Photographing Protest

LU: Could you explain a bit about your overall experience of the student protest? For example, what were your expectations going in? How did the reality of the event meet/conflict with those expectations?

APB: Well I didn’t expect that many people, the turnout was so impressive; the mood was quite angry but at the same time it remained largely positive, energetic and friendly, even at Millbank. I definitely didn’t expect the anger and frustration to be expressed in such a way at the Conservative HQ, but nor was I particularly surprised by it.

LU: What motivated you to attend? Would you say you were attending first and foremost as photographer or protester?

APB: I feel really strongly about the changes to the university funding system, so I would say I was attending mostly as a protester; I took my camera and a spare lens along to take a few shots for personal use. But I got quite involved in taking photos and that meant that I was slightly removed from the protest, and I became more of a photographer than a protester.

LU: Did you find any conflicts of interest in that sense?

APB: Yeah, definitely, and I can really empathise with what Dan Jeffries was talking about in his excellent article. I quickly realised that I couldn’t wholeheartedly protest and take good photos. It was hard to get good shots when I was in the midst of things; in the image below I tried to capture what it’s like to be in the middle of a huge crowd, catching wonky glimpses of things, but mostly this position wasn’t practical.

I moved to the edge of the crowd to give myself more time for changing camera settings and switching lenses, and so I had a better view of what was going on; this meant I could get much better photos, but then I wasn’t really protesting so much any more.

LU: Broadly speaking, did you have an idea of what you wanted your photography to achieve? (An extension of protesting, commentary on it, or something else altogether?)

APB: Ideally, I would have liked my photography to be an extension of the protest, a demonstration of how strongly people felt about the issue. As such, I wanted to try to make my photos more than just still images, so to give an impression of movement and sound, too, which is what I’ve tried to do in this collage.

At the same time I was looking out for things that were maybe a little bit different. That’s where this next image comes from: it’s quite understated, but, without wanting to sound pretentious, I think that it contains some interesting “symbols”, as it were: the people are on top of the Millbank sign, and I think that their feet emblematise the very active and engaged nature of protesting.

LU: Was there any mood you had wanted to capture from the outset? Or did you intend to play it by ear?

APB: I would say I just wanted to capture strength of feeling, but I wasn’t sure quite how that would manifest itself. I think that in this regard the image below is quite successful. The people seem to be in unison, and their expressions are really telling.

Very few photos can ever really represent the totality of something; a lot of the time, I think the most you can hope for is for a photo to capture one very specific aspect of what you are shooting.

LU: Are you happy with the resulting photographs? Were they successful in conveying what you wanted them to?

APB: Erm, I’m happy with a couple of them. I think a few of them do capture some of the mood of the day, and a few others are quite clear documentary photographs simply displaying what happened. But if I’d wanted to have got really great shots I would have to be so much quicker than I am at handling the technical side of photography; and I’d have had to really put my all into it, think carefully and quickly about the subject matter, all that sort of stuff.

LU: How did people react to being photographed? Was there any hostility or other negativity?

APB: No, not at all, people were really happy to be photographed – I suppose because the whole point of demonstrating was to show how we feel, and it’s even better if that is captured and immortalised in a photo. It was really a really fun event to photograph in that sense; my camera became a way of talking to people. I was pleased, because I’ve had some bad reactions to having a camera – I got shouted at a fair bit while I was living in France last year.

LU: I would imagine that when an event has an element of unpredictability to it, documentary photography becomes both more difficult and more rewarding. What I mean is, you want to be able to pick out the defining moments as they happen, but sometimes things move so fast around you that it becomes harder to catch them, and hence more rewarding when you do. Did your experiences reflect that? Were there any factors that influenced your ability to photograph the way you wanted to?

APB: It was a real challenge. You have to be thinking of everything all the time: there’s technical side (ISO, aperture, shutter speed, focal length, focus, optimisation, white balance, metering, etc.), then you have to balance all that with actually deciding what to frame. And yeah, things do happen really quickly: I missed so many photos by just not being quick enough. When I first got to Millbank someone had started a fire and people were dancing and chanting. I ended up right at the front, but I still had an 85mm lens on my camera and everything was too zoomed-in; I really needed a wider angle, but in changing lenses I missed a lot of great shots (as well as exposing my sensor to a whole load of ash!) Here’s one of the pictures I took with the 85mm; I like the colours and the energy of the fire, but it’s such a tiny aspect of a big scene.

When I left the middle crowd I managed to get a better vantage point and take some photos that showed more of the whole thing rather than just a tiny glimpse, like this one.

LU: Did your attitude towards photographing the event change at all once things turned violent?

APB: It’s odd because the press photographs that are most successful tend to be those that are most eye-catching, and these are often negative images. So there is a lot of ambivalence: what is “bad” in real life might actually be “good” for your photographs. That said, I didn’t really feel this conflict because I didn’t photograph anything shocking, controversial, or explicitly violent. I was pleased to be able to take pictures at Millbank which showed a lively protest and a largely amicable atmosphere: the media didn’t really recognise that not everything that happened at Millbank was violent and destructive.

LU: Did you see many of the images in the press coverage of the event? What are your thoughts on them?

APB: Well I was disappointed that all the national newspapers ran with almost exactly the same photo; there were so many great shots to be had, both of positive and negative aspects of the day, and I didn’t even think that that photo was particularly good. I think that the focus on the unrest at Millbank was almost inevitable because a “good” press photograph is often shocking, but I also think that the vast majority of people are sensible enough that they don’t hold the actions of a few people to be representative of 50,000 people, and the overwhelmingly peaceful nature of the protest was recognised in the media, even if the images might be said to over-represent the violent scenes.

On the other hand, I was really impressed with a lot of the protesters’ own photographs which appeared on the Guardian and BBC websites, and I liked that those big organisations had used ordinary peoples’ photos as well as those of professionals; it’s a good recognition of how democratised the medium is.

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