Protests are inherently chaotic, whether or not they’re by design. Someone screams something in a language you do or don’t understand, and others follow suit. People wave banners, flags and posters. They raise their fists and stamp their feet. There are thousands of them, and they just started moving. Do you walk alongside them? Do you stay at the front and frequently check over your shoulder as you walk quickly enough to keep enough distance for a photograph? More importantly, how do you keep yourself from making the images everybody else is making? Protests can be daunting, but there are ways in which you can make images that truly stand out.
Don’t Get Arrested
This may seem obvious, but it’s worth mentioning. If a cop says move, move. Protests are not the time to be brazen because once the cuffs go on, picture-making time is over. Granted, there are occasions when you have bad luck, when a misunderstanding and an overzealous cop can land you in a holding cell. Protests necessitate every last bit of your awareness, both to make images and keep yourself safe.
Don’t Join the Line of 30 Photographers Taking the Same Image
It’s easy and understandable to want the crowd shot, to show the size and scope of the protest, but the truth is, almost all of those images look the same.
Look for Symbols
Protests almost always have symbols attached to them, whether it’s a hand gesture, a photo, a loaf of bread or anything else. The photo above was from a protest commemorating the anniversary of Berkin Elvan’s death in Turkey. In June 2013, Elvan was on his way to buy bread when a police officer fired a tear gas canister that struck him on the head. He fell into a coma that lasted 269, after which he died. Bread is one of the most potent symbols in these protests, so much so that there’s a statue of him in his hometown that shows him squatting near a loaf of bread. Seek out symbols in your images, and find ways to incorporate them.
If the protest is massive, chances are there’s police presence both on the ground and in the air. As you’re navigating the throngs of protesters, look up at least once to see if there’s anything, and if there aren’t any helicopters, you might find windows dotted with people.
Photograph more than the protesters
Protests are often a dialogue the protesters and the police, and it’s important to look beyond the protesters. The police are largely there to make sure nothing gets out of hand, and in recent times, they’ve been the target of every protest. Cops often won’t give anything away emotionally, but try to read them. Try to get a sense of what they’re feeling and photograph them from a safe distance. Also, make sure you know your rights wherever it is you’re living.
Look for Intersections of Protesters and Police
There are myriad visual opportunities at protests, and how you capture images is largely based on your approach and intent. One to way make interesting images is to look for layers, which can manifest in any number of ways. Look for contrast in your layers, too, which might come in the form of police officers standing over a die-in.
Get a Dynamic Crowd Shot
Crowd shots are often necessary, particularly when you’re photographing on assignment, though it’s best to look for one that isn’t the standard large crowd with a long banner. Occasionally, protests will fragment into smaller groups that will move along side streets and smaller walkways. Those moments tend to be more dynamic as small groups can move quicker than bigger ones.