OPINION: Tips on documenting protests
The video above is footage from the Black Lives Matter protest in Long Beach, Calif., May 31.
The influx of citizen journalism activity over the past month has flooded the internet with crucial evidence regarding police brutality, especially as it pertains to recent protests. Without these firsthand videos, our only documentation of injustices would come from mainstream media, which has revealed its biases time and time again. Although this documentation has been and is currently essential to proving true the existence of police brutality, journalists of any degree are now called more than ever to protect the citizens they catch on camera.
Disclaimer: The points below are that of personal use. All strong suggestions and guiding questions stem from the advice of activist friends and peers, as well as personal judgement.
The law vs. ethics:
- Technically, you are allowed to take photos of people if they are in public. If there is no blatant, legal expectation of privacy, then public spaces are fair game.
- However, when documenting protests, it is within your ethical duty as a journalist (citizen or professional) to consider the well-being of those you are documenting.
- Strongly consider blurring out faces and any other specific identifiers of protesters, even at peaceful demonstrations.
- If you film/photograph someone at a peaceful protest and later they are documented doing something illegal from an entirely different source, their identity can be figured out from your content.
Know your purpose: What is it that you’re aiming to document?
- Police brutality? Great. It is your right to film/photograph the police, as you should in the event that they do something harmful.
- Provide graphic content warnings beforehand.
- Coverage of the protest (i.e. signs, speeches, etc.)? It is important to highlight the efforts of the people on the ground. However, this is where consent and confidentiality come into play.
- If you cannot or do not get the consent of someone that you are photographing/filming, strongly consider taking the safe route and protecting their identity via blurring technology, covering them with another image, etc.
- Get proof of their consent — written, on camera or otherwise.
- Ask yourself if it’s necessary to also show the person holding the sign.
- Do not sensationalize any aspect of the demonstration. If you do not know why something happened, do not publish it.
- Think about what you’re posting and how it can either help or hurt the cause. Impact over intention.
- Have location identifiers in as many shots as possible. Adjust your phone or camera’s timecode settings to later provide time stamps for significant situations (such as an act of violence by the police).
- Do not get in the way of protesters. People making space for you and your camera is not a priority.
- Be safe. Do not provoke the police. If anything, you are more of a target because you are recording.
- Keep your camera low if you can. Getting information is more important than the cinematic value of your shot.
- If you have credentials, make them visible.
The issue of protecting identities, even during legal, peaceful demonstrations, is completely up to the reporter and their ethical stance on confidentiality. But activists all over social media have encouraged concealment and warned content sharers on the danger that raw coverage can pose for protesters. The FBI has been scanning online content to find the identities of protesters. A woman in Seattle was confronted by police at her home days after a protest happened. Six men from the 2014 Ferguson protests mysteriously died after photos of them at demonstrations circulated around the internet.
Whether one chooses to consider this information when documenting and posting protest coverage is up to them. I would urge journalists to think about the fact that many police at protests have been covering up their faces, name tags and badge numbers. This makes it nearly impossible to hold them accountable for potential violence and wrongdoing.
Lastly, remember that nobody is happy to be there. There may be moments of community and mutual care, but sustain the bigger picture. Trauma is not a portfolio piece. Ask yourself if what you are documenting is your story to tell. Where do you stand in relation to the community and the efforts that you’re recording? What is your purpose and how much of it is personal gain?
Get what is necessary. At what point do you turn your camera off and help where you are?
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