Photography in the BLM protests: the thin line between supporting and trending

BLM protests

For the last two weeks, we have been witnessing a global uprising following the death of George Floyd in the U.S. 

His wrongful killing led to widespread protests addressing racism, discrimination, and police brutality – firstly in the States and subsequently in some twenty other countries all over the world. 

As a photographer – or a wannabe photographer – I am driven by a restless curiosity about the world, humans, and anything that entails social interactions, combined with a will to report on what is going on in an exact moment, in a precise place. What better place to capture a historical moment than at what looks to be the biggest social mobilisation of our times? 

Then, my white privilege struck me and made me wonder about my position. Where does my being white put me? Is going to the protests the right way of showing my support? Is it sensible? After discussing with some friends, I received only one answer: “Absolutely, yes – if you can show your support, that is great.” Fantastic. 

Photography of Black Lives Matter protests
Photograph: Livia Cesa

Not so much when the same friends warn you about the backlash that those taking pictures at the protests are facing. Is it showing support to the Black Lives Matter cause to go to the protests, take photos and videos and post them on Instagram and other social media platforms? I see where the critics come from: people (and in this case, black people) are sick and tired of being a trend and being exploited for likes, being treated as a phenomenon by “protests’ voyeurs”.

If one dwells on it, it makes sense: people do not like to be observed and photographed by a stranger in general. Imagine when they are displaying their feelings, strong emotions such as anger, outrage, and sadness, as the protesters have been doing. However, I was torn, as I felt that my intention was to capture the protest’s raw moments and offer my help to the movement in the best way that I knew how – through photography, even though I am not a photographer employed by the BBC or Guardian or Magnum. Then, what to do? 

Photograph: Livia Cesa

I figured that the key word was ‘intention’, and I believed mine to be good. For those that know me, they can see my standpoint as a photographer; but what about those that do not know me? 

Eventually, I decided to go to the protest with my camera and make a decision on the spot. Whenever I was close enough to the subjects of my pictures, I asked for consent; for those asking me, I explained that I would have offered the pictures to my university and other charities I volunteer with, so that there could be a larger impact. I must say that no one said no. 

The protest went on calmly, and I have to say that it was a great experience, both as a human being, to see so many people from many different ethnicities come together for the BLM cause, and as a photographer to be given the chance to contribute in whatever way I could. 

Photograph: Livia Cesa

The whole experience made me reflect on the concept of allyship and how to practice it and improve it at every step. My recommendation to others would be to educate yourself – there are plenty of suggestions made by BLM about documentaries, readings and movies – and understand your privilege.

This already gives us the opportunity to be more conscious about one’s positionality. To physically take part in the protests is not the only way of showing support and BLM offers examples of what else could be done. For other photographers, I would add that ethics’ principles must apply – first of all the respect of the subject and an understanding of the environment. Do not forget to engage as human beings, so that your photography can truly tell a story. 

Livia Cesa is a SOAS Digital Ambassador and freelance photographer currently studying MPhil/PhD in Development Studies. You can see her work on Instagram @liviac_photography

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