June 2, 2021

On Aug. 13, 2014, Edward Crawford Jr. picked up a tear gas canister that had been hurled toward him by Ferguson riot police. Wearing an American flag T-shirt and holding a bag of potato chips in one hand and the burning canister in the other, Crawford launched the chemical weapon back where it came from.

Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager and resident of Ferguson, Missouri, had been killed by law enforcement in the same area just four days earlier. Crawford was one of many residents who had either taken to the streets to demand justice for the 18-year-old or come to observe the community’s response to his killing.

The moment was photographed in what would become one of the most iconic visual representations of the 2014 wave of Black Lives Matter actions. Subsequently, Crawford found himself cast in a new light — somewhere between activist and near-celebrity.

Robert Cohen, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch staff photographer who took the photo, later explained that, at first, the image of Crawford seemed like just one of countless others he had taken that week.

“I just photographed it. And I’d never seen Ed Crawford in my life. Nor had he seen me. And he just happened to be up in that area,” said Cohen, who was one of hundreds of photojournalists in Ferguson documenting the protests. “Ed did what he did, and then just disappeared.”

Upon further inspection, Cohen knew the photo was different. Along with a collection of 18 other Post-Dispatch photographs, the image would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography in 2015, bringing Crawford to the forefront of national attention. It conveyed the strength and defiance of the residents of Ferguson and the resilience of a community that, when attacked with tear gas canisters, would just throw them right back.

When Crawford was found dead in 2017, many suspected that he had been targeted because of the celebrity status he gained as a result of the photo. And he was not the only high-profile activist to meet an untimely end. He was one of six nationally recognized figures out of Ferguson who died under unusual circumstances in the years following 2014.

While Crawford’s death was ultimately ruled a suicide, the cause of 29-year-old activist Darren Seals’ death remains unsolved. Seals, too, had become more widely known because of media attention: He was shown comforting Brown’s mother in 2014 in footage captured by The New York Times that was aired by a number of national news outlets. Seals was found fatally shot in a torched car.

Many attributed the untimely deaths of these prominent Black activists to the level of celebrity they garnered because of the media coverage at protests. Subsequently, many activists and protesters began demanding that visual journalists and photographers blur the faces of protesters for fear of retaliation from white supremacists or police sympathizers.

These instances sparked major questions about the ethics of photojournalism today, particularly about casting activists, protesters and onlookers into the public light in an age of viral media and global connectivity.

“There’s been a lot of talk about deaths of protesters in Ferguson, and none of it has ever been anything that has been confirmed — that people died because of their activity in protests,” Cohen said.

These calls to action also sparked conversations throughout journalistic communities about the ethical implications of and best practices for navigating protest-related visual documentation. These conversations have raised questions about implied versus informed consent. They’ve raised questions about whether the rights granted to photojournalists under the First Amendment are enough for them to document protests with a clear conscience, or if visual journalists must reconsider the way they do their work to meet the ethical considerations of minimizing harm.

The unmatched value of depicting social movements

A George Floyd protest in Trenton, New Jersey, in May 2020. (Courtesy: Lex Weaver)

When George Floyd, a Black Minneapolis resident, was killed by law enforcement in May 2020, Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the nation and around the world. Protesters demanded justice for Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and countless other Black and brown Americans killed by police. With these actions came a resurgence in calls to obscure or omit the faces of protesters, and again conversations about the ethical implications of documenting protests.

Now, almost a year later, with the police killings of 20-year-old Daunte Wright, 13-year-old Adam Toledo, 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant and a recent intensification of Israeli air raids against the Palestinian people which have left at least 200 dead in Gaza, demonstrations have once again erupted. Along with them have come calls for accountability when visually documenting protests.

There is intrinsic value to visually depicting social movements — a value that is arguably unmatched by any other medium.

Photos taken by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Photo Agency documenting the civil rights movement of the 1960s in many ways revolutionized visual storytelling and presented American audiences with the striking images of the freedom struggle that are still recounted today. The committee deployed photographers who directed and reported on the fight for civil rights when proper coverage was absent, shaping and disseminating accounts of racism, segregation, struggle, resistance and state-sanctioned violence — visual, near-firsthand accounts that were instrumental in mobilizing audiences and voters to achieve legislative reform, albeit incremental.

Movement photographs made it so that the world was watching. They made it so that it was hard to ignore what was happening on the ground — one no longer had to be at the scene to be visually familiar as black and white photographs of violence and resistance occupied the news cycles for years.

While the modern-day fight for Black lives is in many ways a continuation of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, photographing protests in the digital age calls for a renewed consideration of ethical principles and considerations, particularly in light of the increased use of surveillance measures by law enforcement officials, not to mention the possibility for a photo to go viral overnight and alter the fabric of the subject’s life forever — for better or for worse.

As crowd control measures like tear gas can quickly turn peaceful protests into violent altercations, photographing protesters is not just a matter of whether to protect identity but also of how to document the suffering of others, including the pain, fear and anger invoked or provoked in the context of demonstrations.

