With a lot of protests happening the last few days due to the death of George Floyd, I’ve seen a lot of photographers and videographers in the forefront of the action. As photographers, we always want to capture that once in a lifetime shot of something that we might not get to see or experience often.
While I’ve never personally covered an organized protest, I have covered events with protesters, as well as some with a large police presence. Here are some best practices to keep yourself safe no matter what the situation is.
Have the right gear
This is pretty easy. For most events, I throw a few Band-Aids in my backpack, just in case I injure myself somehow. I also always have a microfiber cloth to wipe down my camera gear (or myself) with.
If you’re covering protests you expect to be somewhat dangerous, it’s important to dress for the part. Wear long sleeves, pants and a lightweight jacket; avoid showing as much skin as possible. Make sure your clothing is bright so that police can more easily see you. Wear a hat to protect you from any liquid that might be thrown. Wear tennis shoes. And if you’re able to get your hands on one, get a mask that you can have handy in case things like tear gas are thrown.
In terms of your camera gear, keep it light. Have a versatile zoom lens that will let you quickly zoom in and out on the action. Don’t bring so much gear that it will bog you down.
Arrive early, and know your place
There are two options here. As I was watching the news the other night, I saw many reporters stuck behind the police lines. I also saw some in the crowds, but far enough back where they were not at the forefront of the action.
If you do feel the urge to go to the front of the line, check with police as soon as you get to your location. Most police officers respect journalists and will tell you whether a location is safe or not. If nothing else they’ll tell you if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Have an exit strategy
As I was watching protesters and police battle at the entrance of the CNN Center, I thought the journalists were a bit too close. But, they made it clear that they had an exit strategy.
Just as important to knowing your place is knowing how to get out of that place quickly if things escalate. Have at least one or two exit strategies to get you to safety.
Make sure your credentials are visible
Sometimes even this isn’t enough, as was evidenced by the CNN reporting team that was detained by police. But to avoid any question, make sure your credentials are visible and prominent. If you’re a freelancer or if you aren’t reporting for an official media outlet, it’s easy to print out your own press pass. Be sure to carry business cards, too.
The goal here is identification. A makeshift press pass won’t get you any extra access or into special events. But it will ensure that while out in public, you’re identifiable.