On Photographing Racists as a Photographer of Color

On Photographing Racists as a Photographer of Color

One of the unique aspects of the Black Lives Matter movement in the last year has been how it has spread to even the smallest of communities. It’s made covering the protests as a minority photographer a wholly different and vastly more frightening experience.

I’ve covered quite a few protests in the New York City area, from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter in 2014. The tone of a protest in a large city is different; there is inherently a plurality of people and large enough numbers of those people to (generally) dissuade racists from coming out. That’s not always the case, clearly, as many of the protests against George Floyd’s death have shown, but in many of those cases, the threats against photographers come from law enforcement.

In Long Island, the Black Lives Matter movement has taken to the streets of the quiet, mostly white residential neighborhoods that have never seen such forms of protest. It’s not been uncommon to see many residents come out of their houses just to hurl insults at Black Lives Matter protesters in these small towns.

In some cases, I’ve seen groups of “counter-protestors” that have heckled and shouted down the largely peaceful Black Lives Matter groups at these rallies. Their behavior worried me enough that I started to wear a body camera to these events just to capture the way these counter-protestors — actually, white supremacists — treated me, a photographer of color.

This past weekend was the “Long Island Unite Against White Supremacy” march in Wantagh, New York. It was a response to the Capitol riots from days before and specifically targeted towards the disparity in policing on display in that insurrection versus Black Lives Matter protestors. That disparity was on display from the start of the protest, where a large group of police officers, all white, stood around the Trump supporters and chatted with them in a friendly manner, while one of the only interactions the police had with the people rallying against white supremacy was to read them a warning off a printed sheet saying that if they blocked pedestrian or vehicular traffic, they would be arrested. It should also be noted that the group organizing the rally, Long Island Peaceful Protest, had been barred from using a megaphone in the past, but that was no problem for the counter-protestors.

Logically, if the march is against white supremacy, if you’re showing up to protest the march, you’re tacitly indicating you support white supremacy. And that’s what these people who were across the street were doing. I approached them to take some photos, and the response showed a gross demonstration of racism and misunderstanding of photographer’s rights to photograph in public spaces.

You can see that their political affiliations are on full display. They were carrying Trump flags throughout the march, and the person in the video who claimed his father owned the private bank property they were on was wearing Donald Trump socks.

Counter protesters at the "LI Unite Against White Supremacy" rally in Wantagh, New York on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021.

Counter protesters at the "LI Unite Against White Supremacy" rally in Wantagh, New York on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021.

Right after I kneeled to get this photo, you can see the same organizer about to blast my ears out with a megaphone, only stopping short at the last minute after I put my hand up to block him:

A few minutes after this moment, I tripped over a rock in front of him and his only response was to shout to an officer “I didn’t push him, he tripped” instead of trying to offer a helping hand or ask if I was OK.

It’s this lack of empathy that’s most striking in this crowd. If I was a white photographer, would this group have treated me differently? Would they have immediately told me to go back to the side of the street as the Black Lives Matter folks (in this case, the protest group, Long Island Peaceful Protest)? Would they have threatened me?

It’s an uneasy feeling. I wasn’t wearing any clothing or any markings to show that I was affiliated with either side, though I was still treated like an enemy combatant by one side and embraced with open arms by the other.

It’s telling that the group of Trump supporters wanted to hide their faces from a camera. They didn’t just avoid me, they didn’t talk to TV media that was there as well, unlike the organizers of Long Island Peaceful Protest. They wouldn't share their names for a caption. If your cause is just, you likely won’t be the one hiding from the light of journalists.

Today, I wasn’t physically harmed, but plenty of photographers are harmed on the job. If you’re a photographer of color, those two intersections carry an even greater risk at these kinds of protests.

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146 Comments

ChooChoo Chucklehead's picture

✊ one people

Owain Shaw's picture

Massive respect for your courage and composure throughout. Thanks for sharing your experience and insight.

Eugene Polonsky's picture

With all due respect, Wasim, let's keep politics out of this site.

El Dooderino's picture

Don't like articles about photojournalism? Don't read them.

Problem solved.

Marc Perino's picture

But that is the essence of photojournalism. Like El Dooderino - nice nickname btw - says: you don't have to read it and you don't have to comment on it.

Personally I found his perspective very interesting.

Lukas Renk's picture

Well Eugene there‘s no politics in this article just the experience of a photographer covering a protest. But now that you bring up politics I don’t think I need to take a guess about your political opinion.

Ann Quimby's picture

This is a totally legitimate topic for a photo site

Graham Taylor's picture

This is a tricky one. You're assuming your subjects political stances by polarising the debate. You're also shooting a political event with a heavy bias. As a 'journalist' you have a moral obligation to remain neutral and shoot events as you see them, not shoot images which support your preconceptions.

