Thanks to the invention of the camera over a century ago, humans have been able to visually see some of the most important places and events in our history. These can be riots, protests, social movements, and subjects that cater to other user-generated content (UGC). Or they can be something as simple as the exteriors of government buildings. Photographers, videographers, and photo/video journalists document these events for the world to see.
Much of this is due to press freedoms and the fact that these events and places of interest occur in what are considered public spaces. Public spaces are areas that are open freely to the public. Roads, sidewalks, and public squares are some examples of public spaces. There is generally no expectation of privacy. The typical understanding in these locations is that you may be caught on film or in a photograph there.
However, shooting videos publicly doesn’t mean you can throw caution to the wind or be disrespectful. There are ways to protect yourself and others if and when situations get dicey. There are also some best practices for staying ethical while getting the shot.
We talked to several Pond5 Contributors with “boots on the ground” in these circumstances. They told us about what they bring, how they stay safe, keep their cool, and keep the camera rolling when things get wild.
Know Before You Go
As with any shoot, preparation is vital. Take time to research the area where you’ll be filming. This legwork helps familiarize you with the geography, topography, and local culture. You can also understand access points and find the best angles for capturing the most dynamic footage. As Thailand-based video journalist Stephen Boitano (PixelPro) puts it, you should “get as much info about the event before it happens and contact [people] at the event to give updates on the ground.”
Roberto Barcellona (robertobarcellona) from the UK says that in addition to researching the night before the shoot to know precisely where he’s going, he focuses on getting a good night’s sleep, hydrating well, and packing some snacks to keep a level head. “You want to feel as relaxed as possible beforehand because you will get an adrenaline rush when you get amongst it, and you don’t want to get [so] overwhelmed that you miss the shot.”
Depending on the country, you may be able to consult public records online called the Geographic Information System, or GIS. It shows boundaries and property lines on high-definition maps. GIS is something that US-based contributor Andrew Dutton (hh65flier) recommends using. “When filming sensitive areas like military bases or intelligence installations, savvy photographers use GIS as a resource to be 100 percent certain they remain in a public area. The blue lines clearly establish where your rights to film end, and their right to search (and possibly seize) begin.”
Bring The Right Gear for the Job
Knowing your location, the type of event, and other details can completely change what kind of gear you need to prepare for your shoot. If an area is known to be dangerous, discretion is essential.
This is especially true for contributor Wesley Fester (wesleyfester), based out of South Africa. “Within Cape Town, there’s a region called the Cape Flats, which has some of the highest levels of crime, poverty, drug addiction, and murder in South Africa and the world.” Fester and other journalists say they “try to be inconspicuous by reducing the amount of camera gear we carry around when filming in these areas. I prefer to only go in with an iPhone or GoPro in many areas.”
Dutton mentioned his legal encounters with having the appropriate camera gear. This is another point filmmakers must consider when filming this type of content. He says, “the police and/or security can legally limit how much photography gear you use.
Barcellona echoed that sentiment for his work: “I know that with my public liability insurance, as long as I’m only filming handheld and not using my tripod, I’m covered. Using a tripod requires certain permits. But I love filming handheld and find this best for protests as you can get more involved.”
If you plan to bring a drone, you must follow all the location’s laws and regulations. Also, remember the keys to making a good drone video while shooting.
Bringing the right equipment applies to other gear beyond camera supplies. “Depending on the event and threat level, I prepare accordingly – for protests a helmet, protective eyewear, gasmask, body armor,” states Boitano.
Understand the Situation You’re In
All the artists we talked to expressed the importance of paying attention, being aware of your surroundings, and never pushing it too far. They also mentioned the importance of flexibility because things constantly change during a shoot. “Everything can change at any moment, so it’s best to stay open-minded and be willing to reroute or re-organize your shooting parameters,” echoes Pascal Marchand (the4Kguy) from Quebec.”
Barcellona really stresses the details. “There are so many things you need to be aware of, such as traffic, cycle paths, pavements, curbs, and vast numbers of protesters, who can be unpredictable in which roads they go down and block temporarily.”
Tying this in with the previous step, be prepared to pivot and keep your distance while filming with a telephoto lens if a situation gets too dangerous or scary. As Fester is a “shreditor” and often works alone, he says, “I’m constantly monitoring my surroundings and in many cases try to film from a distance if possible.”
As the saying goes, “Expect the best. Prepare for the worst. Capitalize on what comes.”
Take a Local Approach
So you’ve researched, you’ve prepped accordingly, and you’ve kept your options open. But another aspect can unlock doors (figuratively and literally) and opportunities: talking to people directly. Boitano says, “I’ll research online, talk to people who have been or are currently there to get the most updated info before travel.”
Locals can provide the additional insight you can’t pick up with GIS or Google Maps. For example, they can tell you if scaffolding or construction limits access to a particular area or event. They can get you in touch with a local business owner or nearby friend who might hold your gear or provide a spot to work.
