How to photograph a protest, part 1: Be prepared

Reporting on protests and other political events in your area is one of the most exciting and rewarding ways to raise public awareness and improve your abilities. You don’t need to be an expert in any field, nor do you need mountains of expensive equipment. But you will find the process easier and more productive with some helpful advice to hand.

This three-part series on How to photograph a protest begins with Part 1: Be prepared. Here, we’ll run through some of the things to prepare in advance of a protest that you’re interested in covering. It’s written for anyone who wants to photograph protests, whether they consider themselves ‘a photographer’ or not.

1. Know your motives

Photo by Josh Jones
I seek to empower the people in my images, and emphasise their agency as individuals working together. This informs the way in which I report on large protests where thousands of people may be present.

You’re reporting on the protest because it matters to you for some reason. Perhaps it’s for a cause you support; perhaps you are concerned by the protest; perhaps you’re hoping to make money from the images you create. Hold on to this motivation – it is important. It’s what will give you the impetus to hang around in the cold or heat when you could be doing something else. Later, it’s going to keep you editing and posting photos online when you could be sleeping. Even if your motivation changes from day-to-day, keep it in your mind and re-evaluate it if you feel your momentum slipping.

2. Know the protest’s motives

Photo by Josh Jones
Smash EDO protest in Brighton, January 2010. The organisers stated their purpose was to disrupt the working of EDO, a major arms manufacturer. The resulting clashes between protesters and the police formed a centre-point for my photography on the day.

When you’ve got a sense of why you’re going to the protest, ask yourself what motivation of the protesters will have. Are you confident you know their motives? If you don’t know what a protest is going to be about, what its objectives are, and the controversy that might surround it, you may as well stay at home. Your reporting – whether visual or written – would be no better than that of a tourist who has blundered into the event while on holiday.

You need to understand the purpose of the protest in order to be able to relate the events with meaning. This applies to photojournalism even more than written reporting – because with the photo, you only get to release one complete image at a time, and you can’t control how people will interpret it. You should be considered and conscientious in your reporting, and that should start with knowing the subject.

Photo by Josh Jones
While the mainstream media focused on the destruction caused by a few individuals at the London G20 'riot' (April 2010), the attitude of most protesters was determinedly peaceful. Here, the indifferent expression of the woman in the foreground presents a counterbalance to the attacks on the Royal Bank of Scotland happening beyond.

So, check out the cause of the protest. Why are people bothering to take part? What is their cause, their motivation? Also, what are the methods of the protest – disruptive, quiet, violent, non-violent? Check out a few different sources. Speak to people that you know who are involved in the protest or familiar with the issues around it. Check out the organisers’ website or facebook page. Do all this even if you consider yourself familiar with the issues surrounding the protest already – you might be surprised by something you find, or discover a critique or article that could further inform your reporting.

Knowing the subject, and the stated purpose of the protest, does not mean that you have to support it or ‘toe the official line’. It’s about setting the scene in your head. It also enables you to make critical comparisons between what was planned and what actually happens on the day.

3. Check your equipment

Although some photographers and magazines will try and convince you otherwise, there is no ‘correct’ set of equipment you need for any one event. Your equipment will largely be set by your budget, what you have to hand, and what you feel comfortable using. A shot is defined by where you and and when you take it, not which camera you’ve used. So simply get yourself the best equipment you can buy or borrow, and make sure you understand its functions well in advance.

Whether you’re shooting in stills, video, or both, make sure you batteries are fully charged and your memory stick is clear. It’s a great idea to have a spare battery and memory in back-up – there is nothing worse than running out halfway through a long protest, and having to conserve your resources when you really want to be shooting like crazy. For batteries, I recommend the knock-off batteries that are cheap on Amazon – they are usually just as good as the ‘real thing’ and cost a fraction of the price. I use brand-name memory sticks, meanwhile, because the speed and reliability they offer is nearly impossible to find in cheaper alternatives.

Clean your lenses and lens filters the night before, or on the way to the protest. Bring a soft cloth with you in case your equipment needs re-cleaning during the protest, for instance due to rain or dust.

4. Be ready for weather

Photo by Josh Jones
Shortly after being shot with live ammunition, this Palestinian protester is carried away from advancing IDF forces. Direct sunlight meant that I could take this image while running backwards, without fear of camera-shake.

Check the weather forecast a day in advance. Ask yourself: how will the weather affect the kinds of shot I wish to take? If it’s very sunny, you’ll have to consider how shadows will affect the look of a scene. A big crowd can get cut in half by the fall of a shadow, and this will look poor. However, reflected sunlight can produce dramatic effects. Also, direct, bright sunlight will give you the freedom to shoot at a high shutter speeds, allowing you to shoot whilst moving without worrying about camera-shake.

If it’s likely to rain, you’ll have to think carefully about how you use your equipment. An umbrella can help, but I find them unwieldy. When it’s raining I usually find light cover to take photos from, or I just shoot very quickly before putting my camera away again.

Photo by Josh Jones
Wet weather caused a poor turnout at this vigil held for the victims of the Gaza War in January 2010. However, close cropping allows the mood and purpose of the protest to come through in this image. The shot was taken quickly and the camera returned to my bag before it could get too wet.

Wear layers. You should be able to adapt to changing weather conditions, and carrying one bulky outer layer will hamper this. Have several different layers that you can add to or reduce as required. If it’s going to be sunny, bring protection – you don’t know for how many hours you could be standing, walking, or even running in the sun.

Always think about your body as being an essential piece of equipment you also have to take care of – just like your camera, it mustn’t get too hot, get too wet, or run out of batteries.

Next: How to photograph a protest, 2: Protect yourself

4 thoughts on “How to photograph a protest, part 1: Be prepared”

  1. Most of my photography is protests, but its done on road blocks, and slow moving protests, so I get the chance to take great pictures without worrying about shutter speeds, etc. All the info you’ve given is great common sense, like to say, wear a hi viz so people can see you on roads, when theres traffic, and so that your friends can easily find you if you get lost.

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