If I'm being brutally honest, as a former combat camera photographer who is used to shooting overseas where I am the minority in terms of my ethnicity, you are playing a very dangerous game and ought to exercise more caution.

El Dooderino's picture

"You're assuming your subjects political stances"

Huh?

Did you even read the article?

Graham Taylor's picture

Yes. In full. But thanks for highlighting one sentence, taking it out of context and asking me a flippant question about it.

Tell me how many people were at those protests and then group all of them into one for me. Summarise all of their lives into one political agenda for me.

El Dooderino's picture

It was hardly taken out of context.

"Tell me how many people were at those protests and then group all of them into one for me."

#1: I wasn't there

#2: Why "group them all into one"? It's obvious they were all protesting together, so no doubt shared the same ideology.

"Summarise all of their lives into one political agenda for me."

This is a ridiculous request. Their "political agenda" seems pretty obvious. And again, they are all protesting together under the same banners. The pictures make that quite obvious.

Graham Taylor's picture

Of course it's a ridiculous request. That's the point.

El Dooderino's picture

I would say that the point is your entire post is ridiculous.

The author was hardly "polarizing the debate", nor was he "shooting a political event with a heavy bias".

Graham Taylor's picture

Yet anyone opposing BLM is branded racist? Repeated references to support of Trump with implied racist undertones. Repeated use of the term 'white supremacist' with no context.

There are lots of reasons why people might align themselves with a cause. Seeing the humanity in that is a principle responsibility of journalism.

While we're conversing, why exactly did you sign up to this site? 176 comments in threads and 0 uploads? Almost like you're not here for the photography at all...

El Dooderino's picture

"Repeated use of the term 'white supremacist' with no context."

Um..."white supremacist" was actually only used once. The term "white supremacy" was used seven times to identify what the protestors were marching against. I thought you said you read the article.

"This past weekend was the “Long Island Unite Against White Supremacy” march in Wantagh, New York. **It was a response to the Capitol riots from days before and specifically targeted towards the disparity in policing on display in that insurrection versus Black Lives Matter protestors**"

It was not just a "BLM" protest. Reading comprehension is fun!

Your trying to say white people who oppose BLM are not racist? lol! Okay! If you say so, I guess.

"Logically, if the march is against white supremacy, if you’re showing up to protest the march, you’re tacitly indicating you support white supremacy." Kinda hard to argue against that. But, go for it!

"I approached them to take some photos, and the response showed a gross demonstration of racism and misunderstanding of photographer’s rights to photograph in public spaces."

The author didn't have to "imply" anything. The subjects proved their true colors on their own. Nor did he ever deny that there might be other reasons why "people might align themselves with a cause", so you can't really say that he doesn't see "the humanity" of his subjects. He was telling us about his experience as a photojournalist, who is a person of color, trying to document an event, and how he is treated because of his skin color.

And, not that it's any of your business, photography is simply a hobby for me, so I come here to learn new things from the articles and sometimes from the comments. I'm not concerned with having a "portfolio". Don't be a creepy stalker.

Graham Taylor's picture

I think it's easier if we just end this dialogue by you assuming I'm racist because I disagree with you. I don't have it in me to keep talking moron for the sake of making you understand.

Also, clicking your name and seeing the openly displayed posting stats is not stalking 🙄

El Dooderino's picture

You seem defensive. I won't assume anything. I don't think I need to.

Besides, it's not my problem if you can't comprehend what the article is *actually* about, instead, trying to make it about your own "ideals" when it comes to photojournalism and how the author, in your opinion, has failed to follow them. (Here's a hint: it's about his *personal* experiences as a photojournalist who happens to be a person of color. "If you’re a photographer of color, those two intersections carry an even greater risk at these kinds of protests.").

BTW, nice ad hominem. lol!

Graham Taylor's picture

You're assuming what the authors intent was. That's the beauty of subjectivity, remember?

I think the biggest difference between you and me is that I don't need to nut-swing off the nearest POC to prove I'm not racist. This article has some serious and inherent flaws that could put the author in danger. That concerns me at a basic human level. You trying to prove his nobility by clambering over trending issues is laughable. The fact that you're "here to learn" while ignoring those with relevant experience even more so.

I applaud the author for his experience and relating it to us. But I'm advising caution that this may be one of few articles if the chap doesn't take his own person safety seriously. I also think it will be for a lost cause if his intent is to simply prove one side of the narrative.

El Dooderino's picture

"You're assuming what the authors intent was."

No I'm not. You're ignoring it. Or trying to deflect from it.

"I think the biggest difference between you and me is that I don't need to nut-swing off the nearest POC to prove I'm not racist." Wow! You *are* defensive! Where did that come from?

"This article has some serious and inherent flaws that could put the author in danger." By writing about his experiences? Do tell!

