Independent Filmmaker's Guide
July 28, 2020
How to Photograph and Film Protests
Photography and documentary filmmaking have always been extremely important when it comes to telling stories of major events and social shifts and can even be the catalyst for entire movements. But Photographers need to be mindful and prepared in a number of ways. We’re joined by 5 visual storytellers from around the US to speak on what the photographer’s role is.
To see more of our guests’ work, please visit them at:
Sheila Pree Bright: I could start off that I’ve been photographing the Black Lives Matter movement since Trayvon. Since what has happened now, I look at myself as a photographic artist, not a journalist okay. I’m actually looking for something different from what the media is projecting of a stereotype. When I go out and I shoot, I try to look at different things when I shoot. I don’t look at marginalized communities, my communities as victims, but as human. I go out and I try to capture images where the audience or the viewers are looking at it where I want you to feel it. I want you to see it. I want you to see the hurt and the pain. I’m not really capturing a lot of the images that when journalists have to go out and what the photo editors want to see. Then I shoot strictly in black and white.
Eva Woolridge: I’m really happy that you said that because I find that, and thank you guys for having this topic be available because this is something especially covering the protests lately that has been on my heart and what I’ve observed while in the field. I am a fine arts portraiture photographer that also documents movements. The subjects I primarily focus on are black women and expansion of gender and sexual orientation within the black community and the mixed race experience as well. But then I also apply my finer background into documenting immediate events and cultural movements. What I look for is not to solely focus on black trauma and black pain. I like to capture joy, the momentum, the strength, the perseverance that is happening hand in hand, whenever there’s a movement like this, and also just the day in the life of the black person. My heart really goes into ensuring that we are archived completely as a complex community, multiple communities. We’ll dive into this further, but I do find it interesting. I sense there is a responsibility that needs to be acknowledged when photographing movements that you may not look like the people that are leading those movements. Finding that balance of how you can take your past experiences and apply it to the same movements that we’re all capturing, without being a voyeur to that experience, without focusing on black trauma, because we see enough of that.
Max Gersh: I’m Max Gersh. I’m a photo journalist on staff at the Memphis Commercial Appeal. I’m originally from Louisville, Kentucky, which is how I ended up there during the protest coverage. When I cover something like this, to some extent I bring the same mentality I bring to everything else, no matter what it is, which is to show the truth of what’s there. I think it’s really easy to go to anything with a preconceived idea of what we’re going to see. I think it’s all of our responsibility to throw that out the door before we step out of our car and before we pick up our camera. It is easy to fall into one narrative or another, but I think the responsibility of any journalist on the ground is to look for the truth and document the truth and listen. I make it a point to get everywhere early, not to take pictures, but to talk to people to hear what’s happening. I know especially in certain communities that I may not have spent time in before, I don’t know the dynamic. I don’t want to bring my preconceived ideas. I want to listen to be able to tell those stories, to share the community’s emotion, whether that’s joy, whether that’s suffering, whatever it is. I want to tell that story. I want the people that view my pictures to connect with that in a way that they are feeling the truth, and able to expand their understanding based on the experiences of the people in my photographs.
Steven Pierce: Lynsey, how do you approach whenever you go, what are you looking for in your artistic approach to capturing public conflict?
Lynsey Weatherspoon: Well, let me start off by saying that this was the first time I’ve ever photographed a protest. Walking into it, I honestly did not have an idea of what was going to happen, let alone what to look for. In general, whenever I’m on an assignment or if I’m doing personal work, I’m genuinely looking for someone that I can connect with instantly, whether that is in a friendship manner or a safety manner. I’m looking for people who I know that’s showing some type of, or expressing some type of emotion and it’s raw. I typically go to people. I never approach anyone, most of the time people are approaching me because they’re just curious. After that curiosity has set in, then we genuinely have a good conversation with each other. But just like with any other assignment I have, I’m looking for intimate moments, I’m looking for passion. I don’t look to put anyone down into how they’re feeling. I want to feel it myself. It’s not so much of taking away from what the actual moment is, but expressing it the best way that I can through my visual interpretation. That’s what I usually take into any assignment, whether it’s going to be a portrait assignment or one that is a breaking news, it’s the same thing.
Steven Pierce: Michael how about you?
Michael Christopher Brown: First of all it’s great being on this panel, so thanks for the invitation. My way of working is actually, it’s been it’s constantly evolving, and I have worked on assignment as a photo journalist for a number of years. Though I also on the side I also work on my own projects, which are a little different. But much of my work has been sort of overseas in previous years, and it’s only really been actually in the last six months that I really began working more seriously in the US. I live in LA now and we have a baby. That combined with COVID, I don’t really want to be on the road. I’ve been just essentially learning so much about photographing in the States, after working a lot in Africa and other countries. But at the end of the day I went to school for journalism, visual communication it was a photo journalism program. Over the years I’ve been exposed to various practices. I’m really happy to be a part of this panel here, because I feel like I’ve been learning so much from colleagues of mine and other people photographing in the US, photographers and artists as well. Making work about the black community and other PoC communities. Understanding the way that I’ve looked at things in the past as a white male photographer. I think of course a lot of white people are beginning to look at themselves a little differently or very differently. Certainly I’m one of those.
