Wednesday, March 20, 2013

How to photograph a protest march, the Montreal experience.

As you might know, I enjoy street photography a lot. In fact I find it to be a form of photojournalism about every day life. So naturally when students started to protest against tuition hikes last March 2012, I was attracted to the events and figured it would be a great way to learn photojournalism right then and there.

Being charged by the riot squad May 2012
I've been to at least 60 events since then and I'll try to share with you what I've learned over this surreal experience. This is not as dangerous or crazy as war photography or demonstrations elsewhere in the World where the risk of death is ever present but it still involves some levels of risk. I'll be breaking down my experience to make it easier on the eyes.


Get informed about what the event is about, what the debate is, who's more likely to be present and where it is happening. Show up early to recon the terrain and see where police will set up. If you can plan an escape route or more than one ahead of time, it's always better. Information ahead of time is always worth the effort in the long run.

Police preparing for evening protest Spring 2012

Take for granted that your press pass (if you even have a press pass) is worthless. Cops will arrest you regardless from my experience. The best strategy here is to take it for granted so you're always on your toes and ready to avoid being kettled or worst getting rushed by the riot squad, pepper sprayed, gassed, hit by a baton or shot by a rubber/plastic bullet. Prepare for all these things and hope for the best but do be prepared physically and mentally. Also, police hate to be photographed so be careful when doing so to make sure it doesn't bring unwanted attention to yourself at a bad time especially when you are alone. You have the right to photograph anybody on public domain but they either don't know it or don't care.

SPVM doing a "preventive" arrest at the COPB March 2013

Here's where recon pays off. Don't show up and start snapping away at everybody. Introduce yourself first and explain what you are there for. Make some new contacts and say hi to old ones if you have them. It's also a good time to get the feel for the mood of the crowd so you can have an idea on what kind of event you will be covering.

Can you find Anarcho Panda? Summer 2012 Montreal
Photographing the protest

Chances are your not the only one there so go ahead and try to find the angle nobody has. If something happens and 20 other people are there shooting it from the same spot, being 21 won't be anything special. Take a few seconds to read the scene and get a better or more original angle. If you're lucky, you might spot an element that everyone else has missed. On a more practical note, stay alert and vigilant of your surroundings. It's hard to have eyes in the back of your head but keep in mind that while you're looking through the viewfinder, things happen around you and sometimes they can be bad. Stay to the sides of the perimeter and on the outside if you can. Always plan ahead for an escape route as you move, you might need one at a moments notice. Use a telephoto lens if you're not sure how close you want to get. Starting with a fixed lens like a 50mm would not be a good choice for a first timer in my opinion.

I found these 2 guys having diner on the terrace like nothing was happening pretty odd. Grand-Prix weekend protest June 2012 Montreal

The first rule for gear in a situation like this for me is simple: don't bring anything you're going to miss if you lose it. My DSLR comes with me on the tame protest marches during the day with thousands of people. I have a vintage prime lens on it and it will stay home when I go to an evening protest since I know these can get crazy. I bring 3 cameras on those, a Canon G12 because it is rugged and can take a beating while pumping out great images, a old Nikon S8100 because it is expendable and makes a great back-up and an old Minolta Himatic 2 auto focus 35mm film camera that cost a whopping $5. Apart from that I bring water, eye protection and a first aid kit. Keep the weight down and only bring the strict minimum, you'll be carrying that stuff during the entire event. Also have a plan for your memory card in case of arrest. Montreal Police are notorious for seizing and erasing them.

99Media videographer March 2013

Pay the bucks and get real good walking shoes. Just trust me on this one.


Don't bother with that, nobody does. Objectivity is a noble goal that goes out the window the minute someone has any form of interest in something. Concentrate on taking great images and let your lens do the talking because it doesn't lie. If the mainstream media can't be objective, why should you? Just go with the flow.

Montreal March 2013
Unemployment insurance reform protest 2013

Of course why would you bother taking these shots if you don't share them?

Thanks for watching.

Gerry :)