Photographing Social Protest

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Brief guide to photographing social protest and civic activism.

Text of Photographing Social Protest

  • Fig. 1: Truth, Reason, Ignorance, Washington D.C. Students taking part in the Ron Paul Revolution March, Summer 2008, protest in the Capitol lawn.

  • Photographing Social Protest & Civic Activism

    Documenting Participatory Democratic Culture

    Photography and Text by Nathaniel I. Crdova

  • All Photographs Copyright 2008 Nathaniel I. Crdova Essay by Nathaniel I. Crdova Copyright 2008 by the author

    All rights reserved. No part of this guide may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems without permission in writing from the author, except by reviewers who may quote brief passages in published review.

    First Edition Photographing Social Protest & Civic Activism:

    Documenting Participatory Civic Culture 2008 Nathaniel I. Crdova

    Cover photograph: Freedom March 2008, Washington D.C. Title page photograph: Truth, Reason, Ignorance, Washington D.C.

  • For Michelle, Phoenix, Terra, Alex, and my Parents without whom dreams are not

  • Acknowledgements I WOULD LIKE TO express my sincerest gratitude to all that have encouraged, challenged, and inspired me to continue developing photography as socially conscious practice during these last few years. In particular, Im very grateful for my students at Willamette University who have listened patiently to my thoughts about public discourse and participatory democratic culture, and who have contributed to much of my learning with their own social documentary and digital storytelling projects. I am also very grateful for all those folks whom, by commenting on my photography, have inspired me to continue exploring and learning.

  • Preface: Assumptions & Caveats Nathaniel I. Crdova

    will assume that as photographer you have already completed all preparatory activities for the event you plan to photograph, and that you have a good understanding of at least the basics of Reportage, Documentary, and Photojournalism work (or that you are one of my students and

    thus have to read this guide!). If not, consider the resources listed in the list at the end of this essay (If you are not clear on the distinctions between Documentary, Reportage, and Photojournalism, check the Appendix at the end of this document). A further assumption is that you are engaged in a student or freelance project and not a contract assignment, although your efforts might ultimately find a client (whatever that may mean in your specific case). I've used the terms Documentary, Reportage, and Photojournalism because I find that this work intersects all these domains although it might primarily fall to the photojournalist. Although as professor at Willamette University I provide this document to my students, Willamette University does not control, monitor or guarantee the information contained in this document, or in links to other external web sites, nor does it endorse any views expressed or products/services offered therein. In no event shall Willamette University be responsible or liable, directly or indirectly, for any damage or loss caused or alleged to be caused by or in connection with the use of or reliance on any such content, goods, or services available on or through any such site or resource. Finally, this essay assumes relatively peaceful protest or social activism.


  • Fig. 2: Damayan Migrant Workers Protest, New York City. Members of Bayan USA, the New York Committee for Human Rights in the Philippines (NYCHRP), Anakbayan NY/NJ, and Filipinas for Rights and Empowerment (FiRE), protest migrant worker exploitation at the Philippine consulate in New York City, Summer 2008.

  • Introduction

    rotests, marches, rallies, and all other such social movement activities are examples of civic engagement designed to foster and bring about, or oppose, social change. Most often, such actions are undertaken by alliances of groups and individuals with shared interests and

    grievances. To engage in civic activism is a way to exercise our public voice (where voice is metaphor for symbolic expression) and attempt to shape public life. Such activities are part of participatory democratic culture. The traditional understanding of social movements conceives of the same as large blocks of people demanding "something" and acting in concert in a public venue. We know however that a better understanding is to take the phrase social movement not as an easily bounded visible event, but as movement/change of social scope. Hence, social movement might be evolutionary, slow for us to discern, and often takes time in germinating and effecting desired change. Moreover, social movement might be engendered by multiple groups not always working in concert, and might not always be easily visible. What we see most easily are the various activities in which groups interested in promoting social change/movement engage. In this day and age of varied communication technologies, the planning, organization, and carrying out of civic engagement activities take many forms, not all of which involve physical concentration of people in a public space. Thus, capturing the ethos of civic activism requires good photographic imagination and an understanding of how new movements vary from what has been traditionally expected. Still, the photographer interested in photographing social protests, marches, demonstrations, vigils, and other examples of public group civic engagement activities will find plenty of opportunities to do so. If such is your interest you would be well advised to learn as much as you can about not just the specific event and cause, but about the effort, the issues at stake, the policy/legislation/issue field, social movements, and the variety of ways in which people engage in social change activities. The photographer also ought to have a very clear sense of why they are photographing the event or activity, and a passion for what they are doing.


  • Fig. 3: Support the Lesser Evil, Washington, D.C. The Ron Paul Revolution March, Summer 2008, in support of Ron Paul's candidacy for President of the U.S. was held even after it had become clear that Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) was the standard bearer for the Republican Party (a choice ratified in the Republican National Convention held in Minneapolis & St. Paul, MN, from September 1-4, 2008).

  • General Preparation Questions

    good documentary, photojournalistic, or digital storytelling project requires careful attention to how you might craft the story you want to tell. Research and study of the context, the primary subject(s), actors, and implications of the events, will help you prepare

    for the shoot, solidify a creative vision, and in crafting the story. In terms of preparation beyond the project goals, the photographer might ask:

    What are the key aspects of the story you want to convey?

    What do the various groups represented in the activity have in common? Civic activism is often undertaken by broad alliances of people and disparate groups coming together for a single cause. Which groups are present? Do their activities vary?

    How do these groups express their expectations, calls for change, demands? How does such expectations vary from the event organizers framing?

    What are the main communicative strategies of the organizers and participants?

    How is movement/activity energy generated and sustained throughout the event? Who is charged with such efforts? Are there known community leaders charged with generating such energy?

    What type of activity is it? Is it a radical revolutionary protest action, a peaceful, silent demonstration, a vigil, a "we're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore" action, an image event designed to maximize media coverage of the group and/or effort? If the action overlaps a few of these categories, where do you see signs of the tension created by such overlap?

    How are the resources of the rally/protest/march/activity mobilized? For example, consider speakers, banners, placards, audio messages, music, performers, and presence. Do these elements differ by groups of participants?

    How is cultural conflict expressed, and how is it received/handled by the authorities? How is it likely to be represented by the media? What mechanisms are in place to handle "disruptions?"

    How is the event framed by the organizers? How is the event framed by the media? What does that mean for the photographer? How do you capture that framing, what chinks in that framing do you see?

    What micro-processes of social change are visible (e.g., voter registration, individual signing of petitions), and what macro processes? Which of those processes are conceptually, contextually, and aesthetically relevant for the story you wish to tell (for your project)?

    Where in the planned route for the march are there locations where particular activity might take place? For instance, are there bottlenecks that will require tight concentration of individuals? Where are counter-protesters located? Are there local offices or agencies of organizations along the route that are targets of the protest? Where might you position yourself for a particular shot?


  • What symbolic events are planned? (e.g., cutting of ribbons, shredding papers, burning an effigy, red tape over mouth, etc.). When? Where? How?

    How might you best convey the story of what happened? Given the type of event, what kind of shots might capture the general framework of the day?

    How do the authorities respond to the event(s)? What can be seen in the expression of the representatives of the authorities? Of the organizers?

    How might this event vary from the p