Steven Pierce: I guess we’ll start with COVID and Black Lives Matter. These whole things they feel very physically, emotionally overwhelming, like walking into a space where there are so many people. How do you dissect that? How do you approach walking in here, and where does your artistry begin and where does your empathy end? How do you approach that?
Eva Woolridge: I think for me I noticed when you go into the field and you first observe who’s there? Then your immediate response to who’s there. Mine personally was how profound it was to see more white people in the protest than there were black people, and how that was long overdue. To have a sea of white allies or people just understanding what an allyship is, to yell at black lives matter made me emotional. Because this is a conversation that really became in the forefront when Trayvon Martin died, but no one was really acknowledging it. It was just black people leading, and we weren’t getting the media truly deserve, despite it being an international conversation, it still didn’t get what it deserved. It took social media development for us to really see this is actually a daily experience for black people. When you go into the protest and then see how many people are showing up, I want to reflect that. I want to show the passion that… It’s a hard balance because I don’t want to focus on white people being there, it’s not about that. But I did want to at least acknowledge that this was a new moment in I think human history to be honest.
Steven Pierce: How much does your feeling of being there how much does that impact the way you shoot?
Eva Woolridge: I’ll quickly say I’m a crazy empath and I’m a Pisces too, so I’m all water sign. I feel a lot and I’m fortunate that I don’t know how I really do it, but it’s invoked in my photography. I get personally moved. I photographed this woman in Brooklyn who her daughter was crying on her shoulder. The older woman was holding her and we made eye contact as I photographed her, and her dog was sad too as she was holding her other dog. It was a whole the format was like a triangle of emotion, and no one else saw what was happening. But I immediately I call it intuition, but that was the moment despite everyone walking and people walking in the streets and chaos around, that was the moment I saw. I can only say it was intuitive, but personal experience.
Lynsey Weatherspoon: I think that’s what makes photographers or creative special, where we can be in the moment and also see something that no one else may have never noticed. The empathy part I don’t think it ever ends, whether you are in protest mode or portrait mode or whatever the case you may be in. Even if you’re just driving down the street and you see somebody it’s like, “Oh, that will make a powerful statement, but what would be the purpose of me taking that photo at the moment?” Empathy never leaves, it’s always in your heart and it’s always going to be in your work too.
Sheila Pree Bright: For me, since I have been photographing earlier on with Trayvon, I don’t go in with those types of receptions. I go in as one with my community, even though I’m not from the community. I’ll give you an example. I was in Baltimore that Sunday when Freddie Gray had passed. When I went into the community and I’ve been to Detroit marginalized communities, something about Baltimore was different for me. I was really looking at the landscape of the community versus the people. Since they did not know me, I actually got cursed out. They told me to get the F out of here and they didn’t want me here. White people here are the media here. Because the only time we come into these communities is when we want to talk about something negative. I had to think fast on my feet about what am I going to say? I said, “Look, you guys do not know me. I’m black like you, I’m from Atlanta the home of the civil rights movement, and I want to tell our stories.” Once I go into these communities where it’s not a protest, I really connect with the people before I even start photographing. Like I said, I’m looking for things that I want to show versus what the media is showing. Because I don’t know if the I can’t remember her name. We want to show all of it, but I’m particularly interested on us and the empathy with that, because the other’s going to be shown anyway.
Eva Woolridge: I agree with that experience that you had because I went on a solo trip to New Orleans, it was traveling and it was a good time, not on assignment or anything. But it was the first time I was in New Orleans. It’s magic truly, and it’s like you don’t see that valuable side of the black experience too often, with so much color too in the United States. When I was photographing some of the subjects were like, “What is this going to be used for, etcetera?” I met and befriended a photographer friend of mine who just talked about the publications will hire white photographers to come into these black spaces to photograph, capitalize off of it, exploit the community in whatever way they would want, whether it’s positive, light or negative. But that money that they gain from that goes back to that publication or where they came from, it doesn’t go back into the community that they photograph. I’m a black woman and they can see though I was a tourist I’m within that community. I did beyond the tourist experience. There was still a privilege I had to acknowledge to recognize I was an outsider, that still needs to consider the social accountability and the responsibility of how am I going to give back to this community if I choose to make sales from the photos? Which I didn’t, instead I made it a photo essay about why it’s important to be accountable and not to exploit communities you find exotic or different.
Steven Pierce: Maybe it’s short sighted of me but I’d never actually thought of that as being something you’re almost like going to a community and capitalizing upon their loss, their pain, you know what I mean? There’s a world in which that is… How much does that affect the way you approach these things? You’re saying Sheila being cursed out, that’s something I wanted to talk about too. Some of these images are incredibly impactful, and they’re filled with pain and conflict. How do you stand there and get that image and take that? Do you deal with the person? What is that interaction like that relationship?
