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|| News Item: Posted 2009-10-04

Gearing-up for and Covering Protests, Riots and Affrays
By Brian Blanco

Photo by Noah Addis

Photo by Noah Addis

Photojournalist Brian Blanco gets interviewed by Daily Show cast member John Oliver during the first day of the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on September 24, 2009.
I'm not certain what an Italian sub sandwich purchased at 4am from a vending machine in a janitors' locker room at Pittsburgh International Airport is supposed to taste like when it's fresh, but I now know what one tastes like 6 days past it's expiration date.

Nor did I, previous to last week's G20 Summit, know exactly what the appearance of disappointment looks like as it flashes across the face of a young lady who, clutching her boarding pass and navigating the aircraft's center isle, discovers that she's seated next to the disheveled mess wafting a mixture of sweat, teargas and expired Italian sub sandwich. These are the things you learn on the job, they are the life and career lessons that only come with experience and, as such, they are priceless.

I only wish I had these, and a lot of other bits of wisdom when, years ago, I headed out with a Nikon FA camera body and a Vivitar 19mm lens to cover my first civil uprising in St. Petersburg, FL. I learned that day that I should have brought longer glass. I learned I should have brought something to drink. Above all I learned I should have kept my skinny, inexperienced butt at home.

Years have past since my first, terrifying and fruitless foray into covering domestic civil uprisings and in that time I've managed to stock away a lot of these little lessons. While I'm far from an expert, over the years I've managed to cover enough riots, violent protests, affrays and overly-jubilant celebrations that I feel comfortable passing on a few of the things I've learned. Granted, this is probably an article I should have written BEFORE the recent G20 Summit in Pittsburgh, PA but at least it'll be archived and available next time one of these things comes around.

Staying safe starts long before you head out into the unwashed masses. It's not about throwing a camera around your neck and heading out the door. If the event, like the G20 Summit, FTAA or similar assignment is a planned event then you have plenty of time to get ready.

As the event approaches, use the Internet to stay on top of any and all information about the event. The websites of the municipal police department, the event itself and the daily paper in whatever city is hosting the event will be your best resources. These websites will keep you up to date on road closures, special ordinances being enacted, credentialing procedures for media and much more. If the local mayor is planning on signing an emergency law prohibiting the possession of gas masks then you're going to want to know that before you head out.

Also, if the organization hosting the event is offering media credentials to whatever meeting/summit/vote etc. is going on inside the secure area then it never hurts to apply for those credentials even if you're only going to cover the activity outside and have zero intention of covering the talking heads inside. Possessing these credentials outside carries no legal weight whatsoever but it MAY provide you with an ounce of legitimacy in the eyes of the riot police outside should you end up in a jam. At the very least, having these credentials, or at least applying for them, creates a paper trail that helps to prove that you're working media and not an active participant at the protest in the unfortunate event that you get swept up and arrested with a bunch of protesters.

Other great online resources are the protesters' and anarchists' own websites and blogs. These take some creative Googling to find but they will likely provide you with some inside information that will help you to know when and where you're going to want to be to get the "peak action".

Gear Up
After you've done your homework and you've learned when and where you're supposed to be, here's a list of things you'll want to consider taking to a 'planned' civil uprising.

Gas Mask
Look for one that accepts cheek filters rather than the big protruding canisters. Big canisters keep you from bringing your camera to your face to look through the viewfinder. The old Vietnam era M17 is perfect for us because it is low profile and folds up nicely to tuck away into a fanny pack, Chest Vest, belt pouch etc… Look for them on Army Surplus websites and eBay. You can also use a half-face respirator from a hardware store if you cannot find an appropriate gas mask. Avoid tying a bandana around your face because this will make you look just like 95% of the protesters/anarchists.

Eye protection
If you're taking a gas mask then this will cover your eyes while you're wearing it but you may want some type of protection for those times when you're not wearing the gas mask because gas masks are hot and they're a pain in the rear. I like to throw a pair of racquetball glasses into my pocket because a rubber bullet to the retina makes for a really bad day. Racquetball glasses are great because they wrap around, are totally clear and are only about $10.00.

