5 Tips for Safely Photographing a Dangerous Event

It seems that almost every time I turn on the news these days, there is a new massive, potentially dangerous event such as the Arab Spring or Occupy (Major City) Protest. Over the years, I have shot a number of events such as national elections, dog fighting and political protests. While these events can produce very thought provoking photos, there are a number of things to keep in mind when deciding whether or not to shoot them.

Please remember that even though I don’t follow most of this advice myself, I strongly encourage YOU to at least consider it.

Blend in – Do your best not to stand out. If you are away from home, blending in is a big advantage when photographing a dangerous event. Dressing like the “natives” and having the right length of facial hair can help as well. Make sure you have your credentials on hand just in case you are questioned by police.

Don’t go alone – OK, I admit. This is NOT one I normally follow. I’ve learned that having someone with me hampers me. I’ve got to watch out for their safety as well as mine. But if you have more sense than I do, then go with at least one friend and make sure to have your cell phone turned on, ready to dial emergency contacts/police.

Be alert – Be aware of your surroundings at all times. Have a sense of the atmosphere of the crowd and be able to respond and adjust immediately. Don’t spend 100% of your time looking through your lens…you’re apt to miss a good shot as well as get trapped in a volatile situation. One trick I use is to keep looking through the viewfinder and instead of closing my other eye, I keep it open and looking at the broader scene of what’s around me. Sure, it takes some practice, but it’s kept my butt out of hot water more than once.

Know the area – OK, this isn’t always possible. If you’re shooting protesters marching down the street you often have no idea of where they’re going to end up. That’s ok. But if you can, scout out the area before hand. The more familiar you are with a location, the less likely it is that an accident will occur and the less likely that you’ll find yourself trapped between the police and the protestors with no escape.

Know when to leave – I usually try to hang in there. As the tempers rise so does the potential for violence. But not all the shots I get are directly caused by violence. Some of my finer works have been shooting people as they reacted to the violence going on around them. However, I realize that for most people reading this no photo is worth putting your life in danger. If the atmosphere of an event becomes too heated, leave.

Jerry Nelson is a nationally recognized photojournalist. His work has appeared in many national, regional and local publications including CNN, USAToday, Upsurge, Earthwalkers and Associated Content. Nelson travels the country seeking out the people, places and things that make America unique and great. Nelson currently is in Washington D.C. pointing his camera at OccupyDC and freelancing for The Washington Times the second largest paper in the nation’s capital.

CLICK HERE to see more of Nelson’s work or to hire him for a shoot.

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