Photographing a Demonstration


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Photography: Philippe Leroyer

A lot has been said about citizen journalism. With everyone packing a digital camera in their pocket — even if it’s only a 2 megapixel iPhone — when something unexpected occurs there are likely to be far more amateur photographers on the scene than professional photojournalists.

In practice though, it rarely happens. You’d have to look pretty hard to find a photograph shot by an amateur on the pages of a newspaper — mostly because there’s less demand for news images these days, but also because it’s pretty rare for a part-timer with the right skills and the right equipment to be in the right place at the right time.
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One way of improving the chances of that happening though is to head for demonstrations. Photographers, even amateurs, can know where they’re going to be, when they’re going to take place and feel confident that — as long as everything is peaceful — the people there won’t mind having their pictures taken and published.

Philippe Leroyer, a part-time photographer who lives in France, reckons that he has shot between 20 and 30 demonstrations in the two years he’s been taking news photos. He shoots them in part for convenience — lots of demonstrations happen to take place close to where he lives — but also because they provide plenty of opportunities for good shots, he says, and because it’s good for his portfolio.

But there’s another reason Philippe’s Flickr stream is filled with shots of protests: he often publishes them. That happens either through people who want to use them knowing where to find his Flickr stream or because Philippe approaches outlets that have taken his images in the past.

“When I cover some event, I propose the photos to the media afterwards,” he explained, “mostly www.rue89.com, which is a pretty good news website. I also get offers almost weekly from advertising companies to use some of my pictures.”

Much, of course, depends on the subject of the photos. Many of Philippe’s photographs focus on the signs in the crowd and the people who make up the demonstration. The media, Philippe, says are looking for images that show what the demonstration was about and how big it was. Portraits too can be a good way of representing what the demonstration was really like and who attended it.

When you’re not Shooting, Look up
No less importantly, those sorts of images create an honest impression of the demonstration — a criterion that’s no less important in a news photo than the effectiveness of the shot.

“[A] photo is around 1/1000 of a second of an event,” Philippe says. “So
I guess you’ll never be able to take a picture that represents everything of a demonstration. Show a sign, but some demonstrators weren’t marching behind that sign and maybe don’t agree with it. Show the riots at the end of the demonstration and people will tell you that it went peacefully for six hours before 50 people started to fight the cops for an hour.

“But the thing is, a picture of a crowd demonstrating is something really, really boring to see. So, portraits… at least you got some nice faces.”

Philippe’s reference to riots wasn’t incidental. The night after Nicolas Sarkozy’s election to the presidency, he was shooting a protest that he describes as “a little riot.” He made two mistakes: he stood too close to the police lines; and he didn’t wear a helmet. A paving stone hurled at the police broke his skull and left him needing stitches.

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Photography: Maia Taieb

Philippe dismisses that injury as “nothing really serious,” but now has a long list of precautions he recommends that photographers take when shooting violent demonstrations. These include wearing a helmet, good running shoes and dark clothes that look nothing like a police uniform, as well as carrying water (to wash tear gas out of eyes), making friends with the police so that they’ll let you shoot (although without letting the rioters see it)… and when you’re not photographing and projectiles are flying, to always look up.

If you get 200 Euros, you’re Lucky
If that sounds scary enough, it’s also worth remembering that the pay for news images isn’t high. Some websites offer images for as little as five euros, Philippe says, while even the big news agencies let clients help themselves to several images a day for a relatively low monthly subscription.

“The media today tends to pay less and less for photos,” Philippe warns. “And with all the amateurs proud to be published even without getting paid… Let’s say if you sell, as an independent photographer, your classic photo of a demonstration, for something like 200 euros, you’re really, really lucky.”

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Photography: Philippe Leroyer

And even then, he adds, unless you were the only photographer at the scene, the image has to be sent to the news desk within half an hour of being taken.

The best option then, Philippe recommends, is to focus on the photography rather than the sales. Enjoy the practice and pad your portfolio. But don’t forget the running shoes… or to add the images to your Flickr stream.

[tags] demonstration photography [/tags]


2 comments for this post.

  1. Stuart Grimshaw Said:

    I'd love to shoot more protests, but the hardest thing is actually knowing about them in the first place, especially if you're outside London.

    Sheffield has it's fair share of demos and marches, but if I catch them it's pure luck, or I miss them altogether.

  2. john griffin Said:

    yeah i agree w you. i'm living in nyc and there are always some kind of protest or demostration going on. you could hang out in union square and you would see one most saturdays and sundays. its funny but you bring up a good point about newspapers not using amateurs photos. however cnn.com does w their i-report and i know the site http://www.groundreport.com that does as well.

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