Fester takes this approach when he travels for shoots. I always try to find a “fixer” or local community leader in that area to help make introductions in the communities where I may be working. In my experience, communities are more welcoming when they meet you through a local contact.
Respect Others Around You
You’ll likely be near many people when you’re out on these types of shoots. While your number one priority should be your own safety, your next priority should be avoiding conflict with the people you’re filming and showing your subjects respect.
“Be respectful of the community you find yourself in. Try to convey to the people that you’re helping to tell their story,” Fester says.
Dutton also says there’s a balance while filming his subjects and topics. “Just because I have the right to do something doesn’t necessarily mean I should do that thing. No one can demand that they do not appear in any of your footage or photos [in public spaces]. Yet, I would never film a child without a parent or guardian’s permission.”
And if someone does feel uncomfortable, you can always show respect and delete the footage, as Barcellona has. “In all the years I have been filming editorial content, I have only been asked twice if I could delete the footage. Even though I was well within my rights to film and not being unethical, I deleted [it].”
As Marchand simply says, “shoot the story, don’t become the story.”
Manage Encounters and Confrontations Properly
Hopefully, in your filming experiences, you’ll never have any scary or dangerous encounters or situations where things get out of hand. Full stop. However, while filming citizen journalism content, there’s always a chance that something could go sideways or someone will simply confront you about what you’re doing.
Military Police confronted Dutton for being on U.S. Army property in a parking lot that was outside the base fence-line and accessible to the general public. Fester took a rock to the head once and got shot at. Boitano took heavy tank and machine gun fire in Aleppo, Syria (he got into cover and waited it out).
Aside from de-escalating, hiding out, or simply staying further away from the action to avoid any issues, one thing that Dutton always carries is a “business card that looks rather official and bears my name, email, and the internet link to my Pond5 portfolio” for any encounters with officials like police or security agents. “95% of the time, simply presenting this card will satisfy their curiosity and allow you to continue your video shoot.”
Now that likely won’t work for a crowd of violent protestors or while you’re in an active war zone, but it couldn’t hurt for lower-risk filming locations. Barcellona said another way he keeps safe if situations escalate is by staying close to security and police during an event and using a longer lens.
Understand the Footage’s Value
Since nearly anything can happen during a protest, a riot, or another event in public areas, there’s an opportunity to capture something that may literally never happen again. “This type of footage is so valuable because you are capturing history. You can never recreate this type of footage once the moment has passed,” says Barcellona. Fester agrees that “this type of footage is an immersive experience. It’s a true ‘boots on the ground’ experience. Nothing is staged, so it is generally difficult to recreate.”
This value is also one of the main reasons it compels the filmmakers themselves. Marchand says that it’s the “rarity” and “the adrenaline” that he likes, while for Boitano, “it’s not easy to get and risky. It never gets boring.”
Practically speaking, UGC footage like this has wide appeal for all types of storytellers. It’s useful. Up-close, personal video and legally-shot drone footage can impact a storyteller’s work incredibly.
As Fester puts it: “As streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon, and Disney Plus expand, it has created a situation where documentary films have become mainstream entertainment. As that market keeps expanding, the demand for my visual content will continue to expand.”
Make Your Footage Stand Out
Since these are public events in public spaces and everyone is essentially carrying a camera in their pocket, there will likely be a glut of content from many people uploaded to the internet. To get your work seen, you’ll need to find better angles, shoot with a better camera, possibly use a gimbal, and practice the basic tenets of shooting high-quality video.
Barcellona mentions using vintage lenses and shoots without autofocus or in-body stabilization to put his own touch on it. He also said something everyone touched on: simply gaining confidence through experience. “The more you film this type of content, your shots evolve and improve with each protest. This gives you the confidence to go for certain shots and see things from a different perspective.”
As always, you shouldn’t forget about post-production. Simple steps like basic color correction in Premiere or DaVinci Resolve are the first steps toward sticking out in the crowd. Coloring your work with a mood or trend can also easily and instantly boost its signal against the rest of the pack.
Filming in public spaces can result in some of the most sought-after footage for storytellers. Although there certainly are inherent risks to capturing footage of protests, riots, or in active war zones, using all the insights shared by these “boots on the ground” video journalists and filmmakers can help you work toward mitigating those risks to capture something truly one-of-a-kind.
Take it from Pascal Marchand, who sums it up nicely. “I’m grateful for the laws that allow people like me to shoot in public. I never abuse my rights, and I would recommend anyone shooting public scenes to do the same.”
The opinions expressed by the Contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Pond5, Inc., its parent company (Shutterstock, Inc.) or any of its or their affiliates. These materials are made available for general information purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. We encourage you to seek legal advice from an attorney in the relevant jurisdiction prior to engaging in any activity described herein. The activities described herein are inherently dangerous. You should adhere to the applicable laws and rules set forth by your government and local municipalities while capturing videos and photographs in public spaces.