Recognizing the trauma that is reinforced and inflicted when the suffering of Black, Indigenous and people of color is highlighted is key to approaching protest-related visual journalism in productive and educated ways. Without an informed approach, the risk of presenting these images in exploitative ways increases exponentially.

The freedom to photograph vs. the minimization of harm

Visual surveillance is now conducted from virtually every direction in public and online. Surveillance cameras adorn light poles in nearly every city. At protests, police often have designated videographers documenting every move.

“The bottom line is that when you’re in public, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy,” said Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association. “People are photographed and recorded dozens or more times a day by surveillance cameras, by police body cams and police dash cams. And if journalists all of a sudden are now precluded from photographing what’s going on in public, we might as well just all hang up our cameras.”

Anyone with a smartphone can now function similarly to a journalist — capturing and sharing personal testimony and firsthand accounts of events at an unprecedented rate. This revolution in communication techniques has been weaponized by law enforcement, who scan social media platforms such as Instagram and Twitter in order to identify protesters.

“Everybody’s got a cellphone, everybody’s livestreaming and they’re putting out pictures. You go to the protests now, especially post-Ferguson, and the police always have a designated one or two people shooting video,” Cohen said. “If you come out to a public protest, on a public street, you’re going to be recorded by everybody. And to target working journalists as the exclusive recording of a specific event is ridiculous. Because everybody has stuff out there.”

Within this framework, people implicitly consent to being documented the moment they step out of their homes. Individuals who do not want to be photographed at a public protest can shield their faces or step out of the way when they see a photographer. But otherwise, if they take no action, consent is implied by the nature of American privacy laws.

Such laws can be essential to street photography and the candid depiction of events. They are part of the granted rights that are so essential to maintaining a free and independent press. Those protections certainly should not dissolve.

But the key is to view protesters as vulnerable groups and apply the same frameworks that exist already in the agreed-upon ethics of photojournalism for portraying vulnerable populations in public spaces to the documenting of protesters.

It is undeniable that there is a need for high-quality, informed and accountable storytelling, and trained photojournalists with the authority to accurately curate and depict the reality on the ground are the essential link. But accountability is key.

“There is tons of facial recognition. There is tons of surveillance happening. … There might be hundreds of different ways for photos to be used against these people, but I don’t want to be one of them,” said Tara Pixley, a professor of journalism at Loyola Marymount University and a co-founder and board member of the Authority Collective, an intersectional affinity group for women, nonbinary and gender-expansive people of color working in visual journalism, photography and film.

Pixley is one of many visual journalists who advocate for embracing photojournalism as a collaborative process grounded in mutual respect to retain the function of the press as a pillar of democracy and beacon of accurate representation. The heart of this approach is informed consent, whereby visual journalists engage with those they are documenting, ask for their consent to photograph them and tell them where the content may be published.

The constant surveillance and subsequent lack of public privacy are often cited as arguments against informed consent.

“Photojournalism has no qualms protecting vulnerable people,” said Melissa Bunni Elian, a visual journalist who is also a board member of the Authority Collective. “What we’re asking people is to consider protesters as part of that, in the context of police brutality.”

The Authority Collective has been a prominent advocate for conscientious reporting and dismantling the systems of oppression that inform press and media sectors. The ideas Elian speaks to are chronicled in their Do No Harm statement released in May 2020 on photographing protests against police brutality. The document urges readers to consider the protection of Black and brown protesters as an ethical ideal in line with journalistic fairness and accuracy.

“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,” reads the statement. “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.”

The consensus among many journalists who advocate for conscientious reporting is that visual documentation should exist only to spread awareness while doing no harm. And as photojournalism is about depicting reality, journalists in favor of informed consent are interested in navigating the arena of visual documentation without eliminating the valuable storytelling techniques that are so essential to understanding social movements.

Intent, consent and accusations of bias

But there’s also a dilemma of intent. If news organizations offer protections to protesters, some argue that reveals bias in favor of activists, which would arguably contradict the journalistic principles of objectivity. Withholding information in the form of selectively photographing subjects presents a situation where news organizations offer protection to protesters in a way that signals bias against police. But news organizations often protect vulnerable groups or those who may face retaliation, and many stress that protesters — especially those who are Black, brown, Indigenous, trans and queer — must be viewed as vulnerable groups. This is not a question of politics but rather humanity.

Many photojournalists are quick to resist the idea that they must approach protest-related visual journalism with a different, more comprehensive and historically informed framework, especially those who are not affected by systems of marginalization and oppression. It’s impossible to gain consent from everyone being photographed. However, even simply engaging with protesters with the clear intention of serving the public is the essence of what activists and visual journalists like Elian are calling for.

“It’s a high-paced situation, protests,” said Elian. “There’s a lot going on. Sometimes someone’s across the protest. You can’t ask them for consent. We’re just asking people to be judicious when you can. It could be as simple as a head nod.”

