When photographing protests and rallies, how do you show that you are not a protester and just a photographer to avoid police crowd control tactics? What do you do if the crowd you are in is getting particularly rowdy? Any other tips and best practices?


"how do you show that you are not a protester and just a photographer to avoid police crowd control tactics?"

You don't, really.

On the one hand, the vast majority of protests are peaceful low-key sort of things where the police are just watching what's going on (if they're even there), or ensuring protests and counter-protests remain separate. They're basically not worried about you or what you're doing.

And on the other hand, if they've closed ranks, they're worried about everyone and they literally don't care if you're a protestor or "just a photographer." Press accreditation might get you through a police line, but even that's no guarantee; plenty of accredited journalists were caught up and detained in the G8/G20 protests in Toronto.

So, for the most part, being a photographer at the front line of a protest means you need to think in much the same way as a protestor at the front line:

Be aware of the overall situation. Are things getting hostile or escalating? Have the police blocked the route? Have they blocked all the routes (bad sign)? Are they demanding protestors move back? Is anyone provoking the situation?

It's usually safe. In fact, photographers will often be just as plentiful as protestors at the police line, as that's where the good pictures are. This was true even at the most violent protests during the Edinburgh G8 in 2005. You are more likely to get caught up in other people's scuffles, but that's what being at the front entails (see above about "being aware").

If people are being arrested, the police do not discriminate. You're in the crowd, it's easier for them to detain you and sort it out later. This entails being prepared to be arrested:

  • Talking your way out is generally fruitless. If you say "I'm just a photographer" and they don't immediately send you on your way, there's likely no point arguing further, so be ready to tough it out.
  • Have a copy of any relevant photographer's/media rights information. Generally just helpful to indicate you're covering the event, not participating (if you have the urge to wave it around and quote it, see above)
  • Have the number for a local civil liberties or legal aid organisation. Often these are published by the involved protest groups. Write it on your arm in marker pen.
  • Know your rights and obligations when arrested. Consulting the aforementioned civil liberties organisations before you go is a good start.
  • Take medication? Have enough on you for 24 hours, a copy of your prescription, and tell the arresting officer about it, as well as any processing officers. (This is likely the only information you should volunteer.)

If the tear gas (etc) is being deployed, and you're on the wrong side of the police lines, it's basically out of your hands. Do not panic, try to stay out of any clashes, and stay away from anyone throwing anything back at the police (or be aware of the risk you're taking to get that particular picture). Staying where you are is often a surprisingly good choice. Do not assume having a camera means you aren't a target, if anything, assume the opposite. See above about being arrested.

NB: this is based on my experience in Canada, Switzerland, and the UK. Probably decent advice for most western-style developed democracies, though variations certainly exist. Concrete local knowledge will always trump general advice.

  • 3
    Wow. I get the feeling that you've done this before.
    – mmr
    Aug 25 '10 at 23:59
  • 2
    @mmr - a bit. I really should emphasise the above is pretty worst-case scenario, because the usual scenario doesn't need any special preparation except "be prepared to be a little bored!" Even the two times I've been caught up in crowd-control actions, they were more anti-climactic than anything. Like I said, the vast majority of protests are peaceful events. For the most part, even the clash-with-police make-the-news protests tend to be mostly peaceful at the time; two dozen trouble-makers and two thousand peaceful marchers.
    – ex-ms
    Aug 26 '10 at 2:57
  • Since it seemed to be appropriate to the subject matter, I've made this answer 'community wiki'. Positive contributions welcome!
    – ex-ms
    Aug 26 '10 at 17:36
  • 1
    Great answer. Just want to add that the police force in some countries have a very rough idea of justice. So bear this in mind. My personal experience of this was in Shanghai, China, 1992. I was arrested and imprisoned for a day because I wrote down the badge numbers of the two policemen who were interviewing me. Very importantly, make sure that someone knows your movements in as much detail as possible and knows when you should be back, otherwise you might disappear for longer than you intended.
    – labnut
    Feb 8 '11 at 20:34
  • " plenty of accredited journalists were caught up and detained in the G8/G20 protests in Toronto." in no small part because they were abusing their status as "press", were in fact active participants in the riots...
    – jwenting
    Mar 25 '11 at 14:42

Matt covers a lot, but one specific tip would be to have a buddy to watch your back.

If you're taking photos you have that very specific focus and won't be so aware of the general situation around you. So having someone you trust who will commit to sticking with you throughout the day and not having any other focus will make a huge difference.

As others say most protests are pretty quiet affairs, but if you think there is a serious risk of violence (whether from the protesters or the police) then you should have a chat before the day about what level of risk you are both up for. It's no good charging into the dramatic fight if your buddy is running the other way for their own safety. And the buddy thing goes both ways - look out for your buddy. If either one of you is freaked out and wants to leave (assuming the police allow you) then you should respect your buddy and leave with them.

If things get hectic, particularly in a mobile crowd where some are panicking, then you might want to stay in physical contact - your buddy could rest a hand on your shoulder or upper arm - so you can be confident they are with you even when your eye is glued to the viewfinder. It also means they can get your attention without having to speak to you - it can get very loud inside a big protest, whether due to whistles, chants, samba bands ...

All this is really just general protest advice. As the other answers mention, don't expect to be treated any different if trouble does start. If you're planning to go to a few protests you might want to read a few general guides such as this one pager or this handbook

  • 2
    The buddy idea is excellent but regrettably there are can be times when one can't find a buddy to take the risks with you. But there is one thing you must always do, make sure someone knows exactly where you will be, when you should be back and when to hit the panic button.
    – labnut
    Mar 25 '11 at 19:42

I'd add that you should expect that in case of an arrest, you could get your material and especially your media confiscated or destroyed. Anti-democratic and possibly against the law, yes. But it can happen, even in western countries. You could also be targeted BECAUSE you're a photographer, especially if you've witnessed situations the police would prefer not to get public.

I know some activists use cell-phones cameras with auto-upload features for that very purpose: the picture and/or video gets backed-up online as soon as it's taken. Slightly paranoid, but keep in mind that they're not there to make art - they're precisely trying to catch scenes of police abuse.

That said, apart from hugely politicized rallies, and events where you know in advance that there's going to be trouble, you shouldn't have to worry about all that. If you keep to the joyful side of the demonstration - the section with drums and oversized papier-maché heads, and families with kids in strollers, and old ladies - you'll never have any problems, and you'll get the best photo opportunities.


How about a fedora with a slip of paper in it that says "press"? Press Hat

  • So that they can find you easily? lol.
    – Nivas
    Aug 30 '10 at 13:10
  • Where's Jimmy Olsen when you need him eh?! And don't throw those spent flashbulbs on the ground, sir - that's a litter offence!
    – peterg22
    Feb 5 '12 at 18:34

If bottles are being thrown, it's not a good idea to wear an ordinary cycle helmet as shards of glass can go through the slots and cause injury. The recommended headgear is a skateboarder's helmet as these don't have slots.

In general though, the Police (in the UK) are increasingly failing to differentiate between protesters and legitimate news-gatherers, and you should adopt the attitude that if you're there, you're a potential target.

  • wrong. The best thing to do if riots start is to be elsewhere... Cover the whole thing from behind the police line, a doorway or window off to the side. If you insist on giving any coverage to hooligans and anarchist rioters at all that is.
    – jwenting
    Feb 6 '12 at 6:40

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