Photo by

Under Armour's Stealth Cycling backpack is lightweight, breathable, low profile, durable and has a nifty little helmet holder.
Chest Vest/belt pouch
Look, I'm the first one to admit that Newswear's Chest Vests look ridiculous (there goes any hope of a sponsorship). They look like you're going on jihad and they make cops nervous. I don't say that just to be "cute" - it's a real concern at high profile events where you don't want to look like a suicide bomber so be careful. But they work GREAT for things like protests and riots. They carry a ton of gear comfortably and it keeps your gear from bouncing around while running or getting shoved around by police or protesters. Belt pouches work too but after a long day of running around I feel like they're about to pull my pants down (and nobody wants to see that). A Chest Vest will also allow you to carry almost everything you'll need (maybe even a Netbook to transmit with) since you won't have access to your car because if you're smart you parked your car far away from the car flippers and window bashers.

If you're working for a wire service or daily paper then you're going to want to transmit from the field because your car will likely be a long walk away and anarchists always appear to get into full gear about an hour before East Coast deadline. Find a laptop that you don't care that much about because if it's in your backpack it could take a beating. Buy an old 12"Apple iBook or PowerBook and make sure you've got a way to transmit other than coffee shop wifi because any coffee shop in the area will likely be closed. Because you'll likely be transmitting using your cell phone be sure to bring a cell phone charger and laptop charger as you may be able to plug into a wall outlet somewhere eventually. Also, buy one of those cheap, tiny little multi-card readers for $10.00 to save space and weight. I use a very skinny cycling backpack from UnderArmor which holds my laptop, chargers, little CF card reader and has a special holder thing for my helmet.

This one is easy. Find a skateboard helmet and go to Home Depot and by reflective 2" mailbox stickers that spell out PRESS for each side of the helmet. This makes you very visible to police and protects your head from rocks, bottles, rubber bullets, batons and falls. These skateboard helmets are lightweight, cheap and are not as ridiculous and cumbersome as a real Kevlar helmet.

You can wear a Kevlar vest if you want, but I've made the conscious decision that I'd rather be shot (again) with a rubber bullet than wear one of those things. They're hot, they're uncomfortable but they could save your life so make the decision yourself. Another option is a baseball catcher's vest. This will protect the front of your body against the blunt trauma of sting ball grenades and rubber bullets and you'll likely be wearing a backpack with a laptop, which will protect your back to some extent. Truthfully, I always start to pack this and then never actually take it. You'll be carrying so much junk and running around so much that heat exhaustion may be an issue even without the vest.

Simply put, carry water in a water bottle tucked into a pouch in your belt system or Chest Vest. If you're not transmitting from the field and don't need to wear a backpack then wearing a Camel Back filled with water will provide you H2O and some protection on your back from the rubber bullets. For food I recommend Cliff bars. These taste like hell (damn, there goes another sponsorship) but they're loaded with energy and they won't melt like Power Bars do. Drink often! I'll repeat it… drink often! You'll be running around huffing and puffing and you can get over heated and dehydrated in a hurry. Also, eat a Cliff bar before you start to get hungry because you'll need the energy when you stop to transmit and your adrenaline starts to wear off.

Rain Ponchos
You're not going to want to carry a full-on raincoat so a $.99 poncho from the grocery store tucked into a pouch works great and is great for peace of mind. Also, a couple of those plastic little disposable camera rain covers are great as you won't be able to carry AquaTechs in the field either.

Jeans, or cargo pants, a lightweight, breathable long sleeve shirt like those from Columbia or ExOfficio and comfortable sneakers or hiking type shoes will be perfect for most situations. If it's summer time go for cargo shorts as staying comfortable will be helpful. Also, in the summer, in the heat of the day, a big floppy hat that allows heat to escape is a big help too as long as you can crumple it up and stow it quickly when you have to don your gas mask or helmet.

IDs, cash, keys etc.
Have a couple forms of ID stashed in two different places, a few hundred dollars in cash for bail money and cabs (police often set a nominal bond for events like these), and keep your keys clipped with a D-ring to something inside a pouch or pocket.

Camera equipment
Two bodies… this is mandatory. Cameras break in situations like these. They can get knocked out of your hand and splatter all over the concrete or stolen from your shoulder by an anarchist or even shot with a water hose or rubber bullet and destroyed. I'm a big fan of the Canon 5D series cameras for their weight, price, size and utterly beautiful files but for assignments like this there's only one choice and that's my "sports" cameras; my EOS 1-D MKIIn bodies (or a Nikon equivalent). These are bulletproof and can withstand the abuse of an affray. As far as lenses go you'll want a wide like a 16-35mm and I tend to go with a 70-200mm as my second lens but a see a lot of shooters with 85mm lenses and mid range zooms too. For sure though a wide is a must. A strobe can be helpful too after nightfall but be prepared for it to get snapped off so if you have a generic or beater strobe that's the one to pack.

