Protest Photography Part 1 - How I Got Started
My interest in making photographs of protests started in late January, 2017. I’ve never been involved in politics or activism but the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States of America affected me in strong and surprising ways. While visiting a local coffee shop with my partner, I saw a sign advertising inexpensive bus tickets to the inauguration protests. That was the moment I decided I was going to try to document the protests and what I thought could potentially be a significant event in our nation’s history.
I purchased my ticket the next day, not certain what to expect or how I'd accomplish basic logistical tasks, let alone make photographs. Different sources provided different information about how I could prepare, what I should bring, and so on. I overnighted myself some spare memory cards, batteries, and rain gear in preparation (none of the lenses I own are weather sealed and the forecast predicted significant rain). This should provide some context around my attempts to be as prepared as possible in the face of a situation I knew next to nothing about. My gear list wound up as follows:
23mm f1.4 lens
56mm f1.2 lens
Spare batteries and memory cards
Handmade business cards (email and Instagram)
Plastic ziplock bags
Camera rain cover
External USB battery for phone, etc
Notebook and pen
A couple of snack bars
Some cash and emergency numbers in a plastic bag
I carried the above in a small shoulder bag and a belt pouch and shipped dry clothes and other supplies ahead to D.C. so I could travel light. I'd been told by the J20Resist organizers that bags larger than 8" x 6" would not be allowed and that I shouldn't bring anything I didn't want searched or confiscated, so I was already very sensitive to carrying any more than I absolutely needed. As I'd just recently purchased my Fujifilm camera and lenses, I was quite anxious!
Okay, now on to things I learned.
1. Be nimble, but be safe.
When I'm making photographs of protests, I like to be in the crowd and I like to try to get close to the action. That means I need to be as light and nimble as possible while still keeping myself and my gear safe. Packing light helps me move through crowds without being caught up on protesters and signs, and using a small shoulder bag allows me to keep a better eye on my gear than if I were wearing something like a backpack.
The D.C. trip has been a unique experience for me, so far, in that it was both distance and enormous, so there were some challenges that I feel will be somewhat unique in my circumstances. Specifically, in this case, I focused on packing redundantly and in layers.
My first layer was my most disposable and it contained items like water and snack bars in a plastic grocery bag. This was mostly for the bus ride and to provide to others if there was a need. I anticipated that I might need to dispose of these items -- and I did -- at an early point in the trip.
My second layer was my rain and backup gear, which I wore on a belt pack. This pack contained my poncho, rain gear, USB battery pack, and so forth. While I'd have been unhappy losing this, it wouldn't have been a tragedy.
My third layer was my camera equipment, which lived in a shoulder bag. This would be my primary focus for retention and use.
Finally, I had a couple layers of redundancy including clothing I shipped to D.C. in advance and a small plastic bag with some cash and contact information for worst case scenarios.
2. Don't expect your mobile devices to work.
Any time you have a sufficient number of people in an area, cellular service can be very spotty. I'm on Google Fi and had intermittent connectivity in D.C., but the people I was with who used iPhones on AT&T or Verizon generally did not. Don't expect that you'll be able to separate from your group and still contact them, or that you'll be able to use services such as Google Maps, and always have a backup plan. In addition, consider options other than WiFi for transferring images from your camera to your mobile devices if you're trying to provide social media updates in near-real time. Android devices can generally use an OTG cable to transfer photographs and I'm sure there's something similar for Apple devices. In short: rely on wireless protocols as little as possible.
3. Plan ahead.
Write important phone numbers on your body. Tuck cash and spare essentials away on your person in places other than your bags. Establish places on your person where you can tuck SD cards and regularly try to back data up to multiple physical devices or the cloud if you're able. While I've never had a need to use any of these things, protests are inherently volatile situations that have the potential to escalate. It is better to be prepared than not, and the effort required is minimal.
Preparation for photographing a protest varies wildly, depending on the circumstances. Is the protest large or small? Is it local, or will you be traveling? Will you be alone or with people you trust? These factors can all affect how much time and care should go into the preparations. I'm still learning my way around all of this -- from photography to protests -- so my opinions may change as I get some more experience. I'd also love to hear your thoughts and advice!