Sheila Pree Bright: Well, for me shooting protest is a little bit different because sometimes you cannot connect with the people. But I’ve built a relationship with a lot of the young activists that I was dealing with, and they really trusted me because I have a book out called 1960 Now. I haven’t made any money off of it, but if I do, I will be giving that back. But I think for me, I don’t never go into a situation looking at am I going to sell this? I’m going to get notoriety. Am I going to get all these likes? It’s not about that for me. It’s about me educating universally so. Because I’ve traveled internationally and nationally so talking about black lives matter and the book to a lot of the colleges. I myself as an image maker feel like, why am I doing this work? Because now we had George Floyd, Austin not Austin, Sterling all the rest of the new ones. What makes this so different? I might be going off track. I felt because I didn’t want to go out and photograph more imagery, because I feel that the images people don’t care. It’s hard for people to change. But when I went out this time, I felt a different kind of energy. That energy maybe is because you have more diverse people, but I didn’t feel the tension like I did with Trayvon Martin all the way up, because of how the cops were out there too. But it’s different. I don’t know if it’s because there’s more diversity out there, but I feel it’s different for me, it’s different.
Max Gersh: I think we’re also at a really unique time in history, where we’ve had this building of police shootings and we’ve had these issues that have been growing. Like you were saying earlier that it seemed like the diversity in the crowds weren’t there, the support wasn’t necessarily there from the white community and we’re seeing that differently now. I think part of it honestly is because of COVID. Each thing in its own right is terrible, but by having these global traumas occur at the same time, it’s giving people time to sit around and read and reflect and understand and process things that were easy to ignore by going out to a bar or a club or going out and do their own thing. We’re all stuck at home now. Now all of a sudden people also have a way to go outside, be around people and feel like they’re doing something that’s very important. I think that is a happy coincidence of this, is that these traumas have brought us all together. We have experienced global trauma collectively, to different degrees. People are starting to say, “Hey, I get it now. I maybe don’t get it like you get it, but I get it.” I think that is part of what makes this time different. While I was in Louisville, the police shot and killed another man during the protests. There was a lot of tension, what’s going to happen? Is this going to continue to escalate? What I saw that night was the greatest celebration of community I’ve ever seen in my life, and nearly brought me to tears because there was a time where people weren’t sure what was going to happen. Is it going to turn violent? Are the police going to come in? When the community proved that this was their place to be, and they stood their ground with that, and the police left. There was just this great celebration. I have not seen widespread like you were saying before in other protest there’s people that want to kick out the media. They want to kick out the people that are not part of that community. But I had so many people realizing, “Hey, this is a historic moment. Please photograph me. I want the world to know I was here. I want to be part of this history this change.” I think that’s wonderful that people are taking accountability to be change makers in the community, and I’m glad we’re all out there documenting it.
Steven Pierce: Yeah, absolutely. Does it ever occur to you while you’re in situations like that that are kind of a powder keg or tense that could turn very… How much does your thoughts turn to your safety in the situation versus what you are there to do?
Lynsey Weatherspoon: Well, again, so to lay the foundation saying that this was my first time, my very thought was just to navigate through the crowd, and try my best to see from afar. Because I also have to think about that I’m a woman, safety is always going to come first. In that same instance, thinking about what could be just as impactful from afar, rather than being up close to the action of what’s going on. There was another thought that I had to basically say that, just to piggyback off of what Max was saying, was that 2020 has the sole meaning of like clear vision. I feel like this year from what we’re seeing and in this dynamic, our vision definitely has become much more clear as to systemic racism as to trauma, as to what’s affecting the black trans community, things of that nature. We may joke about how 2020 has gone awry, but in essence we’re seeing much more than what some of us have never realized, both black, white and other and PoC. We’re seeing so much. So much is coming out of us and evolving and changing. While we’re out there taking these photos and filming protests or filming peaceful moments, filming quiet moments in our own home, those are just as effective as being out with everybody else. The joy of being out there with your own is very palpable, you feel it, you feel a thump in your heart every time. We’re still going to be making these images as impactful from here until whenever, outside of protests, not just pigeonholing us to the protests that are just going on, but realizing that black life has been happening around us all this time, and it’s so unique to what the experience is right now.
Eva Woolridge: Absolutely. I had to just to like hop on also. In Brooklyn, we had the black trans lives matter march. It was again, one of the most profound moments because my trans family were able to feel seen. Being a queer person in Brooklyn right now it’s like you know the underground scene is there. You know the community you know the people. The fact that this hit international news, and I photographed but it was not for an assignment and it wasn’t even an aggressive form of photograph. I just wanted to be present. Because I think we can all agree that when we’re like, “Oh, I’m here to shoot.” You’re just like in, out, weaving in and weaving out. To Lynsey point, there is a sense of security that you have to honor for yourself. I can easily jump into something not even realizing that it could be an unsafe situation because I’m so focused to photograph. We get so charged into that. My friends will be like, “Okay, at least tap me on the shoulder if you’re about to dart.” Which I didn’t do. We have to consider our wellbeing first and it is tough because as black women photographers, I think that stuff that sometimes is hold against us, and it’s not fair because we’re equally as courageous and ready to put ourselves out there. But I’m also not going to go head to head with a cop with a barrel to my face, just because I already know what is going to happen. If one of you two do that, I would say in the past you were less likely to get hurt, but now cops are really just going for anyone. Sometimes it just frustrates me though that it’s just like there is a lack of understanding of the black woman’s photographic experience, and people not holding us to the same caliber, even though we’re at that same level. I just wanted to mention that.
