Do No Harm: Photographing Police Brutality Protests

Authority Collective Team
Authority Collective
4 min readMay 31, 2020


The ethics of photographing protests against police brutality has been called into question as we become increasingly aware that photos are often used as evidence by police forces. We live in an age of surveillance and journalists must think deeply about our role in social systems. We use the word “system” because we are all components of a complex social structure that systematically disenfranchises some while privileging others. If you think it’s standard to take images of or report info on Black and brown protesters with no concern for the consequences, please review established journalism codes of ethics (see “Minimize Harm” in SPJ Code of Ethics and “Give special consideration to vulnerable subjects” on NPPA Code of Ethics).

You cannot put the lives of people you document in danger under the guise of objective journalism.

To quote photographer and filmmaker Ligaiya Romero,

“As photographers/filmmakers, we need to ask ourselves, is this image sousveillance (from the bottom pointing up, holding power-holders and oppressors accountable) or are we furthering surveillance (from the top pointing down, adding to a history of violence and surveillance of Black, Indigenous, and POC bodies, and creating a document that can be used to further that violence)?”

Recognize that there is a history of photographing Black people in ways that are used to subjugate and dehumanize them, adding to the justification of violence toward Black people and communities. The constant circulation of images depicting violence on Black bodies adds to the desensitization toward Black suffering, while white bodies are photographed with dignity, subtlety and nuance.

It inflicts additional trauma on Black communities when the deaths and torture of Black and brown bodies are presented as a spectacle for social media viewing.

Objectivity is never more valuable than anyone’s life and is impossible in questions over humanity. But it is still possible and necessary to tell truthful, honest stories without feigning neutrality.

We argue that in sensitive situations, protecting people’s identities (for example, by focusing on masked participants or using wider compositions) is an ethical ideal that is not counter to journalistic fairness and accuracy.

When photojournalists use objectivity as a framework to excuse dangerous practices such as identifying vulnerable protesters, they are failing to see how they benefit from a political structure that encourages “objectivity” as a mode of oppression. To be a person ensconced in the protections of white privilege and/or masculinity as well as institutional support via mainstream news outlets is to never have to think about what might happen to people without those protections. Black and brown protestors targeted by the police and others cannot call on such powerful entities to come to their aid once those same news outlets have published their identities, opening them up to arrest, doxxing or worse.

While photographing in public spaces is a legal right, some argue that by being in those public spaces people take assumed risks, which include being photographed. All of these rationales have validity, but lack a depth of concern for public safety and emphasis on serving the populace — both of which should be central to every journalist’s approach.

We are not dictating what or how to photograph. What we ask is that all who visually document protests take great care and consideration in their approach.

People who fail to recognize imbalance and inequity are most often those who stand to benefit from it. Because political structures work for them, it may be hard to imagine the insidious ways that forces of power are enacted on the vulnerable. This interpretation provides benefit of doubt and assumptions of benevolence, neither of which are granted to the vulnerable, nor afforded by them in the face of oppressive structures. Legality doesn’t equal morality or freedom from reproach or critique. It doesn’t mean freedom from consequence.

Unprotected under the law, unprotected from law enforcers and absent legal recourse, African Americans seldom have any other choice than to protest. In this instance, compounding risk in the name of objectivity, prioritizing a right to photograph because it is legal and lawful is an abdication of photojournalism ethics. There is well documented harm in photographing Black people protesting police brutality.

Prioritizing your legal protection to perform the act of photography over the safety of people fighting their fatal lack of protection in society is a manifestation of privilege that defies logic and highlights photojournalism’s worst inherent tendencies.

Do your research before you report. Look beyond the “main action” to find scenes that provide context. For example, document the police brutality and violence that led to the protests, rather than framing Black protestors as violent aggressors. Cover the peaceful protesting, communities cleaning up, and other aspects aside from looting and fire. Doing this can provide opportunities to ask questions and receive clear consent. It also provides a much more holistic and accurate portrayal of events. By only emphasizing conflict over collaboration and community, you fail in your duty as a witness, a truthful storyteller and a concerned citizen.

We encourage you to be aware of whose guidance you value the most when having ethics discussions. Be wary of advice from the unaffected. Who gets to decide what bias and objectivity mean in this industry? It is imperative to listen to marginalized communities — especially to Black, indigenous people of color.

Be humane toward your fellow humans. If you are in a position to hire storytellers, consider hiring local photographers/filmmakers/journalists who know more about their community instead of parachuting people in from outside. Please consider your responsibility to minimize harm as always in tandem with our responsible storytelling and documenting .

There are creative ways to report and deliver a full story while considering the safety of the people you photograph. We hope that, as you capture the lived experiences of others, this adds to your considerations of how your photographs can impact that lived experience.

Lastly, please stay safe as journalists are also being arrested without reasons explained. We suggest preparing a safety plan including going in pairs or groups and taking turns looking out and working.

Wear your masks and other protective gear!

Resources for Photographers and Beyond on Anti-Racism:

Thank you,

The AC Board



Authority Collective Team
Authority Collective

Building a culture of accountability in photography, film, VR/AR.