Outperforming mainstream media protest and rally coverage

There are many considerations for shooting protests and rallies

Photographing protests and rallies. Elevated shot of protest marching down the street in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Photo by Benjamin Pecka.

Protests and rallies used to be simple and straight-forward affairs where people exercised their rights to assembly and free speech. Today, they have become more contentious as groups organize counter-protests on social media. Protest and rallies are common in capital cities but their frequency and intensity rose in other cities with the election of Donald Trump. This gives budding photojournalists additional opportunity to practice their right to free press.

Preparation, research and ethical considerations all help photographers obtain the best possible results for these complicated, and sometimes dangerous, shooting conditions.

Preparing for the worst conditions

A photography bag sitting on pine wood table is packed and prepared to cover a protest at a moment's notice.
The concept of a “bug out bag” from doomsday preppers ensures that a photojournalist’s equipment is always charged and ready to go. Photo by Benjamin Pecka.

Preparation is the single-most important step of covering a protest or rally. The unpredictable nature makes them potentially dangerous. However, there are multiple tactics that budding photojournalists should employ to stay safe. Taking these steps also ensures that photographers are prepared to shoot for the entire duration of the event.

The first step is to borrow a strategy employed by disaster and doomsday preppers by making sure that gear is always ready to go. Most events are announced weeks or months in advance but they can occur at any time when a high-profile event happens. ‘Bug out bags’ contain all the necessary tools needed to survive if an emergency that requires leaving the house happens.

For photographers, that means also packing anything that might be needed in the field. Required gear depends on individual purpose but always keep extra batteries, charging equipment, cleaning supplies and plastic coverings in the bag. Protests and rallies rarely abide by schedules and weather is sometimes unpredictable. If inclement weather or an emergency occurs, you want to ensure that equipment, including cell phones, remains operational and that communication with police is possible. After every shoot, recharge batteries and repack the camera bag.

Researching and documenting protests and rallies

Protest on the streets of Saint Paul, Minnesota
Photo by Benjamin Pecka

Although traditional media tends to portray people involved in protests and rallies as a monolith of ideologies, this is far from the truth. Large public gatherings are agglomerations of smaller groups who ideologically align on an individual issue. Few organizations are robust enough to show strong support alone, so they cultivate loose relationships with others who might disagree on other principles.

Determining who belongs to which groups and how they are likely to behave is difficult. There is little information available in the field and photojournalists must rely on personal observations. Although it is impossible to be fully informed, performing an investigation ahead of time helps to make smart on-the-spot decisions. Photographers that cover these events regularly learn to identify major players and watch how they interact with people that they do not recognize.

Today’s protests and rallies are largely organized on social media, which makes the Internet the most important source of information. Most, if not all, events are organized with Facebook events or Twitter hashtags. Comments and discussions between participants on these platforms determine the tone. They also help photographers identify potential major players.

Knowing as much information ahead of time enables photographers to properly capture events when things move rapidly and identify what actually happened when things become chaotic. Involvement from many differing groups means that voice recorders, pens and pads of paper are important tools. They help reporters remember specific details later and to capture information easily lost to a distracting environment.

Ethical considerations and other strategies

Although this image does not show the entire scope of the rally, the elevated position and foreground elements adds interest that also provides viewers with context. Photo by Benjamin Pecka.

Finally, aim to capture a variety of shots and employ compositional techniques that add depth and context to the scene. This can be difficult depending on where the event takes place. Remaining vigilant to find foreground objects that frame subjects and elevated positions becomes crucial in this environment. Look for scenes that convey the scope of the crowd and unique signs that accurately portray the event’s tone. Additionally, it takes a great deal of patience to capture the emotion of speakers. Keep the camera pointed at them and watch for compelling hand and facials movements. These expressions are brief and difficult to catch, so taking multiple bursts of shots helps to overcome the limitation.

Choosing the proper equipment

Pete Stauber, a candidate for Minnesota congress, speaks at a gun rights rally.
Images of public figures, like candidates for political office, are fair game to photograph and publish. Photograph by Benjamin Pecka.

