Photographing Social Protest and Civic Activism

in Academic
By nakamichi/Nathaniel (1,491) Send mail to this user on July 15, 2008 9:47:30 AM CDT

Assumptions & Caveats
General Prep Questions
What to Photograph & Other Considerations
Behavior & Ethics
Crafting the Story
About Equipment
Permits & Passes
Brief List of Resources
Appendix: Definitions

Draft version 3, July 2008. Originally generated for student photographic assignments (very rough draft please do not cite... yet).

Assumptions & Caveats

I will assume that as photographer you have already completed all preparatory activities for the event, and that you have a good understanding of at least the basics of Reportage, Documentary, and Photojournalism work. If not, consider the resources listed in the resource list at the end of this essay (If you are not clear on the distinctions between Reportage, Documentary, and Photojournalism, check the Appendix at the very end of this document). A further assumption is that you are engaged in a freelance project and not a contract assignment, although your project might ultimately find a client (whatever that may mean in your specific case). I've used the terms Documentary, Reportage, and Photojournalism because I find that this work intersects all three domains even though it might primarily fall to the photojournalist or the photographer interested in Reportage. Finally, this essay assumes relatively peaceful protest or social activism.


Protests, marches, rallies, and all other such social movement activities are examples of civic engagement designed to foster and bring about, or oppose, social change. Most often, such actions are undertaken by alliances of groups and individuals with shared interests and grievances. To engage in civic activism is a way to exercise our public voice (where voice is metaphor for symbolic expression) and attempt to shape public life.

The traditional understanding of social movements conceives of the same as large blocks of people demanding "something" and acting in concert in a public venue. We know however that a better understanding is to take the phrase social movement not as an easily bounded visible event, but as movement/change of social scope. Hence, social movement might be evolutionary, slow for us to discern, and often takes time in germinating and effecting desired change. Moreover, social movement might be engendered by multiple groups not always working in concert, and might not always be easily visible. What we see most easily are the various activities in which groups interested in promoting social change/movement engage.

In this day and age of varied communication technologies, the planning, organization, and carrying out of civic engagement activities take many forms, not all of which involve physical concentration of people in a public space. Thus, capturing the ethos of civic activism requires good photographic imagination and an understanding of how new movements vary from what has been traditionally expected.

Still, the photographer interested in photographing social protests, marches, demonstrations, vigils, and other examples of public group civic engagement activities will find plenty of opportunities to do so. If such is your interest you would be well advised to learn as much as you can about not just the specific event and cause, but about the effort, the issues at stake, the policy/legislation/issue field, social movements, and the variety of ways in which people engage in social change activities. The photographer also ought to have a very clear sense of why they are photographing the event or activity, and a passion for what they are doing.

General Prep Questions

In terms of prep beyond the project goals, the photographer might ask:

  1. What do the various groups represented in the activity have in common? Civic activism is often undertaken by broad alliances of people and disparate groups coming together for a single cause. Which groups are present? Do their activities vary?
  2. How do these groups express their expectations, calls for change, demands? How does such expectations vary from the event organizers framing?
  3. What are the main communicative strategies of the organizers and participants?
  4. How is movement/activity energy generated and sustained throughout the event? Who is charged with such efforts? Are there known community leaders charged with generating such energy?
  5. What type of activity is it? Is it a radical revolutionary protest action, a peaceful, silent demonstration, a vigil, a "we're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore" action, an image event designed to maximize media coverage of the group and/or effort? If the action overlaps a few of these categories, where do you see signs of the tension created by such overlap?
  6. How are the resources of the rally/protest/march/activity mobilized? For example, consider speakers, banners, placards, audio messages, music, performers, and presence. Do these elements differ by groups of participants?
  7. How is cultural conflict expressed, and how is it received/handled by the authorities? How is it likely to be represented by the media? What mechanisms are in place to handle "disruptions?"
  8. How is the event framed by the organizers? How is the event framed by the media? What does that mean for the photographer? How do you capture that framing, what chinks in that framing do you see?
  9. What micro processes of social change are visible (e.g., voter registration, individual signing of petitions), and what macro processes? Which of those processes are conceptually, contextually, and aesthetically relevant for the story you wish to tell (for your project)?
  10. Where in the planned route for the march are there locations where particular activity might take place? For instance, are there bottlenecks that will require tight concentration of bodies? Where are counter-protesters located? Are there local offices or agencies of organizations along the route that are targets of the protest? Where might you position yourself for a particular shot?
  11. What symbolic events are planned? (e.g., cutting of ribbons, shredding papers, burning an effigy, red tape over mouth, etc.). When? Where? How?
  12. How might you best convey the story of what happened? Given the type of event, what kind of shots might capture the general framework of the day?
  13. How do the authorities respond to the event(s)? What can be seen in the expression of the representatives of the authorities? Of the organizers?
  14. How might this event vary from the previous one you shot? What makes this one different?
  15. What are the key aspects of the story you want to convey?
It pays to outline your project in advance, and list the shots you need for it. The day of the event, take those shots and check them off mentally, moving on to the next as you complete each. It is also advisable to take a small notebook (or audio recorder) and jot down impressions, notes of the event, of shots, and of ideas for shots. Going back over such notes can help you round out the story you want to tell.


