Shooting Occupy Wall St With Micro Four Thirds: Tips on the Documentary Style

One of the members of Anonymous wears her mask backwards during preparation

We’re written a lot about street photography and documentary photography on the site, but one of the biggest issues that we haven’t covered are protests. Here in New York City, a movement called Occupy Wall St is currently underway—protesting corporate greed and corruption by having members and supporters camp outside of Wall St. At the time of writing this story, the general mainstream media hasn’t covered it yet; but it did make the front page of the New York Times.

Photos of protestors and photographers alike being thrown down and arrested are around the web. However, not many people are showing another side of the story. To avoid being arrested, I shot with a Micro Four Thirds camera that didn’t look professional.

My original plan was to go in and shoot the protest. However, during the time I was available, the protest wasn’t happening. So I did some specific preparation. I brought an Olympus EP2 to shoot all of these photos so as not to look like a professional photographer. But just in case someone tried to take my card, I loaded up an Eye-Fi Pro and had it transmit my JPEGs back to my laptop waiting at home for me.

Since I didn’t shoot the protest and there was nothing major going on, I looked for another story and didn’t walk around looking like a tourist or serious professional. Instead, I dressed simply (jeans, a hoodie and a messenger bag) and acted like a curious person that didn’t cause any alarm.

Figure Out Another Angle

Onlookers read the protest signs

I’ve read warnings everywhere: police are cracking down on photographers as well as protestors. Basically, if you’re not marching, they apparently have orders to arrest you.

While the group was prepping for the day’s protests and just waking up, I walked around their camp—set up in a park not far from Wall St.

And here is where I found another story. Just by looking in and around, I was able to see the conditions that these people were living in. In the previous days, New York City had been experiencing lots of rain. The protestors are camped outside and some without tarps to cover their belongings. So many of them experienced sleepless nights due to just how cold it was becoming.

When you’re living out in the streets for a while, you aren’t exposed to the cleanest conditions either. Plus, many don’t have access to a resupply of fresh necessities.

After talking to them more, I discovered that much of what’s around also becomes communal property unless your bag is closed. This goes for food, medical supplies, clothes, etc.

Don’t Be the Fly on the Wall

Anthony has his own story to tell about why he was at the protest. He's been working on a documentary film about the movement and the idea for around five years; and has been an avid supporter of it all for a while.

A protest is not really the place to be a fly on the wall so to speak. The terms comes from being nothing more than an observer and applies to photography by being in a medium to far proximity and timidly taking photos when you feel so.

The real stories come from interacting and getting to understand what you’re shooting.

That’s not at all to say that you should take sides: photojournalists have been taught for years to separate themselves from the story. Indeed, you should.

Demonstrators Love To Be Talked To

One of the protestors prepares herself for the Slutwalk: an event in Union Square protesting the rape of women. I worked with the woman above to get this photo by helping to pose her.

Consider this: you’re in a far away state away from home, safety, friends, and other support. Wouldn’t you take as much assistance as you can? That assistance comes in the form of more than just material needs. Human beings are social animals and it’s in our nature to interact with one another. Talking to people and listening to their stories combined with using your observant eye to find things to chat about should help to humanize what you’re doing.

Eye contact between a friendly supporter and an unknown person

Yes, I said humanize what you’re doing. No one wants to have someone just taking their photos; well, most people don’t. In a situation like this though, protestors will appreciate that you took the time to be friendly and chatted with them.

The Pillars of Photojournalism

As your shooting, keep in mind certain things that you’re looking for to tell your story. To help, remember the pillars of photojournalism: the newsworthy, the unusual, the intimate and the emotional.

The newsworthy: Slutwalk was actually very popular amongst the New York City blogs

The unusual: there were lots of people without shoes on outside

The intimate: protestors and supporters play with someone's puppy and also try to feed it

The Emotional: A man suddenly feels empowered

Your Health and Safety

Also be sure to keep in mind your health and safety. Though this may sound a bit OCD, germs do spread. Going into this, I was already a bit sick and the people that survived the cold nights probably caught something as well.

Unless you stay healthy, you really won’t be able to do your job at all either.

Do you have any tips to add? Or have you gone down to the protests? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below. But here are a couple more photos:

People hang their wet clothes out on a railing

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Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.