Top 5 Tips for Photographing Protests and Riots (Guest post)

riot england photography
Riot photography – Robert Graham

Before starting this article, I thank Robert Graham for sending this guest post in while I'm away hiking to the highest lake in Idaho (Goat Lake) for a few days on an epic photo adventure.  I'm testing out my new Clik Elite Hiker camera bag on the trail and I'll review it when I get back.  Anyway, Robert Graham sent in this terrific post with timely and news-worthy photos.  This is journalistic photography as reported through the lens of Robert Graham.  In light of recent events, I thought this article would be interesting to the whole community.

Over the last year or so, the news has been full of reports about people protesting and rioting all over the world. Such events can lead to some great photographic opportunities if approached in the right way. Having photographed at several protests and riots recently and having my work published by BBC News, I thought I’d share my top 5 tips for photographing these events.

1. Get in close – Whilst a wide shot capturing the scope of the event can be effective, it is also probably going to be one of the most seen images as film crews and civilians with compacts and camera phones will be capturing shots like that. If you want your photos to stand out, get in close and capture the people that the event is made up of. These are the photos that your audience will really want to see, as it helps create the feeling that they’re right in the moment.

2. Don’t be afraid to talk to people – When I shoot documentary and street photography, I prefer to work candidly, that way I can capture events as true to life as possible without influencing or changing them. But don’t forget that whilst documenting an event, almost everyone attending, is doing so for the same reason, and are often quite friendly to others joining in with them. Because of this, you don’t have to be afraid of asking someone to take a portrait of them and getting a model release at the same time. Capturing the people attending the event is as much a part of documenting it as getting your candid shots.

Photo of a riot in the UK with police shoving people.
Riot photography by Robert Graham

3. Make sure you can change your lens quickly – I often find that I’m using my telephoto lens to make sure I don’t miss out on any of the action whilst keeping me out of harm’s way, however shooting with a 70-200mm lens in a crowd can get a bit tricky if you find the crowd closing in around you, perhaps in a tighter spot. You will soon find people blocking your line of sight and taking up more of the frame of your image due to your longer focal length, so it is vital to be able to change to a shorter lens as quickly as possible.

4. Be open about your intent – If anyone asks what you are doing, especially the police, tell them. Just let them now that you are a photographer and that you are documenting whatever is happening. If you have any business cards, get them out, or simply show them some of your photos. Remember that the police are there for public safety, and will have a lot on their hands with protestors and rioters testing their nerve; try not to add to their problems. From my experience if you are friendly and open with them they won’t cause you any problems and let you get back to doing what you do best.

5. Keep safe – I can’t stress this point enough, never put yourself in harm’s way. If you were making a living from your photos, then how are you going to survive if your camera gets damaged, stolen, or you end up in hospital? There’s no shame in being sensible and simply taking a few steps back if things might be getting out of hand.

5 thoughts on “Top 5 Tips for Photographing Protests and Riots (Guest post)”

  1. Tip #5 is the only one that’s really important with respect to the London riots – and it neglects to mention anything about insurance. 🙂

    The difference with these is, that in most other riots, there’s a purpose, they see a photographer they think “Great, he’ll get out picture in the paper! Champion our cause!”

    With the recent riots, they see somebody walking around with 5 grand’s worth of camera & lens around their neck they think “Great, more free loot!”

  2. This is an interesting sum up of the essencials of riot photography.

    I would add

    6. Dont go alone.
    Because if you are looking through the viewfinder you are away from everything around you, and this can be the most dangerous thing to do.

    Great Post

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