Equipment choice is important because there is little time to make changes in the field. The best lens is the one that provides the most room to work and allows the photographer to capture both wide and long-range shots. Many photographers employ multiple cameras and use the most appropriate one for the scene.

For this shoot, we used a combination of a 70-300mm telephoto lens and a high-quality point-and-shoot camera for wider angles.

Ethics of photographing people in public

Most people who participate expect that there will be media present and like knowing that their presence was noticed. Photographers are not restricted from capturing images of anyone in these spaces, even if they protest. Public figures like politicians and speakers are always fair game. However, sometimes there are folks who would rather not have their picture taken, especially at events that become contentious.

Two individuals with guns look at the camera at a gun rights rally in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
Most attendees of rallies and protests do not mind their photographs taken but that is not true of everyone. Photograph by Benjamin Pecka.

When attendees notice that they are being photographed, the best practice to introduce yourself, ask their name and tell them your intentions. If you are with an organization, let them know which one and how they can find it. However, this is not always possible depending on proximity and how easy it is to approach them. Always remember to treat subjects with this respect whenever possible.

Ethics of shooting public events

Capturing a variety of images and accurately portraying the event requires a photographer to always think about the next shot. The camera has the propensity to consume its user because it creates a barrier between the photographer and subject. It is important to consider this implication and not allow it to override your humanity. Sometimes it is more important to take personal action than it is to capture a compelling photograph.

Minnesota State Patrol officers watch a protest and rally from a distance.
Periodically removing yourself from the thick of a crowd helps photographers to assess the situation and remain neutral. Photo by Benjamin Pecka.

However, there is a fine and undefined line when it comes to intervention because a good photojournalist does not become part of the news. Remember to remove the veil of the camera, walk around the perimeter of the event and become a member of the main crowd. Doing so helps photographers remember the human element that drives protests and rallies.

Additionally, practicing the veil of ignorance helps photographers to treat all people equally. This ethical philosophy states that journalists should not allow attributes like age, gender and political ideologies to determine how subjects are portrayed. Although an individual photographer may not agree with a gun rights rally, they should not allow personal biases to dictate coverage.

Local media outlets tend to capture what they need for the story and leave. Taking these steps and staying for the entire duration helps ensure that the citizen journalist’s coverage of protests and rallies beats their superficial coverage.

We will continue to explore the ethical implications of photography in the coming months. What other lessons in professionalism should be covered first? Let us know in the comments or leave feedback in our community!


    • Thanks! With the proliferation of camera technology and rise of citizen journalism, the ethical implications of photography definitely need more consideration in society. We need to work to safeguard the institution of free press.

  1. Very nice job Ben. Protest coverage can be daunting and confusing; at peaceful gatherings various sides want to see that you’re showing them in the best light possible and will try to steer your coverage to serve their needs. At the more explosive gatherings journalists often become targets of opposing sides, sometimes including law enforcement, each of whom assume you’re the enemy. One of the very best traits/tools a journalist can have are their social skills…’defuse and don’t argue’ when confronted.
    “Local media outlets tend to capture what they need for the story and leave.” That’s often true, but changes according to deadline pressures, daily story rankings, staffing and technology. The closer the deadline, the more the coverage tends to focus on emotion, action and will lean towards shallowness. But for the journalists not facing immediate deadlines the opposite hazard can be dwelling on obscure details and becoming too sympathetic.

    • The only media that I have noticed who consistently stay for the entire duration are the freelancers who sell their work to local organizations. Unless it is a big story, like after the Yanez verdict, I have not seen many, if any, outlets stay for the entire duration of the event. There are even outlets who do not show up at all and rely on solely second-hand reports in their stories.

      I have had nothing but positive interactions with law enforcement through dozens of protests and rallies. The closest thing to a problem was a time when they were keeping protesters separated after a physical confrontation. An officer began moving to block my access but stopped after they noticed my gear and pass. That is possibly because many know and recognize me through repeated exposure. I have seen reporters get caught up in conflicts, though, and officers do not look upon it kindly … at all. When that happens, they are treated like an unruly protester, perhaps more harshly because they should know better. While getting caught up can happen to anyone, a experienced journalist will know enough to recognize their role and avoid getting into those situations.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.