Making Photos of Protests

By Roger (22 January 2017)

Mark and I don't make political comments on this blog for some simple reasons: This is a blog about learning photography; and you don't care about our political views. However, if you'd like some tips about photographing a political event, you're in the right place.

I have photographed several protest events – including one in a foreign country – but it is rarely something I seek out. Since Mark and I live near Washington, D.C, we have frequent opportunities to make photos of the big events there. We haven't attended many because our photographic interests lie in other areas.

This weekend, however, my cousin and her husband wanted to take advantage of our location to come out for a visit and attend the Washington Women's March. No problem; we enjoy family visitors. Then, she asked me to come along and photograph the event. Hmmmm.....

And, hence, today's blog topic. Photographing protests can be target-rich environments for your photography. You've got many of the ingredients that make a good photograph: people; emotions; symbolism; conflicts; etc. Most of these photos are from this weekend's Washington Woman's March, I attended with my cousin, her husband, and my friend, Robyn, but the tips apply to any protest, march, or really large event you're attending.

Determine your role: To me, this an important part of the decision to attend and record the protest. Why do you want to do this? Are you trying to act as a photojournalist, a supporter, an opponent, or something in between? Your decision will impact the photos you make. Your viewers will interpret your images through their own filters, sometimes in ways you didn't intend. Be honest with yourself and clarify your intent, at least in your mind.

Prepare: I know, I know. We say this all the time, but it is important. You need to have an idea what you're getting into. You need to consider things like weather, transportation, equipment, event restrictions. Your preparations will give you the best chance of making the photos you want.

You may need to consider your own safety. Is there going to be trouble? Most of our readers are advanced amateurs, not professional photographers. From my point of view, there is no reason to put yourself in harm's way for a photo that is going onto your social media account. The troublemakers don't care why you're there; they just involve onlookers to increase their visibility. The police who are trying to put an end to trouble often don't have the time clearly distinguish between the troublemakers and onlookers. Stay out of the way of both.

Know the local laws before you photograph protests

Know the local laws before you photograph protests

In a much less dire reason to consider your position for the protest, think about your ability to move when needed. It is tempting to be inside the mass to photograph the participants and get their emotion. However, large crowds hamper your movement and can make it difficult to move around. When thousands of people begin to move, you can be forced to move with them. It's not easy to get away from the crush without a major struggle or injury. You may want to position yourself around the periphery to catch the protesters during the march and get a larger variety of photos than you can get by standing inside the crowd.

Staying along the edge of a march, in Krakow, Poland

Staying along the edge of a march, in Krakow, Poland

I believe in getting there early, so you can scope out the area. Look for good positions to make your images. Take interesting photos of the preparation, surrounding areas, and gathering crowds.

Behind the stage, at the Washington Woman's March

Behind the stage, at the Washington Woman's March

We left at 5 a.m., this weekend, so we could rely on the Metro. In hindsight, 6 a.m. would have been fine, too. But the metro began to slow down after that. As the day progressed, some Metro stations were shut down because crowds were larger than initial estimates. If we hadn't left early, we never would have made it. I'd always rather be there early, than miss out entirely.

Setting up the main stage

Setting up the main stage

Plan to keep your equipment to a minimum. This is not the time you bring out all your lenses. A backpack is going to slow you down; constantly bother other participants. and cause you more trouble than it's worth. This is the time for [trumpets blare] the stylish photo vest. You can keep your equipment safe, without all the protrusions that will aggrevate your fellow participants who are crammed in there with you. Your back and neck will thank you the next day. I really only used two lenses throughout the day, but my primary lens was the 24-120mm. When you're in a dense pack of people, you don't want to struggle to change lenses. You'll, of course, want extra batteries and memory cards, and they fit neatly in the pockets of your photo vest. (I'm determined to bring back its popularity.)

No room for a tripod here; don't bring it.

No room for a tripod here; don't bring it.

While we're talking fashion, this is a good time to cover other important items. Comfortable shoes are important to keep you in the game. We stood for hours during this weekend's march. You want to wear gear appropriate for the weather. The last thing you want to do in the middle of a long day is lug around a heavy, unneeded overcoat or shiver in the cold because you dressed too lightly. Your comfort will impact your results, so plan accordingly.

What to shoot: The short answer is everything. You won't have any trouble finding things for your camera to capture. Things can move quickly, so this is one of those times you can fill up memory cards. Expect to spend some serious culling time in post processing. As always, I recommend you shoot in RAW, so you have the maximum amount of leeway available to you in your post work.

The participants are my favorite topics. They came out to the event because they are passionate for the cause. If there is confrontation, show it. People will react differently, and their reactions can change throughout the event. Your photos should capture that emotion.

Holding her sign high

Holding her sign high

Listening intently

Listening intently

Enjoying a shared experience

Enjoying a shared experience

A mother and daughter, marching together

A mother and daughter, marching together

Try to show the size of the the crowds. This can be difficult in especially large events, when you can't get enough elevation, but showing concentrated groups can give the feel of the crowd. Here you can see every spot is filled, and some are on the walls, trying to get a better view.

The crowd went for blocks

The crowd went for blocks

Don't forget to take photos of the signs and buttons everyone is wearing. The people are more important to me, but the signs demonstrate their issues and help identify the event you're recording. Some of them are quite humorous, but keep in mind your audience. I tend to steer clear of the really crude ones.

When you can, try to use a meaningful background or symbol, in addition to the sign, to add more meaning to your photos.

The Capitol as a background

The Capitol as a background

marine
Out along the route

Out along the route

Signs from Occupy Boston

Signs from Occupy Boston

This is not a subject I photograph often. There are so many things I'd rather photograph. However, if you're interested in this type of photography, there are many opportunities. You don't have to work hard to seek them out. You don't have to move to a large city, and small protests and marches can provide the same type of subject matter.

For the woman's march, my purpose was to take photos of interest and illustrate the blog. I'm not a photojournalist, who can't make any changes to photos. The organizers had many issues and groups that mattered to them. I'm neither a open supporter or opponent of any of the groups. Again, this is not a political website, so I wouldn't mention them anyway. The day was interesting and provided hundreds of photos. I got to spend a day with a friend and my cousin, who traveled across the country, and participate in an event that was a top news item around the world. How do you top that?

Thanks for the blog, Tiara.

Thanks for the blog, Tiara.