Sheila Pree Bright: I think that with my experience I have other colleagues of mine when they see something, a cop started charging after me grabbing me. Another colleague saw that and he grabbed me back, because if not they would have snatched me up. I’ve been in the middle of the cops with the protest and I’m sandwiched in between, and it sound like a gun was going off. I’m a daughter of a soldier, when I heard that I went to the ground because that’s what my father told me to do and got back up. They look at you they look at us like we’re just frail little things but we’re not, you know what I’m saying? One thing about it with me, in any of these situations because I’ve been in very intense situations, you cannot go in there with fear, because people will sense that. You cannot have any fear like that. I think that’s how I’m able to move with this. Then back when I was photographing the first day, the first phrase of Black Lives Matter, I always would hook up with the Nation of Islam and let them know that I would be coming to town.
Steven Pierce: Michael, thinking about other scenarios, like other than just Black Lives Matter, how much did safety come into play whenever you’re filming or when you’re shooting in Libya?
Michael Christopher Brown: Well, when you’re on the front line all the time for sure. How can I backstep? Here on the streets as I was photographing the protests that week mainly for a week, the munitions they were using, the kinds of rubber bullets were a little different. They could be lethal if you were really close, but it wasn’t like what I’d seen in Palestine or Egypt or other places. But still aggressive, but just having a bit of experience with that it helped, in terms of where I can be and where I can place myself. There’s so many things I want to say I think this is just like… I grew up in the Northwest in Washington state, north of Seattle in the middle of nowhere, there was one black person in my high school. Going into Seattle as a kid, I would see a couple black people here and there, but hardly had any exposure. I had a few Mexican friends at school, but that was it. My father’s a physician, so he worked quite a bit in Haiti and Mexico, Romania and other countries. He would work in these orphanages and come back and bring these photographs of his patients and what he had seen in these communities. Those images, he would show those in front of the community and this would help raise money for the orphanages. From a very early age that was instilled in me. That’s besides wanting to see the world and understand the world because I grew up so protected and in a place where I wasn’t exposed. From a very young age I learned about justice and human rights and the dignity. That’s really driven me into a lot of these places, but I think also what’s happening now of course, because I am a white male and I’ve been extremely privileged and very lucky in this business, I’ve had so many opportunities. But I think also over the years that I just with everything happening now I always should have been, but I think my awareness wasn’t as open as it is now in terms of how I contextualize these communities overseas and also here. I’ve been working on a Skid Road project since the beginning of the year. Again, it’s kind of the first time that I’ve really ever worked in the US seriously for like many years. My intentions going to this community which is extremely vulnerable, mostly black, have always been very good, but my problem was with the presentation. Because I had these assumptions if I load these images on my Instagram, I’m sharing stories and videos, I’m wanting them to share their voice. We can no longer assume that people will assume that we have good intentions and not, we have to always provide enough context, caption information. Then why are we doing these things? I’m constantly asking myself questions. I know at the end of the day that I have really good intentions, I’m there for the right reasons. But at the same time, much of my photography really is a record of these communities through the white gaze. It’s been nice that some of the projects I’ve worked on have brought money back into these communities. With Skid Row, they published it in National Geographic and then it was on the local news here. I had a few friends contact me and random people contacting me, “Where do I send money?” But it’s so, so difficult now for me, I feel like I’m really I’m beginning to awaken, and understand that I’ve been conditioned for so many years because of how I learned photography, and because I went to photography school and I’ve been working in this business for 15 years, it’s like there are good aspects, and there’s also aspects that are just clearly I was not awake.
It’s such a beautiful time now where I’m literally educating myself through the eyes of black photographers. I’ve been loading a lot of their images on my Instagram and just exploring that world, and I have friends, colleagues who are sharing experiences with me in a way that I never, like why did we need an event like this? So we could awaken or begin to awaken. But there was something about that video and the imagery, the video that Ms. Frazier, Darnella Frazier I believe, was the woman who made that video of George Floyd. There was something about that I saw that and I was screaming here in the studio. I was so angry. Again, it’s not because I’m black, it’s not because I even understand that experience but just as a human seeing that I was so angry. That has to be pulled a lot of other white people into the streets too.
