How to shoot a riot

The Tamil protest going into its fifth day on Toronto’s busy University Avenue saw 15 people arrested yesterday. Tempers are starting to fray and based on yesterday,  I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw an escalation of the violence today. if this protest in front of the American Embassy goes into the weekend, we might see tens of thousand Tamils on the streets.

So how do you shoot a protest without getting yourself arrested or worse beaten up by protesters?

I covered lots of protests in my day and I can say that there were times when I questioned my own safety and then took actions to remove myself.

So here’s the drill.

Upon arriving keep your camera out of sight. It’s good to dress like you are a photojournalist and not an undercover cop.

If you can arrive before anything is happening. If the police seem reasonably friendly this is a good time to take a few shots. If you get friendly smiles (and you may) then hand out your business card and let the individual officers know that they can see their photos at your online site. (You have an online site right?) By being friendly, you might not get hit by a baton if things get out of hand. But of course you should never be within baton length of a working officer during a riot.

If you arrive in the midst of the action follow Dan Rather’s maxim that when in doubt take the high ground. In other words, find a vantage point and figure out what’s happening. Don’t charge in. Your behaviour should be reassuring and professional at all times.

Wait until there’s a moment of calm and if you can spot an obvious leader slowly approach them and identify yourself as a photographer. If you’re not working for anyone say that you’re working freelance. Give the organizer your business card and let him or her know that you’d be pleased to send them some photos of the protest via email. Let them know your images maybe helpful to them in the future and that you’re just here to do a job.

If all is going to plan, you and the organizer should be pals by now and you should ask if you can take their photo. Make certain that other protesters see that the leader is allowing you access. Then move along and photograph everyone as you go. These are not images you’re likely to keep. What you’re doing is establishing yourself as the “official” protest photographer. With any luck you should have free access from now on.

If you start to run into problems either make reference to the group leader saying it’s okay or go back to the leader and start the above all over again.

When it comes to dealing with the police, remember you do not need to be a recognized photojournalist to take images. You do have to obey all lawful police instruction. That especially includes instruction to move. You may not think you should, but now is not the time to argue. Move. Relocate at least 30 feet away from the action.

If a police action takes place, remove yourself from the front lines immediately. You can return if you think you can do so (A) safely and (B) without provoking police. This is why camera manufactures sell longer lenses. You don’t need to shoot a riot with a wide angle lens (although if you can safely and without getting arrested your images will be amazing). Don’t get caught in a situation where you are so far into the crowd that you can’t get out. Always have an avenue of escape to a safe place. Never run. Never get in the way of a police officer carrying out their sworn duty. That’s good for an instant arrest and a trip to a holding cell.

When it comes to accredited journalists, police often will allow them greater access but that courtesy doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone.

If you are shooting for publication, get your images out fast. It’s the first guys images that make the front page.

Once the incident is over, send a few flattering photos via email to the police (the police media or community services office would be best) or let them know that your images are available for individual officers to download at no expense or obligation. Do the same for the protest group.

Do this often enough and you’ll end up with one heck of a portfolio that you can use to find more work.

So if all this information is so good why am I not doing it? Well at 60 years old I did this 30 years ago. Got the coffee cup and the T-shirt. It’s time for someone younger to step in but don’t think I’m not tempted.

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