"You trying to prove his nobility by clambering over trending issues is laughable." I'm not even sure where you're trying to go with this.

"The fact that you're "here to learn" while ignoring those with relevant experience even more so." I'm here to learn about techniques and equipment and such. As a former combat medic, after what I've seen and experienced, I hardly need a "former combat photographer" to lecture me on danger.

Again, the article is about his *personal* experiences. "I’ve covered quite a few protests". It doesn't sound like it's his first rodeo. It sounds like he knows what he's doing, just that it's more dangerous now because of the negative reactions from *some* people because of his skin color. I see nothing to indicate he play loose with his personal safety, nor is he trying to only portray one side of a protest.

Graham Taylor's picture

So as a former combat medic, please tell us all about your relevant experiences as a photographer in a hostile environment. Especially in large scale riots or protests. You know, given that's the topic and everything.

Perhaps when the OP is injured, you can use your relevant experience to patch him back up?

El Dooderino's picture

Whooooosh!!

That's the sound of the point of my comment going right over your head!

lol!

Wasim Ahmad's picture

It’s not my first rodeo, Graham. And it’s certainly a more dangerous climate than four years ago. Not just for journalists, who have been called “enemy of the people” but also minorities, who have been treated as such by the president and his supporters. That’s not an opinion. It’s observable fact. And I fall into both the “minority” and “journalist” camps.

Graham Taylor's picture

Yet you're placing yourself deliberately in harms way in situations that seem to be so easily avoidable. If you really, genuinely, honestly think that you are such a high value target to these people, then why are you placing your body between this aggressive group of incredible racists/journalist killers and the place they clearly need to be?

I think you need to be taking your personal safety more seriously if you really do think you're in as much danger as you are telling people you are.

I respect you for putting yourself in danger to tell a story you believe to be important (even if I don't agree with the intent on villifying but that's another debate), but I think there are safer ways of achieving what you want and ways that will give your images more impact.

El Dooderino's picture

"intent on villifying"

Facts not in evidence.

Matt Williams's picture

I absolutely love that this dude was like "WHY ARE YOU HERE?? 176 COMMENTS BUT NO PICTURES!!" when a majority of people on here don't upload many or any photos. I do occasionally for fun, but it's not like this is my online portfolio or something.

What a strange thing to come at a person with.

Lukas Renk's picture

Graham here has shown multiple times that he will try to come at people with anything he can, even if it is totally irrelevant. Thats what you do when you‘re wrong but do not want to admit it.

Mike Ditz's picture

The one guy said "you don't know who our families is". I think Tony Soprano lived out on Long Island. Hmmm.

Matt Williams's picture

"As a 'journalist' you have a moral obligation to remain neutral"

This is often said (usually by conservatives) and it's frankly an utterly stupid notion and has never been the case. A person cannot remain "neutral" on issues like "do black people's lives matter? Is white supremacy okay?"

A journalist has an obligation to not distort the truth or ignore context in support of their own beliefs, but they have no obligation to not take a stance on issues.

I suppose if you believe that, though, the entirety of Fox News is not actually news, right?

I agree that there is an obligation to report events as they really happened - again, like I said, you can't ignore context in favor of your own bias.

But that doesn't mean you have to "remain neutral." You can be a supporter of the BLM movement and still fairly document events at a BLM protest or counter-protest.

This entire of idea of "we have to be fair to both sides" has been one of the biggest problems across all media (except Fox News) for the past five years. When one side is a bunch of seditionist, white supremacist terrorists storming the home of our Congress.... there's no being fair about that.

Some things are simply wrong. Dancing around it is a huge problem.

Graham Taylor's picture

So I'm a Conservative and I love fox news? Brilliant. Thanks Matt. I've been doing this job for around 20 years now but what I really needed was someone I didn't know to skim read a post I made online to really sum up my life.

I don't suppose with that same clairvoyance you can figure out what's wrong with my car at the moment too?

Matt Williams's picture

Where did I say you were a conservative or that you love Fox News? Ironic thing to say when claiming it is I who skimmed a comment.

I said "USUALLY by conservatives" and I asked if, given your argument, whether you would agree that Fox News is not actually news or journalism.

But, the fact that you assumed I was talking about you pretty much answers that question, which was never actually asked.

You also previously downvoted Max's comment - now I see you have changed it after I pointed out how insane it is that anyone would dislike such a comment. That's actually extremely funny.

Above you also said "Yet anyone opposing BLM is branded racist? Repeated references to support of Trump with implied racist undertones."

So I think it's pretty clear where you stand on this. People who oppose BLM are, indeed, racists, and people who support Trump are also, indeed, racists. I'm sorry, I know it makes you uncomfortable to think about how you're racist, but you could always stop being that.

White people care more about being called racist than they do about actual racism. So you're not alone.

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