in Photography

Ongoing protest photography project: history and rules

At some point my taking pictures at marches and demonstrations turned into a Project.

Initially it was just my response to going on marches but being incredibly bored at them. I’m not good at waiting around patiently for things to start, or listening to speeches; I know why I’m there or I wouldn’t have come. Most people come with friends and comrades to chat to but none of my friends are interested in this stuff and I don’t have any comrades.

So I started taking pictures. For a while I thought that I might actually do photojournalism at least semi professionally (I bought the A900 for this reason) but I found that I hated the identikit set-up type of picture that you have to take if you want to do that because that’s all that the media wants to buy.

I started to take pictures from the perspective of someone on the march instead, ones that tried to show people as real individuals and not a generic shouty mass of “protest”, and I generally shot film. This is mostly because I like shooting film, but I re-invented it as a rule with an artistic purpose: I was going to use equipment and film types from around the time of my childhood and youth (70s and 80s, a period of a lot of political protest in the UK, and also one from which a lot of cameras survive).

Eventually I came up with these rules. Why? The capabilities of your equipment influence the type and nature of the shots you take. Using period equipment lets me compare period photojournalism to my own photography and also modern photojournalism, look for differences, and try to see whether they are due to differences in society and politics or to changes in technology and the economy of pro photography.

  1. No cameras from after the Poll Tax riots (1990). This rules out most though not all of the autofocus SLRs that I have, but that’s okay—I’m fine with using manual SLRs. I’d use a Leica if I had one. (All donations gratefully received.)
  2. Prime lenses in general. This isn’t hard and fast but it’s so much easier to manually focus fast primes than slow zooms that it happens all the time in practice.
  3. I use B&W almost all the time, usually classic photojournalism films like HP5+ and Tri-X which haven’t changed a lot. (This is new film but people at the time would not have shot expired film if they could help it.) If I was going to shoot colour I should really shoot slide film to be period accurate, but slide is so damned expensive these days, so I tend not to. Also I can’t print it in the darkroom, which leads me to…
  4. I do scan the negatives of these pictures, using them for social media and also as a sort of contact sheet, but the goal is to make prints. Nothing fancy: I go to a darkroom and bang out 8x10s of the keepers, no cropping. I don’t know what I am supposed to be doing with these to be frank but maybe something will come to mind. I’m a big fan of doing things which seem artistically appropriate and then working out why, later.

Goals for the future

  1. Maybe an exhibition of some sort, but it’s a constantly updated project so that doesn’t seem quite appropriate. A zine?
  2. Do away with the digital element of the workflow completely. Make contact sheets and decide which frames to print from those. This would make sharing harder but you know, it’s not like that’s going to make much difference. I can always take pictures of the prints.