Capturing the Black Lives Matter Movement

We caught up with six Unsplash contributors who’ve been photographing protests across the United States.

Alex Begin
Jun 11, 2020 · 11 min read
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Image by Clay Banks

Over the last few weeks we’ve seen Black Lives Matter protests take place across the United States and beyond. We caught up with six Unsplash contributors who’ve taken to the streets to participate in the protests within their communities and document these powerful moments through their photography. From how they approached photographing protesters, to their feelings about the movement as a whole — here’s what they had to say.

Clay Banks

Software Developer and Freelance Photographer based in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Why have you decided to photograph these protests?
I feel it is important to document important moments in history when you’re able to. And photography is a great way to capture these moments.

What did you consider when choosing what or who to shoot?
I keep an eye out for those who want their voices to be heard amongst the crowd — people with flags or large signs with meaningful and important messages are a prime example.

Did you speak to the protesters you photographed?
I have spoken with protestors, not everyone wants their photo taken (I’ve been told or gestured “no” many times) but most people are happy to have it done.

What was the most challenging thing about shooting the protests?
Keeping up with the marches while trying to compose a good shot. It’s a lot of work!

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Images by Clay Banks

What did you take away from the protests? What was the feeling on the ground?
I felt an extremely strong sense of unity. The people around me were walking tall, showing compassion and pride in their community. The feeling is contagious.

Did you ever fear for your health or safety?
On a few occasions the crowd I was with was tear gassed and had flash bangs thrown at us. The fear for my safety was there but it wasn’t strong enough to make me leave our group or quit our marching.

Anything else you’d like to add?
Have love and compassion for your fellow man or woman.

Mike Von

Photographer & Innovation Investor currently based in Los Angeles

Why have you decided to photograph these protests?
Being a young black male from Baltimore I have experienced my share of police harassment unfortunately. This issue triggered deep emotions and really hit home for me.

What did you consider when choosing what or who to shoot?
I tried not to overthink it. I wanted to immerse myself in the crowds. Walk beside them, be present and capture genuine sentiment as best I could.

Did you speak to the protesters you photographed?
Yes there were many insightful conversations. One thing about living in Los Angeles people never refuse the opportunity to have their photo taken haha.

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Images by Mike Von

What was the most challenging thing about shooting the protests?
At times moving through the crowds was difficult but people were very helpful.

What did you take away from the protests? What was the feeling on the ground?
I felt very proud and overwhelmed with all the support I received. People from all walks of life chanting “Black lives……..they matter here!” There were moments I couldn’t shoot, my heart was heavy.

Did you ever fear for your health or safety?
No I never felt unsafe. Just sad because 5 years prior the Freddy Grey riots were happening in Baltimore. I kept thinking….”Not again”

Anything else you’d to share?
I want people to understand that being black in America is truly a different experience. I could never know what it’s like to live life as a homeless person, a woman, handicapped individual, gay or trans etc. I try to place myself in their shoes and not minimize their struggles.

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Images by Mike Von

Maria Oswalt

Artist and activist based in Atlanta, Georgia

Why have you decided to photograph these protests?
Beyond the importance of documenting this history, I find that sharing photos of these events on the internet is a way to spread their message further, so I wanted to facilitate that. There have been countless statements made on social media about these protests, but when you compare a statement made on Twitter with a photograph of someone holding a handwritten sign, even if they’re saying the exact same thing — the latter is more impactful. It’s more humanizing.

What did you consider when choosing what or who to shoot?
Because I know that these particular protests have been a bit controversial, I made a point to avoid focusing on people whose entire faces were visible. I wanted to allow them a bit of anonymity just in case any family members or employers would be upset by their presence there.

When I was photographing the protests I chose to wear a sign around my neck that said “I WILL BLUR/CROP YOUR FACE OUT OF ANY PHOTOS.” Again, I wanted to make sure the attendees felt safe and knew that I would do my best to protect their identity. I had several people come up to me and thank me for that.

What was the most challenging thing about shooting the protests?
Showing up to a protest as a photographer really shifts the dynamic; you feel less like a participant and more like a spectator. That’s very tough for me, as someone who wants to be there in solidarity.

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Images by Maria Oswalt

What did you take away from the protests? What was the feeling on the ground?
An entire community of people is hurting. They’re collectively going through the stages of grief — they’re angry, they’re heartbroken, they’re begging to be seen.

Did you ever fear for your health or safety?
A bit, yes. Especially because I’m a young woman (25) and I was going to these events alone. I just stayed hyper-aware of my surroundings, told my friends where I was going, and made the decision that I would leave if things seemed they were escalating. Thankfully I only had to do that once, when I witnessed two protesters being arrested; a couple dozen police officers in riot gear began to swarm the crowd, so I backed out of there as quickly as I could.

Logan Weaver

Photographer based in Denver, Colorado

Why have you decided to photograph these protests?
As a photographer and an artist through my photography, I believe it is my duty to capture what is happening in my community. If I can share with people all over the world what is happening outside my front door, I view that as a way to unify us — which is exactly what we need in such turbulent times.

