Note – 18 March 2022: I am very pleased to announce that the photos I took during this period in Sydney, of the protests against the Middle East military involvement of Australia’s Defence Forces, have found a new home at the Australian War Memorial located in Canberra. This includes all the photos in this article. They will be stored there indefinitely and form part of the Memorial’s archive for exhibitions, galleries and future generations to learn about this time in history.
There are a number of protests currently in the news, mainly centred around environmental and government issues. This has reminded me of some protest photography I did in the early 2000s. These were focused on the wars in the Middle East. These had the involvement of an allied force in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
Many protests are covered with a focus on flash points and violent altercations, but the majority of protests across the world tend to be peaceful. While these are not captured as extensively in the news, they are an important event to be captured as part of the history of that time.
In the early 2000s I was moving away from pursuing photography as a career. With digital photography coming into the fore, the writing was on the wall for the commoditisation of some types of photography. I therefore attended these protests more to document for myself. Luckily, I still had (and still do) have the tools of the professional.
Keep in mind that I am not a professional news photographer. This article is more about how I captured mainly peaceful protests. These suggestions are more something someone documenting a protest might try rather than trying to catch the front-page photo.
Each time I approached photographing a protest I would break down the types of shots. I would capture by a few key categories. These would be the flash point actions shots, key characters, the police, signs and group shots. I still use that in protests I photograph these days and in the future will share more recent photographs.
Before we have a look at each of these categories, let’s cover the equipment I used back then.
I was shooting some professional work, so back in 2000 I invested in a Nikon F5. This was the top of the line SLR from Nikon at the time. It is a beast of a camera with a built-in motor drive allowing it to be easily used in both landscape and portrait orientation. The motor drive allows it to shoot eight frames per second. That is a whole roll of 36 frames in 4.5 seconds!
Paired up with the F5 were the Nikkor 28-70mm f/2.8 AF-S and Nikkor 80-200mm f/2.8 D ED AF-S lenses which covered all the focal lengths needed. With the fast apertures, it allowed for when the light faded at the end of the day.
The films that I used were fairly consistent between 2001-2005. For black and white I primarily used Ilford Delta Professional 100 and Fujifilm Neopan 400 (I miss that film a lot!). This was a good combination for these types of events. Delta 100 is especially good for documentary with a very fine grain but can be a limiting in lower light. Neopan 400 was my go-to black and white film generally and I knew it very well, so it was a no brainer when I needed a bit more speed.
For colour I used Fujifilm Press 400 and 800 (I miss the 800 and 1600 most). The Press films were very neutral coloured films made specifically for news and press. They afforded a wide latitude and were fine grained. This was especially impressive on the ISO 800 version.
For light when it did get too dark, I had the wonderful Nikon SB-28 flash gun. It has a swivel head and fully integrated with the F5’s TTL metering.
The Flash Point Action
Let us start the categories with the action shot. Luckily in Australia the protests are fairly non-violent with only a few exceptions. What this does mean is that there are limited photos for sensational news reports.
The only time things got out of hand in the ones I photographed back then was in 2003 when some protesters decided they would try and break the police barrier. One man got through the police line after running at a policeman. He got shrugged off and went flying onto the ground face first. The photo above shows when he landed and was being told to not move. The policeman is moving towards him where he held him down and searched him for weapons.
Other actions shots include when the protesters get into the frenzy of the chants or play it up for the cameras. The photo above and some of the ones through the introduction of the article are examples of the participants showing their passion for the cause they are protesting.
The Key Characters
In each protest there are people that stand out. They may be one of the organisers, or they are dressed in a symbolic costume or even children who may not even fully understand the reason for the protest.
The man in the above photo stood out as he had prepared a plethora of signs and had a fairly unique look. He would grab whoever was walking in his vicinity and share his thoughts.
Here the man with the sign was tall, so stood out and was very visible. The fact that he was very light skinned and with red hear also helped in that respect. He also kept the sign upheld right through, even when talking to people.
The man behind the mask was trying to symbolise what he thought the US president represented. He was silent the whole time I saw him there.
This gentleman stood out because he was facing the opposite way to everyone else. I was standing there with my camera, which with the 80-200mm cannot be missed, and he took the opportunity to give me a shot.
Just to show that you don’t have to be a serious adult to protest, the above photo shows how kids can get involved. Initially I was intrigued to know if they knew what the protest was about, but the more I watched and as we know from recent events, kids maybe know more than adults.
Police in general get a bit of a bum deal. Most constables or officers, depending on where you are from, are good and want to do the right thing. There are exceptions all over the world, but from my experience in Australia, they tend to be there to contain any violence, and not suppress any messages.
Above, this shows the police preparing to ensure the protest remains peaceful and does not spill out to any dangerous areas.
Here the men and women in blue (which is what police uniforms are in Australia) have set the line for the protesters not to cross. In this area are government buildings.
The above photos show the police set up to guide the protest away from the US embassy.
The final police photo covers the police standing outside the US embassy. This is where a press credential comes in handy otherwise standing this close, as can be seen by the flash used, would have not been allowed.
A protest which causes disruption requires a crowd of people, otherwise it really struggles to make an impact. It is worth the effort to capture a wider aspect so that the depth of people who find this cause important.
Here we can see the protest ramping up. The crowd is still behind the barrier while the police shut down traffic, and a woman can be seen going about her usual day in the foreground.
It is important to capture the march of a protest if there is one. Here, we can see the banner being held up, the VIP at the front, and the crowd up and chanting. It is at these points where it can sometimes break out when the emotions are running high.
Catching the mood of the crowd can be done by capturing the people behind the front banner, but it can mean being buffeted a bit.
Protesters can’t rely on their message being heard in such a noisy environment, or to be noticed in the media just by voice. This is why many will carry a sign or banner. Some have very direct messages, some describe frustration and others just hurl an insult at someone like a politician. Capturing a few photos of the signs helps document the actual issue protested amongst other messages.
The above montage shows some signs I came across at these protests. While most have a message, some are there just for the attention too.
These have been the kind of photos I try and capture at a protest, but as we all know, things are not always going to plan. Luckily, apart from a protest that fizzles, anything that comes up tends to be quite interesting.
As you can see above, even in the midst of a passionate protest, there is always time for a private moment.
These events are not something for everyone and you need to pick carefully so that you don’t put yourself in danger. Take into account where in the world you are, as some countries do not allow photographs of the police or military. Some law enforcement in other countries may consider the photographer as being a sympathiser. Please take care and choose carefully.
But if you feel like trying to capture a protest, try the categories of photos described here as a start, but don’t be afraid to be creative and capture anything interesting.