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Seeking Advice: Shooting protests

I’m heading to one of the many Tax Day Tea Parties this afternoon to shoot my first protest – freelance. Not expecting it to be or get violent, but of course I am prepared for it.

I was wondering if any one had advice or tips for covering a protest. Thanks.

by Steve Orcutt at 2009-04-15 12:15:31 UTC Havelock, North Carolina , United States | Bookmark | | Report spam→

Carry no more gear then you absolutely need. Bags will get in your way and can also be pick-pocketed in a crowd. Use pouches. Two cameras at most. One with, say, a 28mm, and the other with a 50mm. If you end up walking miles and miles on some march, you want the lightest-weight kit possible.

If you have press credentials, keep them in your pocket until chaos and mayhem really break out, and you want to be clearly identified as press. Before that, lots of protesters (of whatever political stripe) may distrust you because you’re “mass media” or “work for the police,” etc. Of course be absolutely truthful if asked who you are; but no need to escalate the issue.

Do have someone you can call, like a lawyer friend, in case you are arrested. Proverbial “one phone call” — you might need it.

If it gets really crazy at street level — sometimes it’s good to retreat to a second floor or balcony or rooftop perch for a nice aerial view — assess the site for such potential spots beforehand. Usually those pictures from above are not as good as the ones up close, so retreat only when necessary, sometimes it really is necessary.

There are various ways that people recommend to deal with tear gas. A nice, much-made-fun-of photographer’s scarf can in fact be useful. Or a gas mask. If you expect rock throwing, a bike helmet or even a real kevlar helmet might be good ideas.

Now, chances are this won’t happen in the USA or Western Europe, but it does in other countries: Situations can go from fun-and-games/tear-gas-and-rocks to real, live fire, very quickly. This has been happening in Thailand just now. Sometimes soldiers feel trapped, sometimes they’re just firing over people’s heads, sometimes it’s the real thing, aiming at people. Gunfire is deceptively not that loud, especially if there’s lots of other noise. And it doesn’t even look that bad when you’re all amped up, it’s like, “gee, look at that window explode, how nice.” But don’t be fooled into complacency. Take cover. Be careful. Especially if you hear the whistling of bullets. That means they are too close. The situation can turn in an instant.

Finally, and this is a more subjective comment, don’t expect too much from your photos. How many protests, demonstrations, marches, and I covered in my life? Probably hundreds, in a dozen different countries. You get excited, you have fun. But most of the images aren’t really that good or meaningful. Don’t get me wrong — there are a few which are, and they make all of it worthwhile — but those few photos ARE rare. Usually you cover one of these things, you think it’s great, you made great photos, and a week or two later they look like every other photo of a demonstration ever taken. Even if you have clouds of smoke, and people running to and fro, beautiful flags, and so on.

But really, don’t let this discourage you, because, in a way, covering a protest is insurance. Insurance against all hell really breaking loose, and you’ll have the photos, which will become history. That little protest could lead to a coup, or a revolution, or be the genesis of a broad and important social and political movement — and you’ll have the photos.

by [former member] | 15 Apr 2009 13:04 | Brooklyn, United States | | Report spam→
Thanks Alan, great info. I’m not expecting a bunch of right-wing protesters to get rowdy, but like you said there’s always the chance. Especially in Eastern North Carolina I’m expecting it to be rather mellow and anti-climatic is anything. But I want to get the experience for when I ever get the opportunity to shoot something larger and potentially more violent.

But again, great words of advice – especially about the gear. I was thinking of using two bodies (w/ 19-35mm & 24-105mm) and wearing me new Newswear Chestvest. But now I’m considering not wearing it – I determine it on the size and demeanor of the crowed when I arrive suppose. ‘Cause I’d like to have my 100-400mm lens and speedlight just in case, and I figure they’d be more secure in the chestvest than any where else.

by Steve Orcutt | 15 Apr 2009 15:04 | Havelock, North Carolina, United States | | Report spam→
“don’t expect too much from your photos. How many protests, demonstrations, marches, and I covered in my life? Probably hundreds, in a dozen different countries. You get excited, you have fun. But most of the images aren’t really that good or meaningful. Don’t get me wrong — there are a few which are, and they make all of it worthwhile — but those few photos ARE rare. Usually you cover one of these things, you think it’s great, you made great photos, and a week or two later they look like every other photo of a demonstration ever taken. Even if you have clouds of smoke, and people running to and fro, beautiful flags, and so on.”

Hmm… Isn’t that pretty much true of any type of photography…? Parades, protests, portraits, bombings, funerals…

Back on topic… the long lens and flash is really going to get in your way whether it’s inside your vest or on your camera… and getting close to the action won’t be difficult.

