are taking place, etc.
4. Shoot a variety of photos.
Throughout the protest, be sure to capture a wide variety of photos, with a big emphasis on hero shots that show context and illustrate the event in single snapshots. This often times requires breaking away from the crowd to capture unique vantage points.
a) Capture emotion.
Whenever possible, capture strong emotions. Accompanying protest signs and encounters with police are obvious scenarios that convey tons of emotion, but simply zooming on a person with strong body language can also make for a moving image.
b) Establish a sense of place.
In every photo you take, aim to establish a clear sense of place. The best way to do this is to include notable landmarks in your photos. This helps distinguish the protest or event from others that might be taking place simultaneously. Also, these landmarks tend to be gathering spots or destinations for protesters so they can be good areas for staking out and waiting for the perfect scene to unfold. For example, I staked out three main areas during the Women’s March on Washington: the U.S. Capitol, the White House, and Trump International Hotel. Sure enough, these three destinations attracted a majority of the protesters and also established a very clear sense of place so that my photos would stand apart from other Women’s March images taken throughout the country.
c) Capture notable speakers and leaders.
Almost every protest has a platform and a leader who will speak to fire up the crowd. Get as close as you can to the stage and get photos of the speakers in action. If you can’t get near the stage or miss the moment, hang around the perimeter and capture the speakers interacting with people after the fact.
In Washington DC, the Women’s March was so congested that I couldn’t get anywhere near the main stage. I completely missed all of the action on the stage. However, I was able to sneak a photo of Michael Moore after the event when I caught him being escorted around the perimeter of the event.
d) Get up high.
A key hero shot for protest photography is getting wide angle photos that show a sense of scale. How big was the crowd? The best way to get this type of shot is to get elevated for a bird’s eye view. This can be easy to do if you have access to a building rooftop, balcony, or public staircase. However, you will sometimes need to get creative and think outside of the box. At the Women’s March, in particular, I observed many people with cameras trying to get this elevated shot in a variety of creative manners. Some photographers climbed trees, others climbed light posts, and one even climbed on top of a man’s shoulders. Do what you can to get the shot, but keep your safety in mind.
e) Capture the aftermath.
What happens when the protest is over? Sometimes, the aftermath can make for even more powerful imagery. After the Women’s March, I went back to the scene and was moved by the piles of discarded Donald Trump protest signs in front of his hotel. Trump supporters also appeared to help clean up the signs for proper disposal, leading to a clash between them and remaining Women’s Marchers in the streets. By this time, most of the news camera crews had dissipated, so I was one of few photographers left to document the scene.
5. Make your photos discoverable.
After you capture pictures of people protesting, it is important to make them easy to find. Make a point to edit and upload your images as quickly as possible following the event. After you edit your photos, be sure to add metadata such as keywords and photo descriptions. Without metadata, your photos are unlikely to appear in online search results.
a) Add metadata (keywords, copyright notice).
Adding metadata can be done directly through photo editing software such as Adobe Bridge (as seen below) or Lightroom, or it can also be done through certain photo sharing websites. It doesn’t matter how you add metadata, but do it in some shape or form before publishing photos.
b) Watermark photos and create low-resolution versions to prevent theft.
If you post your photos online, there’s no guarantee that they won’t be stolen or used without your permission. But to help prevent this from happening, there are two things you can do. First, add a watermark to your photo. Second, only upload low-resolution, small photos. Keep your high-resolution photos on file in case someone requests them, but never upload them directly to online.
c) Upload photos to social media.
One of the best ways to get high visibility of your photos is to upload them to social media sites. Facebook is an obvious choice, but also consider 500px, Flickr, SmugMug, and other photo-sharing websites. Don’t worry about being repetitive! Upload the same photos to multiple sites for maximum exposure. Just make sure all photos have keywords to help them get found.
d) Alert news outlets of your photos.
Send a link to your photos to national, local, and specialty outlets who might be interested in photo coverage. Keep the email short and sweet.
Protest photography is a great way to engage yourself in public discourse while practicing street photography and photojournalism skills. If you decide to attend a protest, follow the tips above to help you capture memorable imagery.