As the discourse around Black Lives Matter and police reform grows ever coarser, racism is revealing itself through protests in all small corners of the country. And that means communities unfamiliar with the role of photojournalists are encountering firsthand the consequences of exercising free speech to spew hate in public spaces.
The disconnect was on full display this weekend in Smithtown, New York, a town of about 117,000 that’s more than 95% white. Local activists with the Long Island Peaceful Protest group planned a rally for Saturday, March 6, to protest the town’s handling of “Thin Blue Line” flags on its fire trucks. They had been there for years, but had recently been removed, then put back after residents complained. The demonstrators planned to march from the train station to the nearby firehouse to express their dismay over the town’s use of a flag that has been in recent years co-opted by racists to attack Black Lives Matter protesters. Throughout the week, a “Back the Blue” counterprotest movement was building, and by Saturday, there were more than 100 “Back the Blue” supporters waiting for the 30 or so Long Island Peaceful Protest marchers.
Predictably, it got ugly. Just take a look at this person, who blocked me, and told me to "Go back to where you came from" as I tried to cover the event with my journalism students:
I have seldom felt fear of physical harm as a photojournalist, but I did fear this person, who was lunging at me with the flag. It turned out my fears were justified, as he later pushed a young black videographer to the ground and fled the scene. I did try to take a picture of him after that happened, and he angrily told me to stop taking pictures of him as he slipped through a fence.
And I got that a lot. As a photojournalist of color, many “Back the Blue” protestors assumed that I was automatically “against” their side. I was there, like my students, to document what happened and let the photos speak for themselves. I think the photo at the top of this post, for instance, says enough. You may even recognize this particular racist from a previous article I wrote on this topic.
A Right To Photograph
The protestors themselves weren’t really saying much when it came to giving me their names, however. Ordinarily, I don’t have trouble getting most people to talk to me for a photo caption. Most with the Long Island Peaceful Protest group did share their identities, and faces, in photos of this protest. However, whenever I pointed my camera at many “Back the Blue” counterprotesters, masks were pulled up, and cries of “No pictures bro,” and “I’m going to shove that camera up your f*cking a*s” followed. One protestor even tracked down my Instagram to leave a comment that I was “doxing” [sic] people in his group:
Funny what @itsyahboyruss considers “respectfully.” Photojournalism isn't doxxing, and it's hard to dox someone when their face is covered by a mask and they refuse to give a name.
Don't Be a Jerk
Whatever the case may be, I often try to follow the “don’t be an a*shole” rule of photography. If someone respectfully asks not to be photographed, I’ll generally move on and shoot someone else. It’s a protest, and there are plenty of other people that don’t mind photographs or at least won’t raise an issue. I may not always get a name out of those people, but at least I’m not getting attacked or threatened.
I don’t have to honor their request. There’s no expectation of privacy in this or any public space, and so, perhaps it’s time to clarify what a photojournalist can and cannot do in this context, and it’s pretty simple:
If you’re on a public street in a public place, anybody with a camera, whether it’s a cell phone or Nikon D6, has the right to photograph you doing whatever it is you’re doing — whether that’s espousing racism or fighting against it.