Alan is right — carry only what you absolutely need.

by Mark Ovaska | 15 Apr 2009 16:04 | Binghamton, United States | | Report spam→
I always wear my jeans that are the closest to being retired and steel toed boots, all leather no nylon, and above the ankle, because the crowds tend to step on your feet. I always use a belt and I will also wear a shirt that does one of two things: a light colored shirt if I want people/law enforcement to see that I am press as they will be able to see the camera straps, or a dark colored shirt if I don’t. I have shot a few protests but more festival and street fair type things and actually the street stuff, I have found is more difficult and un-predictable, mostly because of alcohol and the “..It’s only fun…” attitude plus there is no skirmish line as its all directions.

by David Bro | 15 Apr 2009 16:04 | Orange County, Ca., United States | | Report spam→
Gear aside, and I have my opinions, you need to think tactically in a protest march. It is far too easy to get excited and end up in between a bunch of bottle-throwing anarchists and a police charge or between stone-throwing anarchists and torch-lobbing Nazis or whatever. Look for escape routes. Many times the police will leave small “pressure valves” — ways they allow those they on-the-spot deem unthreatening to get away. Find side streets and such and always watch your back, your overhead and everything else.

As for flash I don’t often use one, but my new favorite has become Nikon’s SB400. It’s a tiny thing marketed for their amateur cameras but it works just fine on my D3, doesn’t stand way up begging to get snapped off and fits in a pocket. When I don’t take a telephoto I want one and when I do I almost never use it and regret the weight. I have considered wearing a helmet though never have and luckily have never been hit. A rock will kill you as dead as a bullet and I agree with Alan Chin’s observation above that most (though not all) protest photos look the same as all the rest and is that worth getting arrested, beaten, tear-gassed, shot or your head stove in? I keep photographing them though…

by Andrew Tonn | 15 Apr 2009 16:04 | Lund, Sweden | | Report spam→
Having all the right equipment is nice and everything but it wont mean diddely squat if you dont KNOW YOUR RIGHTS. every person who is planning on shooting a protest should take a “know your rights” training session. That rare shot that you are talking about will probably end up being something illegal that someone is doing, INCLUDING the cops. Ive smuggled small video tapes, film, and memory cards through jail after getting arrested (multiple times). Your press badge wont help you if your arresting officer just deleted all of your images. Also, a bandana soaked in vinegar helps against pepper spray.

by Amelia Merrick | 15 Apr 2009 16:04 | Philadelphia, United States | | Report spam→
All points taken, absorbed, and will heed. Thanks so much for everyone’s input, it’s greatly appreciated. I’ll post the worthy images.

Thanks again. Got a couple hours before it starts and I feel much more prepared.

by Steve Orcutt | 15 Apr 2009 17:04 | Havelock, North Carolina, United States | | Report spam→
mark—hi, nice to hear from you! of course it’s hard to shoot anything new under the sun, what i mean, purely subjectively, is that for me this is even more true with protests than for other kinds of photography: you tend to shoot a LOT, people are performing, in a sense, in public, and you really want to document it well and convey the energy, the passion, the heat of the moment. But that’s easier said than done; your photos have to somehow meet the zeitgeist for it to make sense and matter.

amelia—totally right! Never surrender your cards or film, make a strong verbal protest if confronted, and try to have witnesses or other photographers documenting the incident if possible. Gauge whether you should argue, or just say, “yes, yes, yes,” if it gives you a chance to just walk away. A little cooperative friendly banter often does the trick, but if not, don’t get intimidated. Disengage to preserve your images if it looks like you might get arrested, if you can.

Switch out cards or film. Put the one with the valuable images in your wallet, in your sock, anywhere OUT of your camera. Do this quickly and unobstrusively if you know you have something potentially volatile. Do this BEFORE you are confronted, if you can.

If someone does make you erase images, in the last resort, do NOT shoot more on the card. Image Rescue will, most of the time, recover those images, since you will not have shot anything else to over-write the files. Definitely do put on your press credentials if it’s getting chaotic so that other photographers will record that they were visible while you’re being arrested. This will help you later on.

Just a couple of days ago at the New School protests here in NY, video showed how the NYPD spokespeople were totally wrong when they claimed that there had been no use of pepper spray — there was, and the images proved it.

Andrew—also very good advice. On more than one occasion I have found myself standing between the opposing sides, it’s a very naked feeling. Decide tactically if you want to be with the protesters or the security forces (if possible), sometimes you can do both, sometimes not, sometimes it’s good to be with the “pack” of journalists because the group is recognized as such, sometimes it’s better to be off to the side working a different angle or perspective.

Bring plenty of film/cards/extra batteries because these things sometimes go on for hours and hours. Pace yourself, drink plenty of water. Make friends. Often the people you meet may lead to access to other interesting stuff. This includes the cops, too, it doesn’t hurt to have a contact or two on the force.

by [former member] | 15 Apr 2009 18:04 | Brooklyn, United States | | Report spam→
I’ve been shooting protests as a long-term project for six years now. Alan’s advice is golden here, as it generally is.

Also, in my experience: focus on the people, not the signs.

by Geoffrey King | 15 Apr 2009 18:04 | San Francisco, United States | | Report spam→
I would carry a camera with a 70-200mm lens and a second body (if possible) with a 50mm lens, and try to fill your frame with the subject, that’s where the 70-200mm comes in handy, practice makes perfect, so shoot shoot shoot. Be aware of what is happening around you, walk around a lot and you will notice some police officers are more sympathetic towards photographers than others !

by Richard Prudhomme | 15 Apr 2009 21:04 | Rawdon, Quebec, Canada | | Report spam→
Alternatively, I really like to shoot somewhat wide—generally 24mm to 28mm.

You can find some of my stuff at http://www.geoffreykingphotography.com/protestportfolio.

by Geoffrey King | 15 Apr 2009 22:04 | San Francisco, United States | | Report spam→
Do as the professionals do: Set your dslr on Program mode so it works like a point&shoot, use the shotgun method to shoot as many frames as possible and delete the bad ones.

by Barry Milyovsky | 15 Apr 2009 22:04 | lost in the, United States | | Report spam→

Longlive the Queen!

by David Lauer | 16 Apr 2009 00:04 | Chihuahua, Mexico | | Report spam→
Again, everyone thanks for all of the tips and guidance. Got the photos up, and I would love any feedback, thanks.


by Steve Orcutt | 16 Apr 2009 03:04 | Havelock, North Carolina, United States | | Report spam→
Great advice from everyone. Here’s my 2 cents.

I now shoot long, 300mm and a 70-200 with a 16-35 in a bag. The reason is because I’m old and overweight and don’t like running when the tear gas goes off.

Don’t ever get stuck between the police line and the protestors. You’ll get hit by both sides. If the police charge find the nearest wall and stick to it. Let the charge pass. Don’t stand in front because you’ll get hit.

Dont’ wear any that looks military and try not to wear anything black. Police will think you’re Black Bloc and protestors will think you’re a cop. If you’re going to wear body armour or a helmet make sure it a non-combatant colour like light blue and make sure it says press/media/photo on it. I sometimes wear a hi-viz vest. But in certain countries wearing anything that says press/media/photo just makes you an attractive target for snipers.

If you’re in a really hairy environment, never ever ever use a flash. It looks like gunfire and people will shoot back.

Finally, try working in teams. You can cover each others backs. And always have an avenue of escape.

by Richard Wang | 16 Apr 2009 03:04 (ed. Apr 16 2009) | San Francisco, United States | | Report spam→
alan hit it on the head.

if i may add: get close. then get closer.

by [former member] | 16 Apr 2009 03:04 | Philadelphia, United States | | Report spam→
Ok, so I’ve soaked the banana in the vinegar … now where do I insert it?

by BignoseTW | 16 Apr 2009 04:04 | Taipei, Taiwan | | Report spam→
steve, just from a quick look, don’t be afraid to photograph people directly, right in front of them, with a wide lens. wait for them to stop smiling and be a bit more open to you and your camera. if they don’t want to be photographed they’ll have let you know already. sometimes that pregnant, somewhat awkward moment can allow them to be more relaxed, more who they really are. on the other end of that, work faster. shoot before they really know, even when you’re just 2-3 feet away from them with a 21mm pointed straight at them.

now it’s funny, these people all look like they makes less than $250,000 a year. which means Obama’s giving them a tax cut. So what are they protesting?

bignose, that’s a banDana, not a banana! a vinegar soaked banana?!? i suggest you write a cookbook? :)

by [former member] | 16 Apr 2009 05:04 (ed. Apr 16 2009) | Brooklyn, United States | | Report spam→

Thanks for the comments. I am directly in front with a wide lens for some of the shots the are posted, some others just didn’t make the cut. I normally don’t select shots where people aren’t “natural” and not smiling, but the mood of this rally sort of deemed it relevant, so I left them in.

If you take a closer look at the signs in the shots, you would notice that most of the signs were anti-spending, -bailout of banks and big corporations, ect. Of course there were those people that didn’t really know what the whole thing was about and were showing signs against taxes, but the majority of people there were protesting the usage of their tax money and frivolous spending.

