Updated: Jun 8, 2022
How exactly does one go about safely photographing a protest that is sure to become a riot as the day burns into night while tensions steadily boil? What books are to be read? Which blogs to be scoured? What social media sites to study? A person can go mad embracing their inner Sherlock Holmes as the minutes turn into hours which turn into days which turn into weeks of searching to find the answers. The naked truth of the matter is that no amount of internet sleuthing will provide the answers needed. This will come as a shock to some... but the Internet is not the source of all truth. As with most things in life, there is, in fact, only one way to find the answers one seeks, and that is through direct, on the ground experience, what the military calls "ground truth." Ground truth, in all transparent reality, is merely a collection of accidents, mistakes and failures that someone else made that others can now benefit from. I've made so many of these mistakes that I can teach a masterclass on the subject. But, who has the time for that? Instead, I've decided to pen a short post to help the next photographer safely navigate the chaos of a high-risk urban environment, running and gunning to get the shot.
Know before you go. Take the time to research the nouns that are soon to occupy your life - the people, places and things. If your goal is to photograph a planned protest, then consume every bit of detail you can about the event before you arrive. Check social media channels like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for information on the protest. You can usually search for the protest name and find loads of info to digest. Use that to inform yourself of the safety precautions you need to take, the cameras and gear you should bring and the types of people you're likely to encounter. But, above all else, use that information to decide whether or not it is safe to go at all. I've decided many times to forego a protest simply because it just wasn't safe for me to go.
Know when you get there. I like to perform a little advance recon on my Area of Photography (AOP) if I can. It's not always possible to do this, but when it is, take every opportunity to gain advance knowledge of your AOP ahead of time. Use Google Maps to plan entry and escape routes. If you're driving, never - and I mean never - park close to the event. Park a few blocks away or even park up to a mile from your AOP in a safe and well lit location, preferably with security cameras. Then, walk into your AOP. This will not only help prevent your vehicle from getting burned to the ground by a Molotov cocktail, it will give you on the ground insights to your AOP that aerial maps simply don't possess. Do this a day or two or even a couple hours ahead of time. Get there early and walk around, get a sense for the people in the area. Just walk around and mentally plan where you might escape to if things get out of control. Make sure you know how to safely get back to your vehicle if you suddenly need to boot scoot out of there.
Also know your cameras and gear inside and out. The last thing you want to do is try and figure out your camera settings on location and miss the shot or, even worse, fumble your way through proper placement of a tourniquet and risk losing a limb because you haven't tested and trained with your gear before hand. Like I wrote at the beginning of this article, there's no replacement for knowledge and that only comes with experience. So, use your gear and shoot as much as you can with your cameras before you head into a protest or riot. It will make your life much easier... and that's probably the understatement of the year.
TIP: Wear headphones and listen to a police scanner. You'll get up to date information on potential threats in your area. This will help keep you safe. Broadcastify is a great app for this. It's available for iPhone and Android. Best of all, it's FREE!
Stay cool. Stay classy. Stay safe. It really does come down to those three tenets. You'd be surprised at how far you can get by simply keeping a cool head at all times and behaving with class and grace. A good attitude and a smile go a long way and do wonders to keep you safe.
Whether you're a seasoned pro or a total noob, check your attitude at the door and leave your pride at home. But, carry yourself with confidence and keep your cool. As you enter a protest zone, you'll notice a feeling in the air. It's an almost tangible thing with a life of its own. The atmosphere becomes compressed and your senses are heightened. You'll notice people notice you. Your hearing and vision transform from blunt objects to razor sharp scalpels. Trust your senses. Stay mobile and keep your head on a swivel.
Never stay in one location and keep moving. This will help keep you from becoming a target and will also enable you to get more unique perspectives.
There's also an old saying that you should keep at the forefront of your memory: When there is doubt, there is no doubt. That means that if you find yourself in a situation and start doubting a course of action, then your doubt about whether to take that course of action is merely a clarification that you have no doubt. Your doubt is reinforcement that you already know the answer. Think of it this way, if you find yourself staring into a dark alley at 3am and you're doubting whether or not to walk down that dark alley, then your doubt is just a reinforcement that walking down that dark alley is a very bad idea. So, trust your instincts and avoid the dark alley. Find another, safer way to get wherever it is you're going. When there is doubt, there is no doubt. You already know the answer.
TIP: Bring a camera with 2 SD card slots. Make Slot 1 your main storage and Slot 2 a backup of Slot 1. That way, when (not if) someone stops you and demands that you delete the image you just took, you can show them that you're deleting it and then be safely on your way. But, only you will know that you already have an image backup on your other SD card of the image that person just had to have you delete.
Most of the time, people don't want their pictures taken. It doesn't matter if you've got PRESS labels affixes to every inch of your body. The unfortunate reality today is that wearing a PRESS patch only makes you a target. In fact, there is no requirement to wear a PRESS patch or even have a press badge to photograph a news worthy event. However, having one is a good idea. You can obtain a press credentials a number of ways and you don't need to be a professional reporter to do so. This WikiHow article provides a number of reliable methods to prove you're there photographing the event in an "official" capacity. While you don't need formal press credentials, having them is a good idea if you get detained by authorities.
It should go without mentioning, but one of the best tools you can have as a photographer is... a camera. You most definitely don't need the latest and most expensive camera and lens on the market either. The best camera you can have is the one you have with you. If all you own is a simple point and shoot camera, then use your feet to walk closer to zoom in and walk away to zoom out. Remember, some of the world's best photos were taken with film cameras decades before you were born, and are still considered better photographs than many taken today with the latest digital technology. So, embrace what you have, know it inside and out and use it to create the stunning photographs you were born to produce.
TIP: Disable the Face ID and Touch ID unlock features on your smartphone. Only use a PIN code to unlock your phone. That way, if you are detained by authorities or someone who believes they are an authority and they seize your phone, they'll need a court order to unlock it. That is, if you're in America. It is a violation of your Fifth Amendment rights, a protection in the United States Constitution, for anyone to ask or demand that you unlock your smartphone using your PIN code. They'll need a search warrant for that.
These are just a few quick tips for you to consider when photographing a protest or riot. I hope they help keep you informed, safe and focused on capturing the next Pulitzer Prize winning shot. If you do plan to photograph a protest or riot and want to learn more tips, like how to properly wear and use a gas mask, the difference between concealment and cover, best camera settings for changing light conditions, or immediate action medical training for photographing in high-risk environments, among many other good tips, sign up for one of our in-person or remote training courses and we'll help you become the best photographer you can be!
Thanks for reading! =)