What did you consider when choosing what or who to shoot?
I didn’t necessarily go to the protests to take photographs; my photographs were a byproduct of me being present and feeling the emotions of thousands of people at one time. It was really rather poetic. I wanted to capture people at their most furious, their most disheartened, their most vulnerable; that’s what was so powerful about shooting the protests. As most people’s faces were covered due to COVID-19, homemade signs held high in the air conveyed what I could not see on their faces.

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Images by Logan Weaver

Did you speak to the protesters you photographed?
I spoke to many protestors to hear their stories, their hopes for the future, and their woe with the present. People viewed my camera as an outlet for expression and were often eager to have their photo taken. Something interesting I noticed is that if someone did not want their photo taken, they held their sign up prominently for the camera is if to say, “Here, take me instead”. They let their messages speak for them.

What was the most challenging thing about shooting the protests?
The air was boundlessly tense. It was unnerving knowing that at any moment someone could fire off a weapon or a riot could ensue.

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Images by Logan Weaver

What did you take away from the protests? What was the feeling on the ground?
Luckily, I was only around the protests when they were peaceful so my experience was one of enlightenment, gratitude, sympathy, and compassion. Seeing so many people stand in solidarity for such a prevalent issue in our culture was gratifying.

Did you ever fear for your health or safety?
There were times that I felt anxious and in fear of my own safety. Denver SWAT took down protestors with high-powered automatic rifles just feet away from me. I watched police shoot tear gas and pepper spray into the crowd. Protestors would be agitated and begin screaming and throwing things and breaking into storefronts and cars. The city was on a curfew, SWAT teams lined the streets, emergency alerts were going off. It was surreal. Very purge-esque. It was like nothing I have ever experienced.

Anything else you’d to share?
It is our duty as photographers to capture what we deem important and beautiful. To me, that means encapsulating humanity so that the memories of people’s emotions, actions, beliefs, fears, successes, and wishes are never forgotten. Being apart of the protests with my camera have not only been a rewarding experience, but what I consider to be one of my greatest contributions to the world around me.

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Images by Logan Weaver

Jakayla Toney

Author & Photographer based in New York City.

Why have you decided to photograph these protests?
I needed to capture the real emotion going on in my country. A picture is worth a million words and I wanted to show the world that we the people are hurt.

Did you speak to the protesters you photographed?
Yes! I went up to others to ask for a picture and let them know I would not expose who they were unless they want me to tag them in a photo.

What was the most challenging thing about shooting the protests?
There were a lot of moments where I went from being scared to being brave. I’m a black photographer holding a camera and walking down roads alone that are full of police to get to a protest. Keeping calm, cool, and collected was challenging.

What did you take away from the protests? What was the feeling on the ground?
Immediately I knew I could never be a follower and only a leader. To speak up for good and what’s right and never to let it slide. Each choice I make will change the future in a good way or a bad way. I feel much more seen now and more confident.

Did you ever fear for your health or safety?
Every moment and I’m sure a lot of others felt the same. I’ve had a few panic attacks whenever the crowd got loud or became angry when we got a curfew notification. However, none of the protests I’ve attended ended up bad. They were all peaceful so far.

Anything else you’d to share?
Yes! I just wanted to say that even though I was scared for my safety, being a photographer and capturing a movement so powerful — it’s an amazing feeling in the end.

Joe Yates

Photographer based in Atlanta, Georgia

Why have you decided to photograph these protests?
As the news of George Floyd swept over our nation, I saw so many people speaking up and sharing their stories of how much social and systematic racism has affected them throughout their lives. I heard stories from friends of challenges that — as a white man myself — I had never really known about or had to go through because of the color of my skin, which was heartbreaking to me. Seeing people of every color taking to the streets for a common cause to bring about change was really inspiring — but initially, it was a little tough to find what role I could fill. After conversations that I shared with friends, I knew that role could be to capture these historical moments through photography.

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Images by Joe Yates

What did you consider when choosing what or who to shoot?
I looked for the usual things I would look for when taking photos such as lighting, composition, etc, but more so I looked for moments that evoked a sense of either strong passion or community, as well as moments that could capture the scale of the protests.

Have you spoken to the protesters you’re photographing? Were they okay with their photographs being taken?
I’ve spoken to a couple of people that I photographed following the protest, and they loved the photos and were really appreciative of me being there. I tried to make sure not to share anything on Unsplash of a subject not wearing a mask.

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Images by Joe Yates

What was the most challenging thing about shooting the protests?
I wouldn’t say there was anything too challenging, besides moving throughout the protest at moments to try to capture different environments and people.

What did you take away from the protests? What was the feeling on the ground?
You could feel the passion, the anger, the hurt and sadness, but also the community and togetherness of people of all backgrounds joining arms to bring about change.

Resources for photographing protests

For anyone interested in learning more about photographing protests, here are a few helpful resources:

As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to grow around the world, we’ll be gathering the photos of the protests from our contributors in our Current Events topic.

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