It was a very melodramatic rally/protest. The majority of attendees were baby-boomers and grandparents. I think my favorite shot of the afternoon is #62. A homeless man, just standing there quietly with his sign – obviously feeling his situation is because of this economic situation and the President.

For sure I learned a good deal from all of the advice and tips previous to going, and I learned a whole lot at the rally itself. Next time I go to one I’ll certainly be better overall. I definitely need to get the 16-35mm and 70-200mm lenses before I go to another one, I found at times that 19mm just wasn’t wide enough, and 105mm just wasn’t powerful enough. Also, I should have taken and used my flash; the overcast sky created flat and low contrast images.

Once again, thank you everyone for your help, sharing your experience, and advice.

by Steve Orcutt | 16 Apr 2009 11:04 | Havelock, North Carolina, United States | | Report spam→
This advice is probably not much use if it’s a massive protest with a mob on the move – but make friends with both cops and protestors, rather than risk being caught between both sides. My first commissioned photos of a protest was in, of all places, Anchorage. A couple of hundred people and it was the biggest civil ‘disturbance’ years, possibly in the short history of the city. It was all completely peaceful and harmless, but the cops were extremely edgy – and had apparently invested a six-figure sum in ‘equipment’ for dealing with the ‘situation’. There was a worry that they would be heavy handed about a situation that had lots of local kids involved.

The protest organisers already knew me, but had I made a point of walking right up to the chief of police, and explained who I was, what I was doing, and what’s more, what I planned to do. The chief was completely cool, and told his assistant to circulate my name and description to all of the cops en route, and to refrain from bothering me.

With all the running and jumping up on things I did that day, I broken more rules that day than anyone else in the protest!

Now, I’m not saying any of that would have worked at say, the G20….

by Dave Walsh | 16 Apr 2009 14:04 | Dublin, Ireland | | Report spam→
A ton of good advice on here, a lot of which could be taken in many general photography situations.

One other thing about protests/crowds that turn nasty – if someone does start shooting at a crowd, do not underestimate the force of a mass of people panicking. I have almost been swept off my feet by a fleeing crowd in just such a situation. Get out their way and into safety in a doorway, behind a wall, down a sidestreet, wherever, but a stampeding mob can be very dangerous and people do get trampled to death.

by Tom White | 16 Apr 2009 16:04 | West Orange, New Jersey, United States | | Report spam→
also something to consider… some form of protective rain/water gear – water canons are a “hctib”

I learned the hard way, while at a forced eviction of a slum community, that shoe soles need to be nail resistant!! I missed ALL of the aftermath/relocation photos as I was bed ridden for 5 days recovering from a nail through the foot.

by Peter Harris | 19 Apr 2009 08:04 | Phnom Penh, Cambodia | | Report spam→
Always watch out for police, in riot gear, forming a line, and moving together slowly in one direction…….

by Loretta Ayeroff | 20 Apr 2009 03:04 (ed. Apr 20 2009) | Los Angeles, California, United States | | Report spam→
All good info hear as usual, yes most shots do look the same. Was strange I read this article thursday I think, and on friday while out picture hunting found myself in the middle of a large protest, not violent but was very tense. The police were in large numbers but still out numbered by protesters. The shouts and anger were good pix, and made for an unpredictable situation, All ended peacefully. Got great shots of people with passion and not just boring sign carriers.

Remember to see and photograph it as a witness and not a participant, Don’t let them play for your camera, and let them direct you to whom and what is important, because then you get used and the truth is never told.

Just because people protest does not make them bad no matter how high their emotions might be, a mild mannered person one day the “Caveman” the next in the streets complaining about low pay or other abuse.

Get the real shots that tell the story of what happened at this particular protest, but always try to tell why and what they are protesting for, not an easy task. shots with signs or banners that tell the story, and help a viewer understand even without a caption.

Good shooting everyone be safe and ready for the next rally because with the way the world is it will only get worse and soon we all will be protesting, Hey what about us PJ’s we need to protest our low pay?