Eva Woolridge: I just want to say awesome one, I really honor I’m really proud of you that you’re in this moment of like awakening. I struggle with applauding the white awakening, but I also acknowledge that we’re all human, we’re trying to do our best. There’s such a long history of like whitewashed education that like it’s not fair to hold so many people so accountable. It’s like if you weren’t born in that experience to learn on your own what that was like, then how could you have really learned unless your soul was immediately about the justice in general? But it’s just interesting that in photography specifically it has always been a form to… Because it invokes so much emotion, to me always been a form that exploits also. We have the history of white photographers photographing lynchings and selling postcards of those imagery. To me it doesn’t go exactly hand in hand, but it does in a way. That video of George Floyd is a viral public lynching that brought awareness just like the postcards did. The abolition movement developed even further and they actually banned the postcards from being used, because there was such an outrage of how much it was being produced. But again, that was a white photographer that saw this festive occasion of a black person being lynched to capitalize off of it. We can’t shy away from that real history. Right now I was just watching a documentary when I should have been working, but I wasn’t, of Disclosure that talks about the trans experience in media specifically. I think all photographers in film should look at this documentary on Netflix because it’s talking about specifically what we do, media or providing imagery and representation in some capacity. How it could be used for good, but oftentimes it is used to mock or other community that are just trying to figure themselves out and they need authentic representation to figure themselves out. It’s like how can we all think about it together and try to contribute what we can to structure the narrative to be more positive and uplifting?
Steven Pierce: It sounds a lot like context is one of the most important parts of this. What is a good example of how you should contextualize your imagery in these kinds of ways, and what are some examples of poor contextualization?
Lynsey Weatherspoon: I could try to decolonize the whole art world, but that’ll take years.
Sheila Pree Bright: I think it’s the media too, is decolonizing the media and the art world. Because the media project those images. How many times have we seen black men on top of cars with the fires? They’re projecting that a lot. Lynsey that’s the stuff I don’t mean to cut into you Lynsey, is like for example when the protest started up with George Floyd. I didn’t go out the first time, and I said, “What can I do to do more layering of the protest?” I went to the mothers whose children have fallen to police brutality and took the images of that of the press conference. Washington Post loved them but it didn’t make the cut as the usual imagery. My question is because you still have the photo editors that are there that’s telling you what images they like and not like, that’s why I don’t usually work for journalists. I start my work on my own. That’s how I was able to I guess get a book out because people said my work look different. I think Lynsey I’m going to be quiet, but you were talking about decolonize, but I think it has to work in all because a stereotype of someone is ingrained in someone’s consciousness. I did a body of work called Suburbia, won a major award on it. Do you know everybody told me that I didn’t have enough signifiers in that work to show that they were black homes? This was in 2006.
Lynsey Weatherspoon: Not too long ago, which I mean you are absolutely right because just being in Atlanta, Sheila and I would usually see each other at the same event. Unfortunately, but fortunate that we do see it, is that I’ll give you a perfect example. A couple of days after Rashard Brooks was killed, we went out to Wendy’s. You weren’t there at that time Sheila, but went out there. It was only me and one other black female older journalist, and then the rest, maybe five or six were white. When you have that disproportion there, that also affects the fair imbalance of what’s being told. Having black people on the ground during a situation of such, you know the tone and the timbre of how things are going at that time. Where one person may hear it as anger, we hear it as like a sense of frustration, but it’s not anything to be afraid of. We have to, and I’m saying we because sometimes even I fall at fault for thinking one thing and it’s not true. But we also have to be aware of what the overall temperature of the environment is. Everything is not anger. Everything is not fire and brimstone. Folks are just emotional. The same emotion that I share was probably the same way that you would do it as well. I think once we decolonize our own minds around what feelings look like among other cultures, then we can start to see that the narrative is nothing more than what it is in that very moment.
Max Gersh: I think that’s so true. You can see that reaction based on how people cover these type of events. I went to a workshop last year and one of the speakers was Kenny Irby. I don’t know if you all know Mr. Irby, but he is a big name in the photojournalism community. He’s a black man. He was in charge of the visual side at Poynter for a while. He’s in St. Pete and he works trying to empower young black men to stay out of trouble and to go through church and through education and things like that. He’s doing great work outside of the photo community, but he still gives back to the photo community. Since I met him, there’s this quote he said to us that I have not been able to get out of my head and I’m grateful I can’t get it out of my head is, “My opinion is no match for your experience.” I think if we all think about that when we pick up our camera, I think I understand what’s going on, but it reminds me I need to talk to people. I need to listen. I need to hear, and I need to feel. While I may never have the exact same experiences, I can do my best to relate and convey what you’re telling me. But if I don’t ever ask, if I don’t make those approaches, like you were saying, people see things and they say, “Oh, that’s scary. That’s somebody yelling.” I saw people that shied away because there were a lot of protesters that had guns in one part of town. I went up and I talked to them, not to say, “Hey, why are you carrying a gun? Don’t you think that’s reckless?” I just wanted to meet these people. This was their home. This was their neighborhood, because I’ve never lived there. I have not had that experience. This guy told me very candid he’s like, “We’re tired of being slaughtered by the police. We’re tired.” The way he told me that it was not like, hey, if a cop shows up, I’m going to pull out my gun and shoot the guy. But they said, “Hey, in downtown, they’re using rubber bullets, in this side of the town they’re using real bullets. We’re going to stand up for our community. We’re going to stand up for our family, for our friends.” It was not a call of violence, it was a call of self defense. By having that conversation with him, it gave me a better understanding. I think they appreciated, this guy in particular appreciated that I was not afraid to come talk to him and learn and admit I don’t understand. I have not had that experience as a white man, like you guys were saying. There’s definitely at least historically a difference of being able to be around the police and have a sense of security and safety as a white man that maybe in these protests was not as secure as it had been previously but I had a baton in the back during this.
