When Covering Protests, It Pays to Do Your Research


I was recently asked to show some pictures at an informal get-together with photojournalists in Oslo. In January, we had some fairly rowdy demonstrations here — by Norwegian standards anyway — with demonstrators clashing with police as they protested the war in Gaza.

Having covered conflict and social unrest for over 20 years, I thought it would be interesting to dig out some of my old pictures to see how my photography had changed. Assembling the images was a learning experience. I even found a few skeletons in my closet.

Sifting Through Old Shoots

<i>Oslo, Norway 1990: A young girl is arrested by Norwegian riot police during an illegal demonstration against Soviet President Gorbachev.</i>

Actually, the “skeletons” weren’t all in one closet, it turned out. Simply finding some of my old negatives turned out to be a challenge. Before I could even begin to dust off the negs and put together a show, I had to go searching in unlabeled boxes in the basement and attic.

Eventually, I found most of what I was looking for — as well as some pictures I had forgotten all about. One picture I hadn’t forgotten is the first one published internationally. I still have the fading original print (above) that went over the wires credited to “Fredrik Naumann / REUTER”. You don’t get mementos like that sending pictures over FTP or as e-mail attachments.

Sifting through the pictures, I found black and white negatives and color chromes from the same events, reminding me that I used to have one camera for each. From most events I’d only find a few rolls, perhaps two B/Ws and one color film. Working as a freelancer, I couldn’t afford endless amounts of film.

I wonder if young photographers today realize what a gift the digital revolution has given them? I wonder how they’d feel if they were asked to cover a demonstration with the added challenge of using no more than 72 pictures for the full day? I have no nostalgia for film or darkrooms; I’m happy for whatever tools make the job easier.

<i>Oslo, Norway 2003:  A protest against the American invasion of Iraq ends with riots.</i>

The Importance of Preparing

There is a lot more to photographing demonstrations than having enough frames to shoot, of course. Two of the most important considerations are logistics and safety. From my pictures I could see that, fortunately, I have improved my skills with both over the years.

Looking at some of my earlier work, I realized I went into some areas without enough knowledge of the local situation. For example, in 1997 I went to Belfast to cover the annual Orange Marches, which usually brought violence. My knowledge was limited to what I’d read in newspapers, and I can’t remember talking to anyone from Belfast before arriving there.

This lack of knowledge is apparent in my work. Largely as a result of my poor preparation, I have very little to show from that trip.

Fortunately, technology has made this kind of preparation easier today.

In 1997, I had no Internet access. Today, I wouldn’t dream of going anywhere without taking advantage of the wealth of information available on the Web — and perhaps hooking up with some local journalists and photographers before and during the protests.

<i>Oslo, Norway 2009: Fireworks explode between police vehicles as pro-Palestinian protesters clash with law enforcement during a demonstration against Israel. </i>

Using YouTube for Research

I am particularly fond of YouTube for this sort of research. I’m sure I don’t have to convince you of the power of a still image in capturing a moment in time. But I would argue that there is also something to be said for poorly edited (or better yet, unedited) amateur videos of events, too.

I’ve watched quite a few videos of the G20 protests in London in April, and they would be very useful if I were to travel to London to photograph demonstrations. The videos give insight into police behavior and tactics, for example. Frankly, the London police appeared to behave like simple thugs at times.

The videos also gave me insight into what sort of people such protests attract, the level of force and violence used by various groups, how local media covers such an event, what protective gear is used, and how various situations develop.

In many respects, these videos are more useful than looking at the work of other photographers or news segments on TV. While still photographers and TV crews edit with a focus on the height of action, the amateur videos often show how tensions build, how these tensions spark into violence, and the reaction of various parties in the aftermath.

If you are able to learn from that, you are better prepared to get the shot next time. Knowing what to expect is the best way to stay safe, too.

Here’s a gallery of the images from my presentation.


3 Responses to “When Covering Protests, It Pays to Do Your Research”

  1. haha this is very very good advice. if you ever want to cover a protest in Singapore, i suggest you bring along some newspaper or a book cuz protests here rarely produce any actions!

  2. The underlying advice in this article is to be prepared and to practice your personal organization skills. The organized photographer comes out on top. I spent a whole 3 days re-organizing and culling the images on my computer to bring out the shiners that I previously had just dumped on the computer without realizing their potential for saleability.

    A little preparedness goes a long way.

  3. Thanks for that insight Karl, I was wondering what an article titled "When Covering Protests, It Pays to Do Your Research" was actually about.

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