The Ethics Around Photographing Protests, Demonstrations And Civil Disobedience
Photography is a powerful medium of communication—when we want to share, convey, or explain, we use photos because they're just as effective as any essay or streaming feed, with the added bonus that pictures can be easily processed at a glance. It's been proven time and again that a single photograph can change minds and strengthen movements.
When you consider this, it's no wonder that some of the most iconic photos of the last century are from protests and demonstrations. Stuart Franklin's "Tank Man" from Tiananmen Square in 1989 comes to mind as a vivid example, as well as Marc Riboud's 1967 image of a woman confronting armed National Guards with a flower.
These images were integral to telling the stories of the protests and provided a lasting visual reference. The compelling black-and-white photos of Martin Luther King Jr. addressing the crowd from the Lincoln Memorial in 1957 are as interconnected to our collective memory of the event as his words on that day.
From a photographer's perspective, protests are fertile ground for creating powerful images, but also present ethical challenges, so it's important to do some homework before going in.
Know Your Rights
Let's start with our rights. The American Civil Liberties Union offers a helpful document highlighting the major points. In the US, here are your rights as a photographer:
- When you are lawfully present in any public space, you have the right to photograph anything in plain view, including federal buildings and the police. (On private property, the owner may set rules about photography or video.)
- Police officers may not confiscate or demand to view your photographs or video without a warrant, nor may they delete data under any circumstances. However, they may order citizens to cease activities that are truly interfering with legitimate law enforcement operations.
- If you are videotaping, be aware that there is an important legal distinction between a visual photographic record (fully protected) and the audio portion of a videotape, which some states have tried to regulate under state wiretapping laws.
So, what happens if you're stopped or detained for taking photographs? They offer these tips:
- Always remain calm and never physically resist a police officer.
Police cannot detain you without reasonable suspicion that you have or are about to commit a crime or are in the process of doing so.
- If you are stopped, ask the officer if you are free to leave. If the answer is yes, calmly walk away.
- If you are detained, ask the officer what crime you are suspected of committing, and remind the officer that taking photographs is your right under the First Amendment and does not constitute reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.
If your rights are violated, as we are seeing many recent examples in protests across the country, the ACLU put forth these tips:
- When you can, write down everything you remember, including the officers’ badge and patrol car numbers and the agency they work for.
- Get contact information for witnesses.
- Take photographs of any injuries.
- Once you have all of this information, you can file a written complaint with the agency’s internal affairs division or civilian complaint board.
With Great Power, Comes Great Responsibility
Once you know your rights, it's important to recognize your responsibility at these events. Photography is undoubtedly powerful, so proper respect has to be given to the medium because the consequences stemming from an image can be great. Taking a photo is, after all, a subjective act, and people will draw meaning from the choices you make, so it's important to recognize your purpose.
If you're just there to pad out your portfolio and get likes on social media, perhaps you should reconsider. Not only is this exploitative, it also reflects badly on you as a person. Taking a more journalistic approach is recommended in situations where your images can have consequences. This is where doing a little homework around the ethics of press photographers can come in handy.
A good source is the National Press Photographers Association, which has a code of ethics that can inform your approach to shooting a protest. For example, this is something they warn about:
Photographic and video images can reveal great truths, expose wrongdoing and neglect, inspire hope and understanding and connect people around the globe through the language of visual understanding. Photographs can also cause great harm if they are callously intrusive or are manipulated.
They highlight these 10 standards as the basis for journalistic work:
- Be accurate and comprehensive in the representation of subjects.
- Resist being manipulated by staged photo opportunities.
- Be complete and provide context when photographing or recording subjects. Avoid stereotyping individuals and groups. Recognize and work to avoid presenting one's own biases in the work.
- Treat all subjects with respect and dignity. Give special consideration to vulnerable subjects and compassion to victims of crime or tragedy. Intrude on private moments of grief only when the public has an overriding and justifiable need to see.
- While photographing subjects do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events.
- Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images' content and context. Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.
- Do not pay sources or subjects or reward them materially for information or participation.
- Do not accept gifts, favors, or compensation from those who might seek to influence coverage.
- Do not intentionally sabotage the efforts of other journalists.
- Do not engage in harassing behavior of colleagues, subordinates or subjects and maintain the highest standards of behavior in all professional interactions.
These are good tips to follow, and not just when covering a protest. I try to apply them to my street photography and documentary work as well. Further documentation can be found at the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics page. One important subject on that page is my next point.
Something at the heart of ethical photography is protecting the rights of those protesting. In the age of surveillance, photographs from social media have been used as evidence to prosecute people who use civil disobedience as a form of protest, so an appropriate amount of care should be taken to consider your role in that practice.
The Authority Collective organization recently shared a document addressing photographing police brutality protests that is helpful in understanding this issue. This quote from photographer and filmmaker Ligaiya Romero frames the question:
“As photographers/filmmakers, we need to ask ourselves, is this image sousveillance (from the bottom pointing up, holding power-holders and oppressors accountable) or are we furthering surveillance (from the top pointing down, adding to a history of violence and surveillance of Black, Indigenous, and POC bodies, and creating a document that can be used to further that violence)?”
Some photographers may address this by blurring out the faces of their subjects or asking for permission before taking a shot. There are other ways to photograph protesters while protecting their privacy, including shooting from behind, or using selective focus to blur out identifiable characteristics. As a general rule, if someone not in a position of power expresses displeasure with you taking their photo, honor their autonomy and move on.
Present A Complete Picture
Finally, try to leave your own prejudices behind and go with the mission to tell a complete story. This goes for what you choose to shoot while at the protest, and what you share with others after the fact. Try not to select a narrow aspect of the protest and offer as accurate of an account as possible—context is key.
Going back to the SPJ Code of Ethics:
Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story.
When sharing, the context you provide around your photos is important, so try to offer as many details as possible so that people don't misconstrue. State facts and try not to editorialize too much when sharing your protest work—offer a complete picture and let your photos do the talking.
Ultimately, protests are held because a certain group of people feels helpless and unheard, so as ethical photographers, the aim should always be to give voice to the voiceless, and then it's up to the viewer to decide whether to agree or disagree.