Eva Woolridge: I’m glad you’re okay.
Max Gersh: Thank you.
Steven Pierce: Working in the face of authority I think is one thing that’s really important. Because I think a lot of the images that come out that really stick in my mind from any civil upheaval are not images of a group of people usually standing. It’s just like images of a story of a conflict that is happening. It’s very personal and very close. How do you get in the front line like that, and stand in the face of authority being an artist while maintaining not being harmed? Or do you just accept the fact that you might be?
Eva Woolridge: I think you just accept it to be honest. This is our tool to contribute to the movement. All of us, not just us, it is all of us, and we just have to figure out what your specific role is in contributing your creative vision into it. I had a great, by the way, that was a great quote Max. That was like a [inaudible] quote, thank you for sharing that. I had a teacher that taught me that the best photography can be taken in your own backyard. It doesn’t require huge traveling or something like that. I know this is kind of a tangent from your question, but we have to ensure that we are bringing our own past experiences no matter what our identity is, and figure out through that gaze how you are going to capture that. But you also have to acknowledge the information that you do not know yet, that the privilege that you’ve experienced and how far that is taking you. It’s amazing how many different ways one image can be photographed. How can you bring that past life experiences that you had, and how are you going to implement that in how are you going to capture this movement, this space? Because it’s going to be very different than mine. I think the responsibility to make sure you are not stepping on the toes or trying to take over the space, is figuring that out. I couldn’t tell you, I don’t know what your past experience is. But there’s a way that we can do this together. I think you, Michael and Max using your platform to educate your colleagues and even conversations like this. You have three black women that are openly and assertively expressing our experience in the same industry that you are in. How can you use that to help the movement? Because to try to go back to your original question Steven, violence is going to occur and we just hope that we can protect ourselves. If you see we can’t think of capturing the movement in a competitive sense. Unfortunately I do feel that way when I see a lot of white photographers there, and I’m trying to get the image and they’re like, I’m like, “Can you move over?”
Sheila Pree Bright: Its very disrespectful. They walk right in front of you and I just shake my head. I had one that put their hands on me to push me out of the way, and I really went off on him.
Eva Woolridge: What we’re telling you take that information. If you see that happening, that’s the moment to be an ally guys. That’s the moment to be like, “She’s doing the job just like we are. Don’t touch her,” that type of stuff. I can’t even tell you how much that feels good to be protected by people that may not look like us. It’s not that white savior complex, it’s just like a human being acknowledging another humans being talent and experience, and how you can use your privilege to protect in some capacity. That includes when we put ourselves on the line in front of cops and stuff like that.
Max Gersh: Just to echo that, I’m really fortunate that on our staff in Memphis we have a young black female photographer. While she’s newer in the industry, she teaches me a lot just by her perspective on life. I realize every day how fortunate I am to work alongside somebody like that. What you were saying about violence is going to happen. From my experience, it was always instigated by the police. I had protesters-
Sheila Pree Bright: 99% of the time.
Max Gersh: That’s all I can show is what I see. I had protesters that I met up with earlier in the day, like you guys were saying, you’re out in the community, you’re making allies, you’re meeting people, you’re getting a sense of the temperature of everything and just getting to know people. This girl was couldn’t have been more than 20 years old said, “Hey, if I see the police messing with you trying,” or if I see some of the what I would likely call the suburban people that are there to cause trouble. It seemed like it was the white teenagers that were just there to cause trouble.
Sheila Pree Bright: You had Antifa there too, I think I know who they are.
Max Gersh: She said, “If I see anybody, whether it’s protesters or police messing with you, if I see somebody trying to steal your cameras off your shoulder, I got you. I’m going to come up and I’m going to work to protect you because it’s human.” It’s a human thing we should all be doing, looking out for each other. It’s disgusting when we see that, when we see photographers trying to push somebody out of the way or say, “Hey, this is my spot.” It’s like we can work together. We can work around each other. We can work with each other.
Lynsey Weatherspoon: That’s the whole point. I just don’t understand why people don’t get it. If we’re all there with the same mission, there’s going to be a photographer that knows this subject this person, whatever the case may be. We can all work in tandem, and not like you said Eva, work in competition.
Eva Woolridge: Where we have no conflict, we have the same goal. I experienced that a couple of days ago where I recognized somebody and the rest of the white photographers didn’t. I’m just like I know my people, I know what we look like. The thing is like, if you embrace the fact that none of us know everything, and with our forces combined, that we can be great together. This could be so much better than what it is now. I’m glad that we’re having these open and honest conversations, so we don’t have to deal with this as much, and I don’t want to say any more, but as much as we do right now.
Sheila Pree Bright: I went to the aftermath Lynsey, was it Saturday it happened? I went Sunday. When the journalists nudged me out of the way, one of the women in the community said, “You have taken enough and you need to move to let everybody else.” It was someone in the community that was looking out for me.