Now that you're geared up here are some random, but important, bullet points to keep in mind:

Photo by

Newswear's Chest Vest may look a little ridiculous but it sure packs a lot of useful gear when you're forced to carry everything with you.
• Despite what some TSA agent may tell you, there are no rules or laws prohibiting you from taking a gas mask in your carry-on luggage. Be polite and tell them ahead of time who you are, what you're carrying and why. Remember though that sometimes a temporary ban on possession of a gas mask can be enacted in the city where the event is taking place. It's your call if you choose to obey these laws and carry one anyway but just be sure you're aware of what the law is.

• Get to the probable conflict location early, familiarize yourself with the side streets and get your orientation while things are still calm. Remember though that police, as a mater of tactics, close streets often and at random so having a small map tucked away in your gear (or iPhone) can help you navigate back to the car or secondary location later.

• It goes without saying, but obviously if you're transmitting from the field during the action make sure you've got your IPTC fields filled-out in Photo Mechanic ahead of time and pre-write a generic caption. It's also best to have someone on the other end of the FTP who can clean up your cutlines and tone your images as you'll be busy, distracted and prone to mistakes.

• Remember that while the vast majority of these anarchists are super friendly in small groups or one-on-one, when they're hyped up and in a large group a feeding frenzy can occur and they may very well turn on you. I've had them try to knock the camera out of my hand, steal my gas mask off my face and I've even had one try to punch me for no apparent reason. These incidents are not exactly common, but if confronted by one of them DO NOT attempt to reason with them or be confrontational. Use the chaos to your advantage to slip away. Just hold your empty hands in front of you and say something like, "Hey man I'm not against you" and quickly slip out of that person's line-of-sight. They'll likely forget about you and go back to lighting the dumpster on fire, breaking a bank window or hollering some ridiculous chant. Just keep in mind that the police are in strict formation and they're not likely to break that formation to come to your aid if the anarchists start feeding on you… even if it's right in front of them.

• Remember that your fellow shooters are your best resource at events like these. Don't be afraid to ask for help and be quick to offer assistance to a fellow shooter in need. If you have extra water- share it, if you have a car- pack it full of shooters, if a photog gets hurt- help him before you expose another frame. Also, keep in mind that the anarchists always deploy groups of "medics" at these types of events and they're identifiable by red crosses taped on their clothing and backpacks. These kids may look a little scary but they're all pretty nice and they're always willing to flush the pepper spray out of your eyes, drag you to safety, provide you with water and patch up small wounds.

• Always be aware of where the police are and what they're doing. Your greatest threat comes from being between the police and the anarchists but, of course, that's where the best photos are. You'll be able to tell when the officers' adrenaline starts to kick in and the police start to get a little nervous. This doesn't take years of experience to pick up on. Just trust your gut and when the cops start screaming and moving around a lot, move to the edges because something bad is about to happen.

• Shoot wide while things are calm and move to your longer glass when things start to get crazy. I used to continue to shoot wide and stay in the thick of it even when things turned hairy but I've learned that it's not worth the risk of injury, or arrest for "failing to disperse". After all, I've got an obligation to my client to not only get the best shots, but also to move them to the wire or paper by deadline. You cannot make deadline with handcuffs on or with an I.V. in your arm. You may get some dramatic wide images but pretty pictures on your CF card don't mean a damn thing if nobody ever sees them. Make your deadline…PERIOD.

Well, I'm certain there are things I've failed to mention and no doubt the next one of these things I cover I'll learn a few more tricks and tips but, again, that's the nature of the business. The bottom line is that no photo of a bunch of anarchists is worth getting hurt over. These things can and do get dangerous and it's easy to fall into the trap of believing that because it's not in some far off war zone that it's safe. Be careful, have fun and bring a change of clothes so you don't ruin the flight for the cute girl sitting in 14F.

(Brian Blanco is a freelance photographer based in Tampa, Florida. His work can be viewed at his member page: or at his personal website:

Contents copyright 2020, Do not republish without permission.
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