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Is protest photography endangering activists?

Police officers in riot helmets fill an intersection during a protest at UC Berkeley, September 2017. Photo by Pax Ahimsa Gethen, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Since acquiring my first professional camera in 2007, I have always preferred shooting events. While concert photography is my specialty, after Donald Trump’s election in 2016 I found myself shooting protests more than anything else. By then I had given up trying to make a living as a photographer, and was posting all of my new photos on Flickr for free re-use with attribution. I also posted many of my photos to Wikimedia Commons, including the photo from Berkeley “Free Speech Week” at the top of this post.

I took and posted these photos with the intention of documenting the resistance to oppression, which most certainly did not begin with the Trump administration, but became more apparent to the mainstream after his election. My protest photos have covered topics including immigrant rights, indigenous people’s rights, women’s rights, and Black Lives Matter.

While I set up a Patreon page to request funding to upgrade my equipment, I have not been hired or paid for any of this work. And it is work; not only is carrying heavy camera equipment, sometimes for hours at a time, tiring, but I spend a considerable amount of time in post-processing: Sorting, tagging, editing, and uploading. I only ask for people to credit me with my full name (Pax Ahimsa Gethen) when using my photos; “vanity searches” on Google reveal that at least some users of my photos have complied with this licensing requirement.

Lately, however, I’ve questioned whether I should continue taking photos at protests and rallies. I’ve seen a number of progressive folks urge others not to do this, as these photos can and have been used to “dox” people: Posting their photo alongside their name, address, or other identifying information without their permission. A story posted yesterday in The Guardian showed that the Berkeley police are facing criticism for posting to Twitter the names, photos, and cities of activists who were arrested at a rally on Sunday, even before charges were formally filed.

To be very clear, this issue is not just about progressive vs conservative politics, or anti-fascists vs the alt-right. I do not support or condone the doxxing of anyone, no matter how odious or oppressive I find their views. The Creative Commons licensing of my photos allows anyone to use them, even if I strongly disagree with their politics. But that does not give them the moral right to use the photos in a way that invites the harassment of those pictured.

I state moral rather than legal rights because there is a considerable amount of (understandable) ignorance and confusion in this area. In the U.S., it is legal to take photos of people in public spaces without asking their permission. It is also legal to license these photos for editorial or educational use without securing a model release from the subject.

Just because something is legal, however, doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily ethical or advisable. At queer- and trans-specific events, I’ve been mindful that some in the audience might be outed if they appear on social media. So I normally confine myself to taking photos of the performers and speakers on the stage in such cases, even if the event takes place in a public space. At the San Francisco Trans March in Dolores Park, for example, the organizers ask photographers to wear lanyards instructing them to only take photos of attendees with their explicit permission.

For other kinds of rallies and protests, however, I haven’t followed this guidance, figuring that anyone attending such an event in public should expect that they might be photographed. Asking everyone I plan to photograph for prior permission would seriously disrupt my workflow, especially as I strongly prefer taking candid rather than posed photos.

Regardless, with the ubiquity of smartphone cameras, it would be virtually impossible to restrict all photography at rallies in public spaces. Professional photographers with large, obvious lenses like mine represent only a fraction of those taking and posting photos to social media at such events. While I normally try to process and upload my images within 24 hours of an event, many smartphone users post photos and livestream videos while that event is still happening.

But again, just because I have the legal right to take photos of protesters doesn’t mean that the benefit of spreading their message outweighs the risk to the individuals pictured. Or does it? I don’t claim to have all the answers here; the question posed in my title, “Is protest photography endangering activists?” is not intended to be rhetorical. I welcome respectful opinions on this subject.