Active engagement with subjects of photographs is not just essential to high-quality storytelling, but also intrinsically woven into the pillars of photojournalism.

“Photojournalism is about more than just the images. It’s about the information,” said Pixley, who is also an author of the Photo Bill of Rights. “It’s about reporting. It’s about research. It’s about being knowledgeable about your own images and … the context within which those images are being made.”

The Photo Bill of Rights is a call to action authored by a group of 17 individuals working toward dismantling existing harmful practices in visual journalism. The document covers everything from hazard pay and accessibility to recognizing the role of systemic racism, marginalization and enforcement of oppressive constructs in the discipline and industry. It is a guide and ethical code, a framework for any and all lens-based workers in an attempt to present the foundations for a new approach to the craft of visual journalism.

The NPPA, Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and International Women’s Media Foundation are among the 62 organizational signatories of the Photo Bill of Rights.

But still, many photojournalists argue that once visual journalists start heeding calls to selectively photograph only those protesters who explicitly consent to being documented, press freedoms will dissolve rapidly.

“We have spent years getting the law to come around, because there were plenty and still are far too many police officers who believe you can’t take their photograph or record video of them performing their official duties in a public place without their permission,” says NPPA’s Osterreicher. “I can’t imagine that (protesters) would think that it would be OK if the officers turned around and then said, ‘Well, if you’ve got to get the consent of the protesters, then you certainly need to get my consent.’ Then basically, there’s not going to be any photojournalism done.”

Journalists can’t exercise bias and arbitrarily choose who we can and can’t photograph, but vulnerable groups should get special protections because the goal of journalism should be to convey truth while minimizing harm. It’s the name of the journalism game. And law enforcement officials can’t be compared to vulnerable groups. In fact, federal courts have ruled that it is legal for citizens to secretly record police officers in their performance of their public duties.

And while many argue that selectively photographing protesters errs closer to the side of activism and violates the integral rules of journalistic objectivity, and that the rules of activism and the rules of photojournalism are often different, there is overlap. As CBS News 60 Minutes+ correspondent and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author Wesley Lowery put it: “Any good journalist is an activist for truth, in favor of transparency, on the behalf of accountability.” Ultimately, both practices exist to serve the public.

Mike Davis, chair of documentary photography at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, advocates for practicing an approach of mutual respect and deliberate engagement in visual journalism.

“For me, the core issue is, what are we actually trying to say about protests?” Davis said. “Regardless of the narrative that you’re trying to tell, you do have to engage.”

Relying on implied consent when people’s well-being may be on the line is against the aims of responsible journalism.

Engagement is essential

Choosing to take a humanistic approach to photojournalism can be the key distinction between choosing harm and justice. Engagement also facilitates the pursuit of more complex stories rather than the standard-issue action shot.

“In my experience, if you are being open and honest with people, if you are coming across as a person who is conscientious and in service to the work that is happening in this public space, then people respond positively to that, because they do understand the importance of media,” Pixley said.

Our obligation to the people we cover goes hand in hand with our obligation to the truth, and minimizing harm is a key part of that. Journalism should aim to depict truth and convey sentiment, but not at the expense of a vulnerable person’s safety. The answer is not refraining from documenting protests altogether or, conversely, shooting indiscriminately as a protected outsider with the First Amendment on your side.

Engaging with and listening to people while documenting protests is essential. When it’s not possible to make contact with the subjects of visual compositions, we must always ensure that we approach situations from perspectives informed by deliberate, comprehensive personal education.

“Every so often, somebody will come up to me at a protest and say, ‘Don’t use my picture.’ And I try to talk, I try to engage them and talk to them about it, and try to figure out what they’re telling me,” said Cohen, the Post-Dispatch photojournalist. “We’re going to try to do the best job we can, we’re going to try to do the most balanced job we can, but that does involve showing faces and emotion and feelings and the whole gamut of human emotion. As we see it, we photograph it, and then we try to bring context to it as well.”

The priority should be telling the most accurate and most dynamic, complex and interesting versions of what’s happening on the ground. And communicating with the people who are being photographed — engaging in those forms of outreach — can bridge the gap in the service of ultimately telling a more truthful story.

“Having diverse perspectives, being inclusive and accessible, that makes journalism better — that makes your work better,” Pixley said. “If we aren’t engaging deeply in the lived experiences of the people we’re photographing, how do we say that we’re working for the good of humanity and being a pillar of democracy? How do we say that about ourselves as photojournalists if we’re not doing the bare minimum of considering the people we are photographing, and whose lives we are depicting?”

Clarification: The word “murder” was changed to “police killings” in a sentence about the deaths of Daunte Wright, Adam Toledo and Ma’Khia Bryant.

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Taraneh Azar studies journalism and political science at Northeastern University with an emphasis on online communities and viral content. She is currently based in Boston…
Taraneh Azar

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