As a photographer and video producer, my camera is what I have to offer.
So I feel compelled to record images at protests. I do this both for history and to create images which capture and stir emotions during this crucial movement. But I especially do this to create some level of police accountability.
Having documentation of police brutality is one of the few tools we have to protect ourselves from an escalation of police violence. And when that violence does occur, to hold police accountable. Both within the context of these protests and everyday, recording the police can save a life. So as photographers/videographers at protests, our work carries immense power.
Many times at protests this week I witnessed police getting aggressive and ran over with my camera. And when I did, the situation immediately de-escalated. I think my whiteness also had something to do with that. But the truth remains that police might alter their behavior when they realize they may be held accountable. Documenting their behavior is the best tool we have to avoid brutality. While some police will not be deterred, as evidenced by the countless horrific incidents we do have on film, it is important we do all we can.
If you feel nervous about this, or an officer tells you to stop recording, remember:
“The First Amendment generally protects filming and audio recording of government officials engaged in their duties in a public place, including police officers performing their responsibilities (during a protest or otherwise). Although the Supreme Court has not addressed the issue, six federal appellate courts have recognized this constitutional right to record, reflecting a growing consensus on the matter. Reflecting the dramatic increase in citizen journalism, these cases have also recognized that the right to gather news and access information, which form the basis for the right to record, applies to private citizens as well as Journalists.” Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
With this responsibility to record, it is also crucial we, as those documenting these incidents, make every effort to protect the civilians participating in these protests.
It’s been reported that both police and individuals use images from protests to identify and track down participants. With Ferguson specifically reporting several mysterious deaths of people who were photographed while demonstrating.
Here are some things you can do to help protect the safety of protestors when recording demonstrations:
Record police interactions, anytime you see a police officer engaged with a civilian, keep an eye and a lens on them. Especially if the civilian is Black or POC. Police can get violent in an instant, so even if it seems relatively calm for the time being, be ready to record.
Avoid photographing/videoing protestors’ faces, and also keep in mind other potentially identifying marks such as tattoos. Blurring faces after the fact in photoshop isn’t enough, as the metadata can be taken and used to undo any blurring you’ve done. See the below slideshow from digital media professional and self-proclaimed “weird image curator” PizzaLawyer420 for advice on how to obscure faces more safely:
Carefully consider what photos/videos you take and publish. Focusing your camera on protestors who are breaking things or behaving in “unruly” ways puts emphasis on that, making it easy for people to scapegoat and write off the movement based of the actions of a few. This can skew public perception against justice and what is really important. A photo of someone running off with sneakers or a stereo allows people to say “see, they’re just looters” and distracts from the main issues at hand, when the emphasis should really be on the movement that the protest is about.
So, use your camera for good
Below are some examples of photos I took at photos this week. I believe these accomplish the goals of documenting these demonstrations while protecting protestors' identities. If you notice anything I may have missed, please call me out on it!
For all photographers/videographers, do what you can to stay safe while recording demonstrations. While also not prioritizing your own comfort if you’re white. Police in New York shot a photojournalist with rubber bullets, blinding her in one eye (thankfully not her right eye, the one she uses to shoot). Other journalists were arrested while simply standing and reporting on what was going on. So while it’s immensely important that we show up, especially those of us who are white and therefore are safer in police encounters, it’s important to remain aware of and alert to police presence.
I’d encourage any white folks attending protests to place themselves on the frontlines between the police and Black people and other people of color, but the extent to which you participate in the protest is ultimately up to you. Whatever you do you must avoid getting in protestors’ way or putting them in any danger at all costs, don’t prioritize “getting the shot” over someone’s safety. If you’re filming someone being detained, ask them to state their full name on video and ask if there’s someone you can contact on their behalf to let them know what’s happening and to check in on them. See the list below for some numbers you can call to help someone being arrested.
Additionally, keep in mind that you will be walking a lot, and will need to maneuver through crowds of people often packed together tightly. For that reason, keep your gear as compact as possible. One camera body and one good lens you feel nimble with should suffice. A flash for nighttime demonstrations is a good idea as well.
Below is a list of helpful resources for those attending protests. If you have additional resources you think would be helpful, please contact me! I will continue adding to this post as much as is needed.
Wired - How to Protest Safely in the Age of Surveillance
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press - Police, Protesters and the Press
Journalists with additional questions or in need of assistance finding a lawyer should contact the Reporters Committee’s hotline at 800-336-4243
If you or a loved one has been arrested in NYC, call 1-833-3-GOODCALL (1-833-346-6322) for free legal support 24/7
A list of nationwide bail funds