Turn on the news channels and you will likely see scenes from protests across the world. There is definitely a lot of them to choose from. The Extinction Rebellion protests were some of the more prominent ones during 2019, including sit-ins, marches, and occupations.
Protests have been the method that groups of people or movements can be heard. I find protests fascinating to photograph, mainly as the protesters themselves are very interesting. At the core of each person protesting is a need to gain attention to their message. So much so that they will get out of their comfort zone and join others in sharing it. In some cases, this even means putting themselves at risk.
It is that exact passion for a cause which makes photographing people at protests interesting. The commitment to a cause, the passion for a change and the adrenalin of the moment is all over their faces.
Towards the end of 2019 the Extinction Rebellion movement was in full swing. Being a global movement there were rallies and protests in cities all over the world. In some cases there was some violence and some problems with regrettable actions from both protesters and authorities.
By December, here in Australia the massive bushfires had taken hold. To understand the scale of these fires, they burnt out the equivalent area of Belgium within a few weeks. As Sydneysiders, we got used to poor air quality, poor visibility and spooky orange skies for a few months. Quite a few people were wearing face masks long before the COVID-19 virus came to the Aussie shores.
The fires are linked to climate change by the scientific society, so they were the platform for a series of protests in Sydney, and across Australia. They tended to cover broader environmental issues. As I was working right to the end of the year and I was also splitting my time overseas, I was limited on the ones I could go and photograph. Luckily a couple did happen while I was in town and I had some time.
Just a note, this article is about photographing the protests and not any views to be imparted by myself. I do have my opinions, but that is not the purpose of this article.
Protest 1 – Santa protest against fracking
The first one I photographed was a lunch time protest near my office featuring Santas against fracking. More specifically of a mining company fracking in Australia’s Northern Territory. It was held outside the office of the mining company. This was a good one to get myself warmed up on after years since the last one I photographed, as I knew it would be a shorter and in one location.
I arrived there as they were setting up. The location was in the Barangaroo part of the Sydney central business district. This area is very new and modern, with narrow streets, little traffic and many walking alleyways. I positioned myself on the other side of the alley and waited for the crowd to arrive.
Initially some of the organisers came over to talk, asking which news agency I was from. I think I surprised them by saying I was not from any and I was there for my personal project. Even with that said, they were quite pleasant and were very happy to explain why they thought this was a significant issue and why it warranted publicity.
I then started to get visits by the mining company’s security guards. They were pretty specific on wanting to know where these photos would be published, and in what context. One even tried to tell me that if I was not press that I could not take any photographs, which is not correct. I calmly explained that and offered to discuss with the police to make sure.
Being an organised protest, the police were there, so I took the opportunity to speak with a constable. As this was not a street march, I asked where it was appropriate to photograph from, if there were any restrictions and if there was anything I should avoid. An example would be to avoid blocking a specific area to pedestrian traffic.
By talking to the police it also made sure they knew who I was and that I was one less thing they have to worry about if anything happens. I do know that this is not always possible in different parts of the world.
The protesters all started arriving soon afterwards, all dressed in red. That is apart from one green Santa. They went into a designated area to start. Interestingly the security guards started to move them away from the mining company’s building, as the 1-2 metres around the building is considered private property.
A little while later after the narrative was read out, a trumpet was brought out and used to keep the chants going. This was a very calm protest but as I mentioned, I used it as a practice after not having shot a protest for many years. Even so, I enjoyed it.
At the end it was finished with some words from an indigenous spokesperson, and broke up in time for myself, and I suspect, the protesters to get back to work.
Protest 2 – University Student Protest against firefighting funding cuts
Later in December of 2019 I heard of a protest organised by university students against funding cuts that had been made earlier in the year to firefighting departments. This was intrinsically linked to the issue being faced due to climate change.
At that time the bush fires in Australia were out of control. We didn’t have clear air for at least a couple of months, due to the amount of smoke. This meant the topic was quite important in terms of the national focus in Australia. Fires bigger than the land mass of a number of countries do tend to gain attention.
This protest included a march from one side of Sydney Harbour across the Sydney Harbour Bridge to the north shore up to the Prime Minister’s residence.
I arrived there early in preparation and realised it was quite a hot day. This was going to be sweaty work. As the crowd started to build up, I noticed a significant portion of them with face masks against the smoke. It was quite an interesting mix of people, with young, old and everything in between.
I met some press photographers at this rally and the talk soon went to cameras, when they noticed I was shooting with a Nikon F4. It went something like this “I remember the F4, we used to have them at the paper I worked at when I first started, great strong camera”. Most of them are using Canon EOS DSLRs these days.
What struck me was how helpful the press photographers were. They are often portrayed as competing vultures in movies and TV, but nothing similar to what I could see. They helpfully advised best places to stand to get best shots.
While this protest was aimed at fire fighting funding, there were quite a few climate change messages shared in both the signs and the talks given by the invited speakers. The speakers were all very passionate and came prepared with facts to their cause. There was though, also very simple anti-government chants.
That was not very surprising, as along with the national emergency of the fires, the Prime Minister had chosen to go forward with his Hawaii holiday, which did not sit well with many of the people there. Whether that is right or wrong, I will leave that to you, but it did mean that the messaging had some resentment mixed in.
