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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.