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Social Issues

Covering a protest in the middle of a pandemic

I really struggled morally with this. I wanted to be there to document a piece of social history unfolding and to be able to contribute an accurate pictorial representation of the mood. But I also wanted to stay safe.

I covered the Black Lives Matter protest in Brighton on Wednesday 4th June 2020. You can view the full gallery here. Please note that none of my images should be reproduced without explicit written permission.

I really struggled morally with this. I wanted to be there to document a piece of social history unfolding and to be able to contribute an accurate pictorial representation of the mood.

A sign saying "Black Lives Matter" within a crowd of people sitting down

But – I also wanted to stay safe. Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic I’ve stayed as far away from crowds (and people in general) as possible, barely venturing out of my house unless I’m heading into the countryside on my own, or wandering empty streets for my Brighton Cat Snapper project. My partner is disabled and high-risk, and although we don’t live together, my primary focus has been keeping her safe. I only get to see her once a week, from a safe distance, and any time I potentially expose myself to the virus I risk losing that.

A sign saying "Black Equality is Top Priority", shot through a fence and some pink-coloured flowers

I started taking photos from the outside of the church grounds, and then moved through the middle as at the time there was plenty of space. However, things started to get busier and busier, and I decided to leave at one point because I wasn’t comfortable around this many people, and foolishly I had left my mask at home after deciding to swap out the hoody that I’d put it in at the last minute. Thankfully there was one generous soul handing out masks, gloves, and legal advice to anyone that wanted it – please say thank you to this guy for me if you know him!

A person in a bicycle helmet hands out face masks from a plastic back to crowds of people

I then spoke to a police officer and found out the route for the march, so I stood outside the grounds and waited for it to start, standing a good distance away from the crowd, and moving a couple of streets ahead on my own where I could.

People carrying a hand-made sign saying "Black Lives Matter" in black text on a white sheet with pink and blue graffiti-style colouring

When we got to the police station, I spent most of my time on the outside of the group, although I did dart through the middle a couple of times to get some more intimate shots.

Momma Cherry gives a talk to the surrounding crowds, many of whom are on one knee
Momma Cherry led the speeches

At the park I was ahead of the front of the march. I climbed up on one of the seats and took photos of the march arriving, only to turn around and realise that people were gathering all around me.

A crowd of people gathered in a circle, holding a range of signs

I had inadvertently found myself in the middle of the group again. I took advantage of my position by taking as many shots as I could while I felt safe, then dashed to the outside again.

A person in a crowd holding a sign saying "My Black Life Matters" while putting his arm around his friend

The health risk scared me quite a bit and I don’t intend to do anything like this again during these times. If I cover anything similar in the future, I’ll use my telephoto lens and stand a lot further away, as a lot of my fellow photographers were doing.

A photographer takes a picture of the oncoming protest from a distance, using a telephoto lens

It was a very emotional event to cover, and I feel honoured to have been as close to it as I was. Momma Cherry lead the speeches, and the march was both peaceful and powerful at the same time.

For anyone interested – all my clothes went straight into the washing machine, and I took a long hot shower as soon as I got in. I also decided not to see my partner until seven days had passed, just to be sure.

I’m happy with the pictures I got, but was it worth the anxiety? I’m not sure.

It would be great, of course, if I never had to do it again.

A protester punches the air and shouts with a crowd behind her

View the full gallery here.