Lynsey Weatherspoon: Atlanta has been pretty vigilant on looking out for us. Everybody else is just like, “You need to move.” Sheila, just like at Rashard’s service, you could tell it was like, this is a bad example, but it was like roaches to one subject. All of the photographers came to one person. I think it was Sheila saw her first and I saw her next, but I was off, I was afar from the subject, and then everybody started crashing down. Honestly, all of the white photographers started invading this woman’s space, taking pictures of her. I’m just like, this is why certain things, certain people, I don’t want to say allowed, but understand what certain praise methods look like, what certain mourning looks like, mourning the death of someone. I just could not imagine being in a space where I am literally mourning, and I have a photographer at my feet taking pictures of me in a very vulnerable moment. Again, when you are not familiar with what things look like, you take advantage of it in the most in opportune manner.
Sheila Pree Bright: At the funeral of Rashard I was very, very emotional, very, very emotional.
Lynsey Weatherspoon: It was an emotional moment.
Sheila Pree Bright: There’s things that I will not photograph because of that yes.
Steven Pierce: That’s where I was wanting to go next. Where’s this line of documenting versus existing in the space? Where does that line go for you? First specifically sometimes they’re violent protests. There are people that are having extremely emotional moments. When do you and how do you determine when to be a person in the space, and when to be a photographer and an artist?
Eva Woolridge: I think when there is that moment of when you see that vulnerable moment, that’s when your skill as a photographer is challenged. Because if you are going to capture that experience, you can’t take 25 shots. I think it is a fine line. I do think capturing the emotion is important. I do think capturing the grief is important. But one or two shots, if you didn’t get it then you didn’t get it. Like Lynsey said, you cannot be a roach trying, seeking, and pulling every piece that you can. I do think capturing all aspects of the movement or any subject or anything like that is important if your eye gets that. Your talent is going to show up and you have to see how strong your skill set is to be able to capture those moments in one or two shots, and that’s it and you keep it moving because you’re still a human being. We are observers of the human experience, but we cannot completely detach ourselves from that experience. We have to find that balance in order to keep our sanity, to keep our moral compass while documenting history.
Max Gersh: Thank you. I think that’s so true because you do see in certain circumstances where people that claim to be photojournalists act more like paparazzi. You hear the camera’s clicking and the flashes firing and whatever. There needs to be some delicacy. I think we are humans before we’re journalists, before we’re photographers, and we have to remember that. It’s always worth considering the impact of your picture. Is the image worth the potential added trauma? In certain circumstances. That’s where the more experience you have covering something, or even just being existing in this type of environment, you build your own judgment. That doesn’t mean you’re always going to be right, but you can make a more educated guess on where the line is. Do I need this picture to tell this story, or is it just trauma porn, for lack of better term? Sometimes unfortunately yes, having that graphic image is what we need to wake people up to get that attention. But a lot of times it’s not, and there’s a more nuanced way to tell the story, and you can still show emotion. You can still show frustration, you can show sadness, you can show all sorts of emotions, but you can do it delicately. I think that’s our responsibility, and I think these protests draw people out that want to make a portfolio image rather than to actually connect and tell stories. I think that’s really problematic. But I think we can work together to change that culture in the industry.
Eva Woolridge: Michael, I am curious about your experience too, being that you’ve captured, I’m assuming based off of the bio that you captured revolutions or some type of conflict. I’m curious, especially out of the US. We know what that looks like for us, and sometimes it’s not necessarily as widespread violence, like let’s say it happened in Egypt or something like that. I’m just curious your perspective on it.
Michael Christopher Brown: On just revolutions in general and covering them or?
Eva Woolridge: Yeah, just like the same question to you. I feel like you have been digesting so much information, but I’m curious about your experience as a photo journalist abroad and how that applies.
Michael Christopher Brown: One thing I was going to say that I thought was a really good point that Lynsey brought up about the anger in the community and recognizing that what say a white photographer going into a community might see as anger is actually it’s more cultural. When I was living in Congo and working there for about four years, I would generally hire like a local Congolese, especially because I only speak a little bit of French. I understand a few words of Lingala and Swahili, but I don’t fluently speak the language. The people from Western Congo, Kinshasa are often very loud and animated. They’ll say, “Hey, give me some mustard.” You’re like, “Is he mad?” It’s like no, it’s how they are, man. They’ll just yell at each other and you think, whoa, are they having a fight? But it’s how they are. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been exposed to a variety of cultures. When I see things happen on the street here in LA, and again I’m a white guy who grew up in a farming community. When I come home to America, I’m still like if anything, I feel more foreign still covering events here. At the beginning of the week, when I first heard about these protests, I actually saw a friend of mine at the City Hall who was on assignment. I had no idea that there was a protest happening. I had my phone, I didn’t even have my camera on me. I joined, I was shooting some video, but I was hanging back and I was actually just marching with everybody. That’s really what say drew me in, at the time I was living in China. When the Arab Spring happened, I hopped on a plane and I flew to Libya because I was drawn by what I was seeing on CNN and reading online. I went, of course I’m a photographer I’m going to record what’s around me, but I went because of this human connection. Even though I’m not Libyan, I don’t understand anything. I speak a little bit of Arabic, but I don’t understand anything about that experience. I can try and understand on a human level I can immediately connect into something, because the person is human. One thing like growing up in our household, my parents always had exchange students, people from Africa, Asia, Europe, South America. From a young age even though I wasn’t around a lot of black culture, and I didn’t have any understanding of the African American experience, I was still exposed to the world. As a photo journalist, us white males especially have to just keep our mouths closed at this moment and really try and listen. I don’t mean it’s like I mean I have black friends, I have black colleagues. Even though I know people, it’s not the same as like what am I trying to say?
