How to photograph a protest, part 2: Protect yourself

This is the second part of a short series about photographing protests and demonstrations. While the protest is happening, you could find yourself (and others) are put into all kinds of uncomfortable situations. Here are some tips based on my personal experiences that should help you avoid misfortune but still take powerful photographs.

All the advice here is for your own reflection only. Nothing written here should encourage you to stand in front of a tank or bulldozer or otherwise put yourself at risk. End disclaimer.

1. Have an attitude solution

You are not invisible, nor are you impartial. By being at the protest and photographing events, you are an active participant. The photos you take – and more importantly, the ones you choose to share – will have an impact on how people will view the protest across the world. And while at the protest, your very presence as a photographer can alter the course of events, by changing how people choose to behave.

Photo by Josh Jones
This image captures some of the intensity of a moment without revealing the identity of the participants. Remember Gaza protest, Brighton, Jan 2010.

Make this an asset, and not a hindrance. Be friendly and fearless towards protesters, the police, and passers-by. You will never do yourself a favour by being rude, and you will rarely take a better shot for being meek. Meanwhile, being friendly and confident can get you out of a lot of trouble.

Making eye contact with protesters is important if you don’t want to look like faceless paparazzi. It can also get you a good shot – if people can see you’re engaged they are more likely to give you a response. Also, protesters might object to you photographing their faces, so you may have to be tactful at times. If you photograph someone performing illegal activity, your imag could be used as evidence in court, so make a judgement about what images you take and how you share them afterwards.

Photo by Josh Jones
A protester poses for the camera, while blocking the view of a camera-wielding police officer. Free Education protest, London, Feb 2009.

In terms of your posture and general presence, be confident and direct. Don’t skulk around. You are less likely to be brushed aside by police or protesters if you maintain a firm presence.

Police don’t like photographers and will make no effort to conceal this. However, you have a right to move freely and take photographs, and if you are obstructed at any time then you should politely ask under which law. Police spend a lot of money employing officers to photograph people’s faces, and if protesters feel like you are assisting them in their job, you are unlikely to get a good response.

As a photographer, you can sometimes slip through police lines simply by looking like you’re knowing what you are doing. This can be very useful for getting about. All the same, it’s often easiest to ‘go with the flow’ and stick with the main body of protesters.

2. What to do in a crush

If the police cordon off the protest by surrounding it, or there is an effort to break through police lines, you could find yourself in a crush of bodies. This produces a level of discomfort and can cause people to panic.

The policy of cordoning off a protest is known as ‘kettling’, possibly because it causes crowd’s mood to get increasingly hot and finally ‘boil over’. This leads to violence and arrests. It can be hard, but the best approach within a kettle is to remain calm and chat with the people around you. Try and maintain a sense of humanity and familiarity. If someone seems hurt or distressed, talk to them. If someone is doing something you don’t like, such as pushing you, tell them so.

Photo by Josh Jones
A samba band plays cheering music in the middle of a police kettle that traps thousands of protesters. By staying proactive, the musicians helped to keep the mood up. G20 protest, London, April 2009

If you feel claustrophobic, unsteady, or trapped, you might find it helpful to hold onto an immovable object. I like lamp-posts because they provide a good ‘base’, but you can’t get squashed up against them, like you can with a wall or fence. If you’re feeling strong you can also climb up the post a little for a better vantage point.

3. Agitators and trouble-makers

Some people will try and start trouble. They could be protesters, or police. Sometimes, they could be people who are not associated with the protest but see it as an opportunity to steal from people, start a fight, or otherwise be a nuisance. If you see this happening, don’t feel like you have to be a hero. However, you should act with conscience. Remember you have a camera, and this puts you in a privileged position of being able to hold people to account for their actions.

4. Horses

Horses are used by police because they feel very intimidating to people on foot. Stay calm and try not to frighten the horses. More importantly, try not to be frightened yourself. That could ruin a good shot!

Photo by Josh Jones
The careful composition in this image was possible because I stayed calm. While I’m quite pleased with how it came out, I am still distracted by the photographer in front (back-pack visible) who practically threw himself under the horse to get a good shot. Smash EDO ‘Mayday’ protest, May 2009, Brighton.

Horses are effective against a dis-organised crowd, and will happily chase fleeing people. They are a lot less effective against people in organised blocks, especially if they link arms; the horses see a ‘wall’ and are more likely to back off. Most of the injuries incurred from horse-charges are from people getting crushed by other people fleeing.

If horses are deployed, act carefully and don’t put yourself at more risk than you think is necessary. If you’re feeling uncomfortable, remove yourself from a situation before the sh*t hits the fan, not whilst it’s happening.

Photo by Josh Jones
At an anti-BNP protest, police threatened to break up this human blockade by using horses. The protesters responded by linking arms several rows deep, making a horses charge very difficult. Horses (quite sensibly) are reluctant to charge at what appears to be a wall. Eventually, the protesters marched on without conflict. Codnor, August 2009.

5. Tear gas

At protests in the UK, it is unlikely (at the time of writing) that the police should use tear gas. However, in some parts of Europe and the rest of the world, it can be a problem. If police use it on protesters, there is a fair chance you could get caught in a cloud – either because you’re close to where the gas was deployed, or the wind carries it towards you.

Tear gas has the simple and disabling physical effect of causing considerable pain to your eyes, mouth and nose. This can be alleviated by inhaling from a strong-smelling substance, such as perfume on a napkin. The best method (which Palestinians tend to use) is to chew and smell half a lime or half an onion. This relieves throat swelling as well as helping you to see and breathe. Alcohol swabs are helpful too; use them to clean your face and prevent further irritation from tear gas caught on your skin.

Photo by Josh Jones
Left, Israeli soldier holding tear-gas grenade; right, Palestinian doctor holding alcohol swabs. Bi’lin, Palestine, September 2010.

However, the worst effect of tear gas is psychological. It induces panic and can make you feel like you’re going to suffocate. This can lead you to panic and hurt yourself or others. If you get caught in a cloud, the best thing to do is stay calm. Remind yourself it will all be okay in two minutes. Walk, don’t run – you could injure yourself badly whilst running, as your vision will be impaired. As soon as you’re able to walk and talk, ask other people around you if they are alright – even if they are fine, you’ll feel better for checking.

Hopefully you’ll have read something in here that you’ll find helpful. It’s by no means exhaustive, so if you’ve got experiences of your own to add, please leave comments below!

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

3 thoughts on “How to photograph a protest, part 2: Protect yourself”

  1. Great advice,I’m going to attempt my first protest this weekend and will use of your experience and advice to be the best I can. Gutted that I can’t find the 3rd part of this series, is it written yet?

  2. Thank you so much for your advice!
    I am currently photographing the PEGIDA riots in Frankfurt/Germany and got into some trouble with the police the other day. Your tips were really helpfull to me, I’ll keep them in mind for the next protest :-)

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