Since civic engagement/activism does not take place in a vacuum, all the variables listed above might change depending on context and type of activity/event. Stay informed about changes to schedules, planned activities, press coverage, weather, and any other element likely to have an influence on your task.

In concentrated urban centers, with lots of folks and demographic diversity, you might expect more variation in participating groups, counter-protests, and perhaps more radicalism -- certainly larger crowds and more crowd control resources from the authorities. Larger physical concentrations of people can lead to, or foment, particular responses (mob activity, daring acts, increased police presence...).

Sometimes one person, or a group of persons, will engage in incitement/inducement of activity and as photographer you might want to follow along a bit to see what happens.

Remember also that organizers of such events do have a message they want to disseminate. They will attempt to do so in multiple ways, including leafleting, evangelizing, distributing posters, stickers, and badges, and other persuasive communication activities. All such activities are fodder for the photojournalist.

It is important to remember that although these activities are most frequently public events, and thus there is no real expectation of privacy for the participants, people might still feel suspicious of, and intimidated by, photographers. Be polite, be respectful, and be responsive to the cultural differences you are likely to encounter.

Sometimes the authorities decide that they need to assert control over a portion or part of an event. For example, police might wish to break apart large concentrations of young people, or cordon off a specific area. Good things to notice are how such control tactics are employed, and what is the logic behind them. In other words, as in Chess, it behooves the photographer of social protest and/or social justice movements to notice how a move by one side/stakeholder can shape the situation and the conditions on the ground (if not for your own safety, then to develop an awareness of what might emerge that you can then photograph).

What to Photograph & Other Considerations

What to photograph depends on your interests and project goals. It is good to arrive a bit early and see how podiums, stages, and/or routes are set up. That way you will know how to proceed, where are good spots for photographing, the flow of the marchers, etc.

However, expect to take shots of folks marching, chanting, and waving placards (motion, so usually faster shutter speeds). You might also take shots of folks with unusual placards/banners and/or outfits. Sometimes there are dancers, performers, painted participants, and/or mascots present in the activities. What's more, the rally itself will have speakers, music, and other devices to motivate and raise the energy level of the crowd. All of these performances might help you round out the story you tell about the event.

Depending on the participants and the context you might see all sorts of interesting activity, including tightening of social bonds, extending camaraderie to strangers, sharpened physical behavior, and heightened emotional response.

Given the nature of civic activism you may have various factions/groups that stick together in solidarity. For example, if you look closely you may see that in the march portion of a social protest the core group of "believers" tends to be toward the center and the middle of the mass of people marching. Toward the edges in a march you may find those who join for a bit, and maybe get off at the next corner. The edges are fairly permeable and variable, and as such might see enough variation to warrant your photographic attention.

Sometimes groups carry large banners (wide angle material), some carry puppets, or other effigies. Also, don't forget folks on the sidelines, watching, shouting encouragement, or just plain counter-protesting. It might be beneficial to look for those encounters, for police activity, for sit-ins, and for what might be happening around the main stage with the groups that are at the front (usually very gung-ho!).

Usually once the marching starts folks just follow as if herded and photographers can move along the sides of the march, or criss-cross the crowd, taking shots. At times you may find yourself running forward a bit to get ahead of the vanguard, or to get to spots along the route that you have scoped out in advance.

In a social protest some folks will have bullhorns, others lead chants, some will try to dissuade any participants from unruly behavior (internal security), some will be tasked with carrying flags, and so forth. You might find people who like to pose for shots, especially if they have a message, placard, or outfit they want to show off. All of these folks and activities are a rich source of photographic material.

There is also plenty of symbolic activity in these events, whether with flags or other iconic devices. For instance, groups of folks might have planned a particular activity that makes for great shots (e.g., dance, pyramid with a sign, burning an effigy).