Wouldn’t be much of a protest though we would all be there taking pix instead of protesting!!!! End result Pictures of others taking pictures? what a protest!!!

by NN | 20 Apr 2009 16:04 | | Report spam→
good advices,
I give my 2cents:
- when you see that riot police is going to ,,attack,, set a minus exposure correction.I use – 1 to -1.3 EV. Riot gear is mostly black and if you don’t put correction exposure automatic is overexposing faces.Make some testing.
- use continual autofocus.Last thing you want is single focus blocking your shooting when something happen.
- use toilet before protest or while nothing is happening :)
- have water with you,not lemonade.You can drink it or clean wounds with it.Of course have some paper tissues.
- I like to have a muslibar/energy bar and some apple with me.
- Have a press card somewhere near and copy somewhere save.
- Smile

I checked your flicker set.For first time I think is good.Just delete half of them.Not because they are bad,but because they don’t say something new.Dont worry,this is very hard to learn.I should also delete some pictures from my G8 set.When i find time :)

here some my old ones(not telling the best pictures to learn from)

by to-mas Tomas Halasz | 20 Jun 2009 18:06 | Bratislava, Slovakia | | Report spam→
What I always found amusing about protests is that often and inevitably there would be photographers all standing together, getting some variation of the same shot…….AP would be there and then Reuters, and maybe Sygma, and there was a general anxiety that one might get a shot that the others didn’t have. Inevitably one protestor would be the sacrificial lamb and get arrested and the pack would rush them.
The last thing the photographer from the newspaper wanted was for AP to get a different or better shot. Things have changed a bit in that regard— now there are dozens of people with DSLRS, and the problem is keeping the cameras out of the pictures.

Fot the most part these protests have tacit rules about how far either side can go…..and in NY in the 80’s, after Tomkins Square riots, the police had their tactics down so precisely that there was not a chance that a protest would get beyond the basics, and turn into a riot, which is much more interesting and infinitely more dangerous to shoot as Alan notes.

Alan offers some good advise from a lot of experience— especially in regard to the expectations. And To-mas, use the toilet. LOL Also…

1) Carry a credit card so you can bail out if you are arrested if need be.
2) Write a few phone numbers with a Sharpie on your hand. If you are arrested you may not be able to use a cell phone and you will have no access to your phone numbers.
3) Do not shout out slogans, etc or provoke cops, especially “the people united will never be defeated” You are a journalist not a protestor.
4) Do not show or wear a press pass unless you have to as you may be forced into the “press area” and be held a captive. This is especially true in NYC. Cops don’t want their photo in the paper.
5) Stay in shape and be agile. If you are overweight you are at a huge disadvantage.
6) Don’t use any new equipment. You don’t want to have to think about what you are doing.
7) Be prepared to lose a camera or have it destroyed. This is a big problem now that the camera comes for $3,500. So maybe take the older model.
8) Breath deeply and stay calm at all times. Do not appear overexcited or emotional…..this is a magnet for cops.
9) Be cautious showing “protest” pictures ion your website and especially to editors. The protest shot is the first indication of an “emerging” photographer—trust me on that one.

by [former member] | 20 Jun 2009 19:06 (ed. Jun 20 2009) | | Report spam→

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Steve Orcutt, Marine /  Aspiring Photoj Steve Orcutt
Marine / Aspiring Photoj
All Over , Italy
Mark Ovaska, shoe wear-er-out-er Mark Ovaska
shoe wear-er-out-er
Berlin , Germany
David Bro, freelance editorial David Bro
freelance editorial
Orange County , United States ( LAX )
Andrew Tonn, Documentary Journalist Andrew Tonn
Documentary Journalist
Lund , Sweden
Amelia Merrick, Independant Photographer Amelia Merrick
Independant Photographer
Ulaanbaatar , Mongolia
Geoffrey King, 1st Amend. lawyer, photog Geoffrey King
1st Amend. lawyer, photog
San Francisco , United States
Richard Prudhomme, Editorial Photographer Richard Prudhomme
Editorial Photographer
(The Photographer from Rawdon)
Rawdon, Quebec , Canada ( YUL )
Barry Milyovsky, totally unprofessional Barry Milyovsky
totally unprofessional
(emperor of ice cream )
New York , United States
David Lauer, photographer, translator David Lauer
photographer, translator
Chihuahua , Mexico
Richard Wang, indolence and dissipation Richard Wang
indolence and dissipation
San Francisco , United States ( SFO )
BignoseTW, Videographer/Photographer BignoseTW
(Tobie Openshaw)
Taipei , Taiwan
Dave Walsh, Writer, photographer Dave Walsh
Writer, photographer
(Energy and Environment)
Wexford , Ireland
Tom White, Tom White
Singapore , Singapore
Peter Harris, photographer Peter Harris
New York , United States
Loretta Ayeroff, Photographer Loretta Ayeroff
(Editorial and Fine Art)
Los Angeles, Ca , United States ( LAX )
NN, Photojournalist NN
[undisclosed location].
to-mas Tomas Halasz, Photojournalist to-mas Tomas Halasz
Bratislava , Slovakia


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