Cover the news these days, and you are a target. By now, most of us saw the video of the insurrection on January 6th. We saw people waving blue Trump flags rush the Capitol building as both Houses of Congress sheltered into any safe place they could find. One video I find especially troubling showed the tense moments an AP Photographer was attacked, dragged, and narrowly escaping intact. I link the video here: The link below will play an AD first, sorry.
I’ll write it again. If you cover the news, you are a target. I know the words I just wrote are true because I was a target. While covering an abandoned building fire north of Nashville, a man saw my marked news vehicle and decided he did not want the liberal media there. In an encounter that happened entirely too fast and forever imprinted on my mind. He pulled a gun, waved it around, put it in his back pocket, and spun around. The gun fell on the ground pointing directly at me. My eyes bugged out of my head, already in the process of walking briskly to my marked news car, I hustled. He picked up the gun and waved it at me in a threatening manner.
The day was Sunday, November 1st. On November 3rd, Election day, I white-knuckled my way into work. My encounter was brief compared to the events of January 6th. I cannot imagine what the AP Photographer must be going through now.
If you cover the news, you are a target. Best to be prepared. In no way am I an expert on conflict photography and video. However, I am a pretty decent news photographer who has been to more than his fair share of protests, MAGA rallies, Tornados, and Hurricanes.
Your Competition In Now Your Friend
One of my favorite movies is “The Bang Bang Club,” based on four combat photographers’ true-life experiences capturing the final days of apartheid in South Africa. One of the book’s lessons is how Kevin Carter, Greg Marinovich, Ken Oosterbroek, and João Silva worked together even though they worked as freelancers for different outlets. Your across town competition is going to be at the same rally as you. Make contact with your competition, and if protests get weird, you can watch out for each other. I did just this during the Stop The Steal rallies in Nashville.
Lighten Your Anxiety Load
Any protest during a pandemic is riff with anxiety. You do not need your audio cable that sometimes fuzzes to occupy your headspace suddenly. Get your gear in order and prepared for a day of unrest. I organize my smaller equipment into small ThinkTank bags. I do this so I can blindly grab a bag and know what is inside. I also follow the motto of one = none, two = one, and three is enough. Here is what I mean, If you only have one mic, it will break, but if you have two good options and a backup option, you can be secure knowing you have what you need. This, of course, is meant to be kept within reason. You cannot haul all your gear along an entire march route. That slider… yea, it isn’t protesting equipment. The Ronin S probably isn’t either.
Record the Events Happening Around You
One of the problems with my November 1st incident was I did not record the interaction on my camera. In fact, the man surprised me right as I turned off my camera. I couldn’t show what I saw. Recently I bought a GoPro and Shoulder Strap mount to capture the scene as I work during protests and rallies on the off chance I run into another gun-wielding fan of the liberal media. The only reason we have video of the January 6th assault on the AP Photographer is that an NYTimes photographer’s helmet-mounted GoPro captured the incident. I think about this more than I should.
A smart move is to let people know you are there covering the rally. Make contact with Police. Your editors or producers need to know you are there too. Actually, if you work for a company, they should have a detailed plan for protests this week. If you are a freelancer, I’d be hesitant to walk into a demonstration without someone knowing you are there and without a good exit strategy or buddy. One of the thoughts I noticed has worked in the past is it is hard to demonize someone you’ve had a conversation with earlier in the day. Earlier is better too because people’s emotions are not whipped up yet. Be polite. Being polite can disarm someone and be unexpected when the crowd’s emotions are high.
Know who is going to be where. Are other crews out there, and where will they be? You cannot over-communicate. Plan for “rally points” and “drop off” or “pick up” locations. Plan for contingencies and worse-case scenarios. Where are you going to park? Is it near the protest or farther away? Is the vehicle parked, so a driver needs not to reverse to pull out of a parking spot? Are any curfews in place? What roads are closed down? I think it is wise to over plan for weeks like this one.
Become an NPPA Member
I cannot stress this enough. If you are shooting news, freelance, or for a company, become an NPPA Member. The legal guidance and community are worth the small membership fee. This week, the NPPA put out a “Lessons earned from D.C.: Tips to prepare and know your journalistic rights on evidence” post. It is well worth a read if you even think you may cover protests or rallies this week. Yesterday, the NPPA had a webinar to help prepare journalists who may cover demonstrations this week. It was invaluable. Here is a link to the NPPA’s “practical advice about covering high profile news stories.”
Your protections, legal and otherwise, need to be spelled out by the hiring company. Running into the fray without a clear understanding of your legal protection may leave you unprotected. Talk to your hiring company to learn what they have planned if you get hurt or legal trouble while working for them.
It’s Just Gear
If your life is in danger, you can drop your gear and get the hell out. No shot or camera is worth more than your life. From January 6th, the AP left their television gear when demonstrators surrounded them. The equipment was eventually destroyed, but it was just gear and replaceable. You are not.
Protest personal protection
Do you buy a helmet? A gas mask? First Aid equipment? There are no easy answers to these questions. You want to be prepared for the worst-case scenario, but you do not wish to weigh yourself down too much. Remember, you bring just the essentials. Goggles are a must, and these goggles must be rated to take an impact, or they could shatter and cause more damage. If you feel the need for a gas mask, make sure the eye covering portion is impact-rated. For canisters, you will need ones made explicitly for Tear Gas.
If the situation develops to a point where you need more personal protection, you must know how you will get it or have it brought to you. You can always take a moment on the edge of the crowd to pull off a pack and grab stowed away safety gear. Here is a shopping list compiled by the good folks at the NPPA. It is a very exhaustive list made by a photographer who is also an EMT. Link here:
Stay out of the middle of the Protest
If the demonstration crowd starts compacting or moving to a new location, it is best to stay out of the middle. Find an area on the side of the protest. To goal here is to be able to leave quickly and easily if necessary. If you look at the AP Photographer attack video above, the photographers are surrounded by rioters. You may not be the crowd’s favorite person, and you’ll need a bit of spidey sense to know when a group turns on you if you are surrounded. Following the FBI’s round up of January 6th rioters, I expect most MAGA protesters will be less than pleased to see you taking their photo. Understanding this is important for your safety.
Difference between Police and military
The Police are trained to handle press/media. The military is not. If you run into the National Guard or other military, they may not recognize you are a journalist and covering the demonstration. Do not expect the military to treat you the same as the Police.
Big Camera vs Small Camera
If the crowd is large and angry, a big Sony or Panasonic news camera might be an easy target for angry protesters to see and locate. At times, a small camera can get the job done just as well. I rigged my Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K as a hand-held riot camera. I used a Zacuto camera cage with handles on the sides. I hope to have zero need to run back to my news vehicle to grab it.
If you just have the news-style ENG camera, you can use the extended zoom range to your advantage.
TVUs and LiveUs
These transmitters for live shots tend to come in their own branded backpacks. No one says you must use the distinctive blue and orange accented LiveU backpack. The actual LiveU is small and can fit in a Camera backpack that can hold other gear too. I have an older LowePro camera bag I may use to keep my equipment altogether, including the LiveU.
Know your fitness
Believe it or not, I am pretty fit. I still run sub-eight-minute miles regularly. I know some of my colleagues are not quite as fit. The person on the team who is struggling the most gets to voice the next move. This past summer, my security and I launched up a steep hill to get ahead of protesters, only to have to wait on our reporter, who struggled. We didn’t need to put him in that situation. You are there on the scene together, and you must support each other to do the best jobs you can do.
Plan your exit. You can always back off a safe distance and still do your job. No shot is worth your life.