Don't forget the stage activity of speakers and organizers, nor the end of the event when everybody is heading home. The end of such rallies can be pretty interesting, as people leave sometimes worn and excited, with great expressions, in groups full of camaraderie, flush with the momentum and energy gathered -- or the opposite.

Behavior & Ethics

Photojournalism, Documentary, and Reportage type of photography does not equal paparazzi behavior. Your best defense in challenging situations, and your best work, lies with your professionalism and integrity, and thus with your credibility as a photographer. Your perspective and point of view, especially your motivation for doing this kind of work, originate from the ethical principles you hold dear. If you truly want to be a photojournalist, are trying your hand at photojournalism, or even if you want to play one, do yourself a favor and read the Code of Ethics of the National Press Photographers Association. Take a moment and do it now. Read also A Question of Truth: Photojournalism and Visual Ethics, by Donald R. Winslow at NPPA. NPPA also has three other interesting resources that should be essential reading for anybody interested in photojournalism and reportage work:

  1. Best Practices for Independent Photojournalists
  2. Digital Manipulation Code of Ethics
  3. Ethics in the Age of Digital Photography (Follow the links on the sidebar)
It is certainly the case that documentary and reportage photographers might have their own ethical considerations, and situations are different than when carrying out straight photojournalism for a news outlet, but studying these documents carefully can only help you. See also the American Society of Media Photographers Code of Ethics.

Besides having a rock steady ethical foundation, crucial issues that photographers ought to consider regarding ethics include but are not limited to: manipulation of images, issues of privacy, "truth telling responsibility," "objectivity," and conflicts of interest. Unfortunately, a thorough treatment of these issues goes beyond the scope of this guide. However, suffice it to say that these ethical considerations ought not be left for the end of the project. Photographic integrity and ethics does not take place at the end of an "assembly line" process of taking pictures, putting together the collection, and then thinking about what's left. My suggestion is that you devote considerable time to grappling with these issues from the very outset of the project. As photographer you should already have addressed these concerns before embarking on the project, but every project might require re-evaluation of particulars. While you may not need to have final answers, keeping the questions alive and foremost in your mind, will serve as good guide.

Note that depending on your role expectations and responsibilities about your work might ensue. For instance, as documentary photographer your audience/client might operate under the assumption that your work meets a certain standard of objectivity, that you might have greater access to materials and/or data, that the parameters of the story have firmer boundaries, and so forth. Photojournalism work might vary from documentary in precisely those same aspects: less constraints in what and how the story might be told, choice of subject, access, and audience. It behooves the photographer to understand the expectations and assumptions and meet them responsibly and with integrity. If those expectations are not to your satisfaction, make sure you discuss it with client(s), or if freelancing, craft the project differently.

When photographing social protest activities it is best not to behave in a way that brings suspicion to your actions. Sneaking around, breaking into locations, trespassing, taunting participants or the authorities in order to get a photograph, defacing public or private property, are not only irresponsible, but make your task, and that of other photographers, more difficult and dangerous.

Crafting the Story

Reportage, Documentary, and Photojournalism are about communicating content and point of view. Your photos are the visual language you use to express your encounter with a particular moment in life. Hence, you have to be both image-maker and storyteller. Think of your task as dramatically telling a story. Powerful Photojournalism, Reportage, and Documentary photography informs, reveals, narrates, and shapes perspective. As such, an additional assumption at this point is that as photographer you will be producing a photo essay, or submitting a set of images, rather than attempting to capture the event/situation in only one image.

A simple journalistic scheme in telling a story is to answer the following set of questions: What, Who, When, Where, How, and Why. Remember however, that simplicity rules the day. Just as in written journalism, it is far more difficult to understand a story that is overstuffed with information.

Another helpful scheme derived from literary and rhetorical critic Kenneth Burke centers on five key elements to human interaction: Agent (who did what), Act (what did the agent(s) do), Agency (how, by what means was the act accomplished), Scene (where, including in what context, was the act carried out. Think of background situation also), and Purpose (the why and wherefore that motivates the agent(s)). In considering these elements, a key question is: what does it mean when we visually treat and depict human beings as engaged in this type of action rather than seeing them just as bodies in motion? People might act in what we might call "auto-pilot," but that still reveals conditioning, purpose, external influence, and to the extent that later those same people provide explanations for their actions, we can discern intriguing processes of meaning-making.

