How to photograph a protest, part 3: Take great photos

Photographing a demonstration is not an impartial process. It is creative, personal, and inherently political. You will expand your skills by creating photos that give the viewer a glimpse into events. While you cannot tell the whole story, it is precisely that limitation that can give your images power. With preparation, skill and a little luck, you can create images that reach beyond the moment and tell a much larger story.

What follows is a short collection of creative ideas that are based on my own experiences at major protests. They should help you to think critically about the images you take, and help you to produce an informative and exciting set of photographs. They conclude my series on taking photographs at protests.

Feel the mood

Photo by Josh Jones
Getting expressive images is achieved by timing a shot to coincide certain phonetic sounds. Big vowel sounds make for the most dramatic images - as in this image, where protesters’ mouths are wide open with teeth bared. Stop the War, Bring the Troops Home - London, October 2009.

Feel the protest, right from the first boring minutes at the meeting point. Feel the mood of the crowd. Are most people quiet, or chanting? Does the group feel relaxed or agitated? If there are police or other forces present, what is their approach from the start? In the crowd, are there organisers, or agitators; do they seem officially appointed, or do they come into play spontaneously?

Photo by Josh Jones
Palestinian residents approach Israeli soldiers near a separation fence that cuts through the village. The peaceful nature of most of the villagers' protest was different to the stone-throwing and rifle fire that followed. Bil'in, Palestine, August 2010.

Observations you make at the start of the protest will help you to put later events into context. If people look like they’re gearing up for action, keep an eye on them for what might happen later on . . . but also consider whether their actions represent the mood of the majority. If you’re sensitive to the different forces at play, you’ll be able to capture some of this diversity and complexity on film.

Be closer

The photojournalist Robert Capa is credited with saying, “If your picture isn’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” Whenever you can, try to get closer to your subject.

That doesn’t always mean getting closer to a man hitting another man, although many photographers seem to believe this is what documenting protests is all about. Sometimes the story you want to tell is not a violent one. It could be a small snapshot that illustrates the mood of the moment in a more subtle way.

Palestinian resident talking with an occupying Israeli soldier. Getting close to the scene captures the humanness of the individuals involved. Bil'in, Palestine, August 2010.

Try a new perspective

Look up from below. Look down from above. Come close and talk to your subject. Stand back and watch them in their element. Whatever you do, experiment, and keep looking for an alternative to a simple shot. Its not about making gimmicky images – it’s about framing your subject in a way that reaches into the feelings of the viewer.

Photo by Josh Jones
Crouching low against the floor made it possible to frame the content of this image for effect. Remember Gaza - Smash EDO, Jan 2010.

Don’t be afraid to get your knees muddy scrabbling around on the floor. Getting really low down can create some dynamic effects. If you have specific mobility needs, be as prepared as possible, and ask for help if you feel unsafe. Meanwhile, if you can climb up a wall or fence, you can get a much broader view of the action. This is all but essential if you’re in the middle of a big crowd. Don’t depend on this for a good shot, however – because the higher you are, the further away from the action you will be.

Photo by Josh Jones
Using a zoom lens enables candid photography, here using close cropping to overlay near-and-far objects for effect. Bil'in, Palestine, August 2010.

Keep one step ahead

Rather than waiting for events to happen in front of you, move around and find events with your feet. There will always be a temptation to stay with one part of the protest and snap away from there. Resist this urge – if you’re going to describe the protest with any degree of complexity you’ll need to photograph a lot of different perspectives and individuals. Circumnavigate the protest at least once, or if it’s too big at least try and move between the middle and the front. If you’re doing it right, you’ll walk a lot further in the day than any of the protesters.

Photo by Josh Jones
This anti-war protest took an incredible number of twists and turns through Brighton city. The image here was taken as protesters ran across a park in the suburbs - carefully avoiding a bowls game that was in progress. The police, visible in the background, sadly ran across the bowls game shortly after. Smash EDO Mayday protest, May 2009.

Be alert

Follow the protest, not the plan. It could split, change direction, or change purpose quite quickly. If you are sensitive to the crowd, listening to its mood, and watching any organisers carefully, you can often spot these changes before they happen and be ready for them. So don’t try and watch the protest through a lens. Keep the camera in your hand, use all your senses, and raise the camera to take shots when needed.

Photo by Josh Jones
Being alert to the intentions of the protesters enabled me to judge when they were getting ready to charge. I ran ahead to find a good spot to catch the moment. These photographers missed the signals, and were caught by the sudden stampede. Protest at Labour Party conference, Brighton, March 2010.

Aim for uniqueness

You see a scrum of photographers surrounding a single event. Cameras are jostling for space, and flash-bulbs are flickering constantly. Ask yourself if there is really any need for another camera in there.

Instead of following the example of other photographers, take a step back and survey the scene. You might find something that others are missing.

Photo by Josh Jones
During this protest in Bil’in, Palestine, a local woman got into an argument with the Israeli army. Photographers surrounded the scene, hoping for an image of confrontation. This gave me a little room and time to capture this man demonstrating in his own, quiet way. Bil'in, Palestine, August 2010.

Also see:

How to photograph a protest, part 1: Be prepared

How to photograph a protest, part 2: Protect yourself

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