It’s like even though I know them I don’t know them. No I don’t. Being at the protest and going to the protest, of course I’m going to photograph everything I see that I’m drawn to. Though I won’t necessarily load that on my Instagram, but I have always as a photographer and just as a human, I’ve always recorded everything that I see that I feel is important. When I was in Libya I photographed everything I saw. I made a book about it that would probably be looked at by a lot of people as being very controversial, because there’s a lot of people in the book who are dead. Whose mothers, whose families, whose friends would maybe not want to see them in the book. Why did I do that? I did it because it happened that is war. That’s what war looks like. If we don’t see those images that is problematic. I wasn’t around but from what I understand, when the Vietnam War was happening, that’s why photography played such a crucial role in ending the war. Because we were seeing in the newspapers dead American soldiers. There’s a reason why we don’t see those images anymore from Afghanistan or Iraq. It’s like on one hand we do have to be respectful, and we do have to be cautious, and we do have to be sensitive, but we do have to show the world as it looks and we have to show the circumstances of these people. But, and also going into what was said earlier about the kinds of images, that is a real problem. It’s not only a problem that there’s not enough black photographers and editors in the newsroom, even editors, like managing editors, head editors and people who are at the higher positions as well. Because these are the people who choose the images at the end of the day. It’s true that so much of the time the more sensational images are the ones that are chosen because it’s like, these are easier things as well as a photographer to photograph because they’re visual. The more nuanced and the more subtle, sensitive side it’s just, that’s a layer that I think a lot of people just aren’t aware of.
Sheila Pree Bright: As image makers, how do we change that? Because I’ve been trying to change that, but like you were saying, the photo editors that are on top they don’t want those imagery, they don’t want that type of imagery at all.
Michael Christopher Brown: Some of them do. My experience and again, I don’t have as much experience as other people. But from what I know, it’s usually editors are sort of a mix, and they are drawn to both images. But then at the end of the day it’s like, what is the mission of the organization? Who is the editor? Whoever is really at the top in the meeting, they’ll decide what’s on the front page, or they’ll decide like-
Steven Pierce: Don’t you think that social media has a strong impact into this? Also, we’re going to wrap up pretty soon, I want to be very sensitive with you guys’ time, we’ve gone a little over time so I appreciate you all being here. But to answer your question or to pose your question again, Sheila, doesn’t social media and other markets isn’t that an opportunity to start to try and change the narrative of the top-down view?
Sheila Pree Bright: I agree with that. Because the type of imagery that I show a lot of advertising companies, corporations, and editorial people are looking at my work. I do agree with that, and the masses of the people. It has a different like Lynsey and I photograph and she’s working for the newspapers. I’m not, so I’m shooting the way that I would like to shoot. It shows two different perspective, very two different perspectives on that.
Lynsey Weatherspoon: Just to piggyback off of what Sheila just said, though I do a lot more editorial and commercial work, I do have to say that for those who have hired me, they want me to continue to shoot the way that I’ve always been shooting rather than regulating what the story is. I have to applaud the editors that I’ve worked with. Now, I can always push back on them as well. Just because an editor may agree about, they may see something that they like, I can also say, “Hey, I don’t think that would be the best image or best tone to use for a particular photo.” If we are talking about making the system better, decolonizing the system, we also have to be able to step up and say how things could potentially be interpreted about a photo. Still having your voice in whatever creative way that you’re using it is important, and also using that same voice to give your opinion as to what something may look like is just as important.
Michael Christopher Brown: Good point.
Eva Woolridge: Now’s the time, because I think as people are awakened to this systematic racism that influences our entire life in every capacity. If a person, a black person or an ally vocalizes that there is a tone that is not positively or has some type of impact that in the long run would have like a positive impact or awareness or exposure on something, and you challenge that. Then the publication or the higher ups don’t listen, and then it’s perceived badly. We now have platforms of our own using social media that we can vocalize that out. Though cancel culture exists, I don’t fully believe it’s cancel culture. I think it’s receiving the repercussions of your actions. Of course there’s some elements that it’s like it’s a fine balance, but I think most times it’s repercussions of not listening when people brought something up and now the shit hits the fan, a very eloquent way to say that. Because of social media we now have the power to set the tone that we want to set if the publications won’t give us that platform.
Steven Pierce: I appreciate you guys really much coming and saying this. Thank you all so much for being so generous with your time.
Sheila Pree Bright: Thank you for having us.
Lynsey Weatherspoon: Thank you for having us also.
IFG is created by Framework Productions. This episode was directed by James Allerdyce, produced by Matt Mundy, edited by Audrey Rae McHale, and hosted by Steven Pierce. The music is by Glass Boy. Find his music on freemusicarchive.org.