Soon afterwards it was time to walk across the harbour. As I looked like I fit in with the press, I was given some clear way up front so I can see the protesters coming rather than trailing behind. The crowd first walked from the Circular Quay area to the Rocks, where the Sydney Harbour Bridge starts. There they allowed for the whole group to catch up.
This became an impromptu chant or two and a chance for the organisers to whip up some excitement with the crowd. While this did not get into a full frenzy, most of them did participate. The voices carried over the harbour.
The march then continued over the bridge which actually made it quite difficult to photograph, as everyone essentially had to converge into limited space, which elongated the crowd. This took about 30 minutes, and with the help of the police, the organisers and the attendees were able to be guided towards the Prime Minister’s home.
Initially in North Sydney, the crowd congregated under the other end of the bridge. There was further chanting and with a wider space I was able to see some interesting costumes and signs. This continued as a peaceful protest though.
The final leg was a walk through a mainly residential (and affluent) area. Obviously, they were not going to go into the PMs residence, but effectively camped out in the street and continued with some speeches and made quite a bit of noise.
I hadn’t covered something like this in many years, which helped me flex some of my photography muscle memory. I had planned to do more in 2020, but as we know things took a bit of a turn and for now this is on hold.
My camera of choice for these protests was the Nikon F4s. It is a camera made for the professional as a top line Nikon SLR. Generally they come attached with a either a full or smaller motor-drive. That was signified in this case with the letter “s” in the designation for the smaller drive (I don’t think it actually stands for “small” though).
The Nikon F4 was the first ever fully autofocus professional SLR. From 1988 until 1996, the F4 was the sports and news camera chosen by the majority of professionals. A lot of that is due to the matrix metering in the F4 while using Nikkor Ai, Ai-S and AF lenses.
In the first protest, I took two lenses. Firstly, I wanted something flexible, so I settled on the Nikkor 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5 AF D IF lens. I also took the wonderful Nikkor 24mm f/2.8 AF D lens, but only for the first protest. As I did not use it there, I left it home the second protest and regretted it as it would have been handy for the shot of the protesters on the bridge and capturing a bit of the harbour better.
With the 28-105mm I did consider the slower aperture but knew both of these protests were during the day in the Sydney sunlight. I felt this would be sufficient. The other consideration was the out of focus area being limited, but I was more interested in capturing the shots.
I put everything into my Lowepro Urban Reporter 250 Messenger Bag. This is a versatile bag which holds a SLR and 3-4 lenses. It has moveable Velcro padding, lots of pockets and even room for a laptop. I find it is useful for business trips where I would like to take a camera, but will need to take my work laptop and other devices etc.
For film I used two tried and proven options. The Santa protest was shot on Kodak Portra 400, which I rated at ISO 200 in the camera. I do like the overexposure effect it has on Portra 400 and being a very exposure tolerant film, no details are lost.
In the Student protest the chosen film was Ilford HP5 Plus. While this says ISO 400 on the box, I rate it at ISO 320 in the camera. I find this a really good balance between speed and detail, especially in the shadows.
I really felt good getting back into the swing of photographing these protests. Once the world opens up again, I will get back into more. Overall, I did not get any resistance, as expected. They are there to bring attention to their message in the first place.
One of the things that this experience reminded me of was that most people at these events tend to be quite civil. The press photographers were very helpful, even amongst themselves. The protesters were keen to talk and play up for the camera. Remember though, that is the case in 90% of protests, and you never know when one may erupt.
I mentioned above that I did not take the 24mm on the Student protest, which is a lesson learnt for me. I could have used it when the space was limited on the Harbour Bridge, to give a bit more of a balanced shot with a better background.
Shooting film in these situations is interesting, as you are locked into one film speed. In my case I had bright daylight, though in the Santa protest it did cloud over for a while and we did get some drizzle. Luckily it was middle of the day, so there was still a lot of light.
Equipment wise, next time I go out and shoot a protest I will revert back to the combined 24-70mm and 80-200mm fast f/2.8 lenses. This may require taking the Nikon F5 with the F4s. Or I might go the other way and move to a rangefinder and limit myself further, that is the beauty of having some choices.
The Lowepro messenger bag was also a good choice. If I was carrying lots of equipment a backpack may be better, for what I had it was good and handy. Speaking of weight, the Nikon F4s is a bit of a beast. With a motor drive which takes six AA batteries it can be quite heavy. The moulded body does fit into the hand very well and all the dials and controls are very well placed.
The 28-105mm lens balanced quite well on it and it focuses quickly and accurately. While I could have used 24mm in one occasion the zoom’s range was quite a useful. It also showed you can use a non “professional” lens for something like this. I enjoyed that it forced me to get in a bit closer too.
Other things I needed to consider is that, especially in the Sydney Summer heat, I had lots of water with me and over a period of hours it is worth having something to munch on at quiet times. If I am hungry or dehydrated, the photography does suffer (as does my body).
I am now looking forward to the day when it will be safe and possible to head out to photograph more protests, likely in 2021.
There is a couple of articles I have read which I really enjoyed as they covered photographing protests, in this case Black Lives Matter protests. Johnny Martyr takes us through the process and what he saw in them: