Photographing Protests: The Truth on Being Ethical in the Heat of it All

I was in my twenties when I began photographing protests. Growing up, I was taught to fight for what I believe in, never to let anyone silence me. That got me into a little trouble over the years. However, once I mellowed out, my early lessons led me to be interested in what warrants protest. Combined with my enthusiasm for photography, you have the perfect cocktail.

Credit: Dan Ginn

The first protest I photographed was a women’s march. Donald Trump had just taken office, and people, in response to many of his comments, wanted to show their disdain for America’s new president. That was in London. So even across the pond, almost 6000km away, the hatred for one man was strong.

Unlike street photography, which I knew had a certain code of ethics, I felt like anything goes for protests. It’s an important moment in time. The world needs to see what’s happening. So whoever is marching, and regardless of what they do, is fair game for documentation.

After making one photograph, a woman followed me as I walked away from a scene. “Delete that right now,” she said. Being young and locked into the values installed in me, I said, “don’t be afraid to let the world know what you believe in.” That didn’t go down well, and the issue was resolved by me deleting the photo. But it got me thinking: do certain ethics apply to photographing protests?

Photographing Protests And Ethics

I wouldn’t consider myself as someone who is known for photographing protests. If I come across a protest while shooting street photography, I’ll surely get involved. But would I call myself an authority on the topic? No.

Keen to dig deep into the ethical element of photographing protests, I turned to someone better positioned to comment than me. Henri Calderon is a French photographer based in London. His work has been featured in several leading publications across the industry. He also won the Portrait of Britain prize for his documentary work. Being in London, the perfect ground for photographing protests, he was the ideal photographer to speak with about the topic.

Credit: Henri Calderon

Photographing Protests and Dignity

“I think the keystone of dignity lies within respect to the protest and the viewpoint you’re shooting,” Calderon told me as we began a dialogue. He continued, “that means not heading into a protest with a predetermined view of what they stand for, nor heading out to shoot the most volatile image you can. What is important is knowing who they are and why they’re protesting.”

When asked to explain in more detail, he said, “The more you know about the issues people stand against, the better set you are to give a balanced and fair assessment of whats happened, and the more dignified your images are. At the core, protest photography should be about capturing a group of people’s view on an issue, and providing your pictures are true to their viewpoint, you’re largely covered.”

Credit: Henri Calderon

Before moving to the next question, Calderon asserted his stance on a general approach to photographing protests:

“You don’t necessarily have to agree with every protest. However, knowing why they’re there, and creating a set of images that go deeper than face value, means you’re onto a winner. “

Choosing What to Document

To me, deciding how to be ethical when photographing protests brings certain complications. The protests across the U.S. and the UK in 2020 are perfect examples.

The mainly peaceful protests were marred by looting, burning down businesses, and violence. A photojournalist has a decision to make. Do they ignore the violence in an attempt to maintain the value of the peaceful protesters’ powerful message? Or do they document it, which opens the door for those who oppose the protests to condemn them?

Credit: Henri Calderon

Calderon, a photographer who immersed himself in the heart of the BLM protests in England’s capital, had this to say on selective documentation:

“It varies according to what people are protesting, and where you’re focus is. Generally, I’m quite open with what I capture at protests. However, you do have a duty to the truth, above all.” He adds, “additionally, a key point to this is not necessarily what you’re shooting but what you choose to send to your editor and upload on your channels. I’ll break it into two sections: the shooting and the selecting.”

The Photographs

Calderon begins to dig deeper. He starts to break down the full creative process and gives us a glimpse into how his mind works when it comes to making images and choosing his final selection.

“When shooting, you’re aiming to capture the truth of what happened on that day. This justifies you to shoot what you see and what occurs on that day. However, there are two issues in that: not everyone there may be protesting the issue itself, and some elements of the protest may distract from the core of the issue.”

Credit: Henri Calderon

To further explain his point, Calderon refers to protests that occurred after the killing of Sarah Everard. Her murder happened on March 3rd, 2021. Still dealing with lockdowns, the UK learned that Everard was killed by an off-duty police officer. Understandably, this sparked outrage, and people took to the streets to protest.

Calderon was documenting the protest. On observing the people there, he said, “The main group (99%) was followed by a small group of anarchists (1%) who seemed more motivated towards causing trouble versus protesting for female safety.” He added, “What this manifested in was throwing missiles at police, trying to rip down barriers etc. With that in mind, I felt it appropriate to turn my lens the other way. My purpose on that day was to cover a vigil and march about the murder of Sarah Everard, which was overwhelmingly peaceful, versus a small minority who had tenuous links to the issue and seemed to be more focused on causing trouble.”