Bear in mind that these five terms share interrelationships, and that one or more of these might be dominant in a single shot or in the story. For instance, we might find that a particular photograph features an individual carrying out an action (an agent-act relationship), whereas in another one we primarily read context or situation (scene). The second one might be read from the vantage point of how the situation influences the actions of the agent, or the quality of the act. Of course, the role each photograph plays in your story might also depend on how you arrange or lay them out. An example of such variability is the classic photograph taken during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in China, of the student standing in front of a line of tanks bearing toward him (The Unknown Rebel by Jeff Widener, The Associated Press). That photograph could be used to feature the individual agent and his courageous act, or it could be laid out in such a way that it provides an understanding of the situation (crop and other effects can be used to add emphasis).

You'll probably end up with more images than needed for your purposes (although as noted earlier, it is quite helpful to start with a list of the shots that you need). How do you select from the plethora of choices at your disposal depends on what story you want to tell, and/or the assignment or project focus. Once you have a selection of images laid out (the first cut) ask yourself: what's the story? What three images capture (or summarize) the essence of your story (or are most powerful in anchoring key moments in the story)? So what? Do the images have a natural narrative progression? Do you have close-ups, medium shots, and long shots that help break visual tedium, and provide context, vantage point for viewers, and information about the situation?

Finally, think about what you might be asking of the viewer. Do you ask the viewer to be extremely visually literate, to read your mind, or to understand the situation depicted in great depth? How you transform the visual record into an intelligible narrative is the key to your project.

About Equipment

Most any camera equipment will work for this line of photography. Photographers have different predilections, but in general zoom lenses will give you focal length flexibility so that you do not have to be changing lenses often. A normal zoom range, say an 18-70mm (a bit wide for a "normal" actually) can allow you to capture larger shots (wider) of crowds, and quickly zoom to isolate or close up somewhat when needed. In a DX body (non full-frame) however, the crop factor might make that 18mm not wide enough (1.6 for Canon, 1.5 for Nikon). Other photojournalists might prefer to have more reach. Ask yourself what kind of shots do you want and need to take? In short, what are your photographic needs for the event? A 24-120mm range might be a good compromise if you expect to need more reach toward the long end. An 18-200mm might be the only lens you need for documenting social protest or civic activism (depending among other things, on whether you will print the images on newsprint, or post to website), if you want to have enough focal range in one lens.

Consider "going light." Do you need all your equipment with you? What are the likely conditions? Do you need long lenses, tripods, flashes, and filters? Since many jurisdictions nowadays ban the use of wooden or plastic sticks for placards, will authorities find your monopod a "threatening" object? Will your newly bought photojournalist vest (e.g. Newswear Chestvest) come across as paramilitary gear?

Keep in mind that you may not want huge lenses sticking out while you scramble from one location to another, or when you are in the middle of crowds. Running/moving through a crowd with large equipment is not always easy or safe. There is great virtue in going light and carrying only that equipment which will allow you to move quickly, climb (if need be), and appear unobtrusive and non-threatening (depending on context), and do your job efficiently and effectively.

A backup camera, extra memory cards, cleaning supplies, and extra batteries are good to have with you. Easy and rapid access to your gear should be a paramount consideration. Finally, dress professionally, and carry clear identification, along with copies of statements regarding your rights as a photographer (see list of resources below).

Permits & Passes

Since freelance photographers are often not members of a media organization it might be difficult for them to obtain press/media passes. However, it pays to check with the event organizers for special passes and/or permits for photojournalists. Sometimes host, or participating, organizations want as much media coverage as possible and are flexible in granting press/media passes to photographers who seem quite professional in their interests and requests.


The preceding constitutes a very basic guide to photographing social protest and civic activism. Such activities may take many forms, and context, project needs, client expectations, and aesthetic vision/photographic imagination will no doubt shape your photography beyond the suggestions outlined here. Enjoy the process, and make it a good day.

Brief List of Resources

This is a very truncated list of resources. It is not meant to be exhaustive, but merely a list of quick reads to get you motivated.

Duke Univ. article on photography and the civil rights movement:

Article on the emotional power of photography and the civil rights movement:

Protest photography by Gil Hanly:

1974 article on Sociology and Photography by Howard Becker:

Article on Photography and Lesbianism, post-Stonewall:

FiftyCrows: Social Change Photography:

Open Society Institutes' Documentary Photography Project:

Bert P. Krages, II - Attorney at Law: The Photographer's Right:

David Bacon essay on Documenting the Movements for Social Justice:

Cornell Capa, The Concerned Photographer (New York: Grossman Publishers) 1972

Howard Chapnick, Truth Needs no Ally: Inside Photojournalism (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press) 1994.

Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux) 2003

Glenn Gardner Willumson, W. Eugene Smith and the Photographic Essay (New York: Cambridge University Press) 1992.

The Digital Journalist:

American Photojournalist:

The Photography Channel:


Enter: Magazine of World Press Photo:


Code of Ethics of the National Press Photographers Association.

A Question of Truth: Photojournalism and Visual Ethics, by Donald R. Winslow at NPPA.

NPPA: Best Practices for Independent Photojournalists

NPPA: Digital Manipulation Code of Ethics

NPPA: Ethics in the Age of Digital Photography (Follow the links on the sidebar)

American Society of Media Photographers Code of Ethics.

Center for Media Literacy Code of Ethics for Photographers

My essay on a potential distinction between Street and Candid Photography.
Not necessarily about civic activism, but I try to make a distinction about the underlying vision of Street photographic work that might bear on this subject: Photography or Candid.pdf

Appendix: Definitions

While Reportage, Documentary, and Photojournalism might share similarities, there are differences we can tease out, and those might be applicable in particular when it comes to paid work and ethics. Here's a distinction posted on the Lens Impression weblog last year:

"So what then are the marks that define work as documentary? Perhaps fundamentally it involves thinking in terms of a project rather than in terms of simply photographing a situation. Then it means a commitment to that project in terms of time; where a photojournalist may jet in to a situation, take his pictures and be on the plane out in a matter or hours or a few days, the documentary approach may take weeks or months or years and often involve repeated visits. There is possibly a difference in the direction and approach; the photojournalist works to meet an editor's demands or because they believe the work will sell while the documentary photographer works because he or she considers the project important. Obviously no project can work without some source of finance, but for the documentary photographer this is enabling rather than determining the work. Finally there is perhaps a seriousness of purpose; photojournalism is often about trivia and celebrity froth whereas documentary tends to be more analytic and about more important matters."

We could tease that out a bit more. Essentially, while Documentary, Reportage and Photojournalism can all be said to be about documenting a situation or event, most Documentary photographers might not have the latitude that the photojournalist has regarding treatment of subject. For instance, those engaged in Documentary photography are often involved in long-standing projects in an attempt to document, archive, and substantiate/reveal something that is quite frequently not in the public eye, and which the photographer wishes to make known and explore in depth. In fact, the material to be documented might very well be obscure, partial, or fragmented. Documentary photography is quite frequently then revelatory in the excavating sense of that word. Documentary projects often tend to fall within the art approach to photography, and Documentary photographers might be constrained by access to materials, and cultural expectations about the supposed objectivity of documentary work. This of course might vary tremendously, as different types of documentary projects might give the photographer different latitude.

Photojournalists consider themselves to be operating within the journalism field, their subjects are frequently public matters, the photographs needed are often assigned by others -- along with perspective and/or point of view, the work is often not undertaken as artistic exploration, and they may or may not have access to certain materials in conducting their work. Not unlike Documentary photographers, photojournalists are constrained by cultural expectations regarding "the Media," and/or the Press. Photojournalistic work can and does have documentary function, although such designation might come after the fact.

Given these distinctions, what is Reportage? Reportage is a type of documenting also, albeit less formal than either Documentary or Photojournalism. The latitude in terms of subject matter selection and representation, and aesthetic vision, might be greater for the Reportage photographer. Reportage also tends to be associated more with the artistic approach to photography, and is often not a contracted type of work. It is the "cultural studies" approach, seeking to capture a slice of life as it is, and thus brings an eyewitness, or witnessing and recording of cultural life, ethos to the work. Reportage is also sometimes referred to as Street Photography because of its presencing of everyday life. In my estimation Reportage/Street should not be confused with "Candid" photography. If you are interested in a possible distinction read my essay here.

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From mark5472/Mark (37) Send mail to this user on November 13, 2008 12:05:30 PM CST

May not want to use any equipment that you do not want to lose. As a violence may happen, or arrested, security people taking the camera, film, or media cards, etc.


From recphoto/Ryan (73) Send mail to this user on March 27, 2010 11:42:29 AM CDT

In the US "security" guard have no legal grounds for taking your property. Ever. all they can do is ask you to leave. Even police officers must first obtain a warrant from a judge before they can look at the photographs on your camera. Forcing you to delete photographs is considered destruction of private property and will give you reason to present a lawsuit. Sadly many police officers are not aware of the laws regarding photography, and you cannot really expect them too. Just be polite, but firm, you do not have to let them see what you've been shooting, nor do you have to turn anything over to them.


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