I was asked to be part of a panel at my local camera club to talk about the story behind one of my award winning photo journalism shots “Quiet Resistance,” which won the 2016-2017 Photo Journalism Image of the Year Award for my camera club.
This post is about how I got this shot and the lessons I learned along the way.
First, I want to be clear that I am not a photo journalist – so don’t ask me any advanced questions about the genre – but on the day that I took this photo I had stepped into my photo journalism shoes and went for a walk (I don’t often take this particular pair of shoes out of my closet, so they still need a bit of breaking in.)
I’m a big fan of trying out different photography genres since I always learn lessons that I can apply to my travel photography. Photo journalism especially helps me with the street or event photography aspect of travel – I’m always looking for ways to take better photographs of people!
I took this photo on a cold day in February a few months after Trump was elected. The masses were… well, massing to protest immigration policies. This political event took place in downtown St. Louis and was a “March to the Arch” – a common theme for St. Louis protests.
This was the first time that I’d gone to an event specifically to focus on improving my photo journalism skills. I learned a lot this day; lessons that I still use.
Context and Crowds
I went out specifically to practice two photo journalism skills. A photo journalist spoke at my local camera club a few weeks prior to the event and I took away two things that I specifically wanted to practice.
- Photographing Context
- Photographing Individuals in a Crowd
One of the skills I set out to practice was taking photos that placed the event in a specific context. How could someone looking at my photos know that I was at a protest march and one specifically set in St. Louis?
The Arch is an iconic landmark, but the crowd was marching towards the Arch, so to get the Arch, I was likely to get the crowd from behind – not ideal.
I looked for other iconic buildings and signs that specifically placed the protest.
My photo “Quiet Resistance” doesn’t have a lot of context, but the protest sign in the background does mention Bosnia. The largest community of Bosnian immigrants is in St. Louis – so this does narrow down the setting. I have other photos where the signs are much more direct (see below).
Another lesson I learned, which was a bit of a head-slapping “oh duh, I should have thought of that myself” kind of thing, was that crowds are not that interesting – individuals are.
At the march, I found myself taking plenty of photographs of the crowd. I was impressed by the size of the crowd and it was the mass of people that was giving me the energy that I was feeling.
But the story of a crowd photo is — “this is a big crowd.” There’s not much more to say. The viewers of my photograph will sort of stop there.
It’s a pretty short story.
Individuals in the crowd, however are much more interesting. There were a thousand different stories going on at the event. My job as a photo journalist, however temporary, was to find a few of these stories and capture them with my camera.
I took quiet a few pictures of individuals yelling. “Who can Yell the Loudest” is one of the major sporting events at these sorts of protests. But people don’t necessarily look at their best when they are yelling.
In my photo, “Quiet Resistance,” the individual woman is the story. The look on her face is determined, and the arm gesture is very much a sign of protest. She looks like she will stand for what she believes all day, every day. Peacefully, but stubbornly.
Getting the Shot
Photographing this protest also taught me a few bonus lessons. Without these, I would have never gotten the shot.
Be Bold and Act Like You Belong
As I mentioned earlier, photographing the crowd with the Arch in the background meant that I was photographing the back of people’s heads and the back of their protest signs. I needed to flip that around.
As a one-day photo journalist, I learned that I needed to face away from where the crowd was generally looking. If the crowd was facing the speakers, I needed to be behind the speaker. If the crowd was facing the Arch, I needed to have my back to the Arch.
I squeezed my way forward to the line of real photo journalists, who already knew this lesson, and turned around to face the thousands of people who were just about to start walking towards me.
I found myself standing next to a cameraman from the local NBC affiliate taking video with the ABC affiliate two photographers down. Most everyone seemed to be wearing a press pass except me, but no one seemed to notice – or care. I looked like I belonged. It was obvious from the camera I was carrying what I was doing –my Sony A7II, though smaller than a DSLR, was plenty serious enough.
I’ve attended many local events since, parades and the like, and I’ve never had a problem getting behind the scenes for photos without a press pass. I suppose if it ever becomes a problem or the event is more controlled, I’ll have to look into getting this stylish fashion accessory, but for now – my camera is my press pass.
Had I not been bold, I would have put myself in with the crowd, rather in front of the crowd, and would have never gotten this photograph.
Ebbs & Flows
I started at the front, facing the protesters and realized very quickly that I now was forced to walk backwards while taking photographs. Not a skill that I anticipated practicing! I guess they teach this in photo journalism school. If I ever see students walking backwards with their cameras across campus I’ll know why.
But I found that if I stopped, the crowd would flow around me – probably because this was a peaceful protest (not always a given in St. Louis). The protesters were within feet of my camera – perfect for close-up photographs.
Protesters participating in a march like this want their photograph taken. They want their issues to be seen as well as heard. Many people posed for photos before moving on. Others made sure to show me signs or in the case of my photo, make their protest clear with a hand gesture.
After a number of people had flowed by, I’d work my way to the edge of the crowd and run back to the front and do it all over again. I just had to get over the idea that I probably looked silly running up the street with my camera. I see real photo journalists do it all the time on TV.
I went out specifically to practice my photo journalism skills and it paid off with photos that I’m very proud of. I also learned a number of lessons that I use when traveling and encounter an event or crowd of people.
So the next time there is an event in your area, grab your camera and go out and play photo journalist for the day.