“It would’ve been inaccurate, morally and numerically, to associate the two together strongly, as it wouldn’t have exactly been truthful to the group itself.”

Credit: Henri Calderon

He then shared some strong opinions about what he feels many photographers do when photographing protests. “I feel a lot of photographers may sensationalize stories visually, prioritizing the “flashpoint” elements of a protest over others,” he told The Phoblographer. “Black Lives Matter comes to mind here, and especially the narrative of confrontation between protestors and police. The moment there was a small confrontation between the MET and protestors, you had a lot of photographers immediately run in that direction instead of shooting a lot of incredibly thought-provoking and positive actions.”

Explaining why he thinks that happens, he said:

“The reason? Most likely that drama and confrontation sell papers and get hits online. However, in shooting the protestors in reference to the police, the images detract from the protestors themselves. On those protests, I made a conscious effort to focus on the police minimally. At the core, it was the messages of the protestors that were most important to me, and to give a leg up to those views over something that was more sensationalist felt like the right thing to do. Not to mention it gave a far more engaged set of pictures. Understanding what others are doing and questioning it allows you to create an original and more thoughtful style. Ultimately, in time, getting you to more publications.”

Credit: Henri Calderon

The Editing

Due to the chaotic nature of protests, Calderon acknowledges that it can be difficult to make ethical decisions in the heat of the moment. Photographers don’t have much time to act, and sometimes it’s not worth risking missing the shot. But this is where editing starts to take over. Editing is where the photographer can detach from the turbulent atmosphere and begin to analyze what they shot.

“I’d argue that selecting what pictures you put out is as equally important as shooting them,” said Calderon. He continues, “Part of this is taking a bit of time to reflect on your own biases, your own motivations, and how best to minimize them to be as fair as possible.”

Credit: Henri Calderon

Detailing what helps him focus on image selection, he said, “A great help for me has been speaking with those close to me, who are concerned by the issues that I photograph. For example, when shooting the Sarah Everard protests, I bounced my pictures to a woman I was dating (and one that I’ve now got the pleasure to call my girlfriend) and got her view on what would be the most appropriate images to share.”

“In doing that, you can get an alternative view on what you should select. In cases of ethics, two minds do tend to be better than one, especially if it’s mine, so opening your work up to criticism can only be a good thing. You may think you’re being as ethical as possible, but until you’re checked by someone who may have a lived experience, you’re making a certain amount of guesswork.”

His Motivation for Photographing Protests

I’m always intrigued to understand a photographer’s motivation for the shooting. Why do they direct a lens on a certain topic? What does documenting that story mean to them? I asked Calderon why photographing protests was important to him:

“I choose to document protests because it’s an important job. Seeing members of society go out, stand against what they deem to be unfair and making an effort to change is how the UK moves forward. [I’m interested in] how we make history. Being a part of that process, whether it’s to just witness it, or document it, is an honor.”

Credit: Henri Calderon

“On a more functional level, I also do it to practice shooting. Protest photography is so fast and dynamic. It trains you to be decisive, to think ahead, and learn how best to interact with people. A lot of the time you work with what you’re given, which often isn’t perfect (lighting/access/speed of action) and have to make the best picture you can. This ultimately makes you a better photographer. If you can do things quickly, then you can translate that out to situations where you have more control.”

Advice to New Photographers

Back when I was younger, as boisterous as I was, I wish I had someone put their arm around me and give me the 101 of photographing protests while remaining ethical. I can’t go back in time. But I can help new and up-and-coming photographers.

Before allowing him to get back to what he does best, I asked Calderon what advice he would give to a new photographer wanting to document protests. First, he emphasized the importance of doing research, allowing you to understand the meaning of the protest and why it’s happening. He then encourages new photographers to go out and start practicing the craft. And, maybe most importantly, shoot how you would like to be shot.

The final pointer is something I always try and keep in mind. If I wouldn’t want someone to photograph me in a certain way, I have no right to photograph them in that way.

Credit: Henri Calderon

Giving the digital floor to Calderon, he had this to say in closing:

“I think it’s important to note that no one is a saint when it comes to this kind of photography. We all make mistakes, step over a line that we shouldn’t to get a shot that we believe will land us a Guardian feature. However, where the true value in ethics and photography rests is to have an honest conversation with yourself. ‘Am I here for the right reason?’ and ensure you’re acting with the same integrity that you’d hope a person capturing you in public would.”

You can see more work from Henri Calderon by visiting his website and Instagram.

All images by Henri Calderon were published with permission. Lead image by Henri Calderon.

Dan Ginn

Dan Ginn is a content writer and journalist. He brings with him five years' experience writing in the photographic niche. During that time he has worked with a range of leading brands, as well as a host professional photographers within the industry.