Tips on photographing dangerous situations

I am a South African photographer (Hout Bay, South Africa) and certainly cannot claim that I have seen much action in situations of war and violent uprising. I have seen some and have learned a few lessons. I hope this will help other photographers contemplating a career in photojournalism.

Civil unrest erupted in one of our townships last week and into this week; stores were looted, cars were burned and overturned and windows of shops and residences were smashed. I won’t go into the reasons for the uprising, as this is not useful here; but I will simply tell you some of the things I learned if you, like me, want to photograph situations like these for good and humanitarian reasons.


This was the issue – people were promised by the City Council that the rebuilding of houses would take place before winter. They found themselves sleeping on waterlogged ground and in freezing cold tin huts. 

Approach in manageable bites

When you approach a zone where violence is or might be taking place, do so in stages until you reach the area. Judge whether parking your car close by or further away is an advantage. When I parked my car at a shopping centre near the action, the car I parked next to had just been petrol bombed. I judged that mine was pretty safe as the action in that area was over, or so I thought. Look out for the police or army on your walk to the scene and try to stay as near to them as possible. Find a place to photograph from, where there is easy access to shelter and protection if you need to run. If the police do start firing, as they did with stun guns in Hout Bay, run to any other security personnel you can see as they are hardly likely to fire at them. Never assume that they are not using live ammo.

Have your camera set and ready

There is one thing you don’t want to do when photographing a riot or a demonstration and that is to fiddle with your camera settings. Depending on the available light and assuming that this is taking place in full daylight, I would place my aperture setting to f/8,0 and my ISO (depending on my sensor) to 1000. That should give a fast enough shutter speed for action. Place the mode dial on “A”  (Av Canon) (aperture priority). If you require more creative shots with blurred backgrounds, you will be able to change the aperture while looking through the viewfinder.

The Hout Bay Protests

Crowd control was an issue and this man did a fantastic job until the frustration levels spilt over and the crowds were provoked by provocateurs. It was then that they rushed into the town, breaking shop glass, looting, petrol bombing cars and cutting down trees.

Wear clothing that blends into the environment

You do not want to wear your Hawaiian shirt while photographing a demonstration, even if you have narcissist tendencies. Wear old clothes that blend into the environment and if possible, a beanie on your head will mean a greater disguise. Wear shoes that are old yet easy to move in, and can get you from point A to B. If you have a media badge, wear one; the protestors will realise then that their plight will go out into the world. If you are an independent and want to send your pics to a media stream or simply use them for you own social media platforms, then a simply PHOTOGRAPHER sign around your neck will suffice.

Try not to go alone

It is far safer to have a partner when you go into dangerous situations but under no circumstances coerce anyone to come with you; if anything should happen to them, you will be in the firing line not only of the protestors but of the family when you return. Rather go alone then but move with extreme care and wisdom. Vulnerable targets are often the first angry crowds will go for.

Have your cell phone handy

Your cell phone can become your best partner so make sure the battery is fully charged and that you have full access to it. If you have a wifi-enabled camera, you will be able to post the images from your cell phone immediately. If your camera is not wifi enabled, check to see if you can purchase a wifi-enabled CF card. Use the cell phone if you are in danger of any kind and make sure you have speed dial enabled to people you trust in an emergency.


Water Canon Vehicle at the ready 


Define the people standing by

At every protest, there will be a variety of people standing by. Let’s try and list them because it’s important you know who they are:

Provocateurs: those people who have a vested interest in stirring the pot will always gravitate to dangerous situations as they will be able to stir up the crowds whilst promoting their own ideologies. I saw many of these at the Hout Bay demonstrations, including a white man who belonged to the South African Communist party wearing a bandana to conceal his identity. If you photograph them they will resist and be angry; use Live View and if you have a tilting (articulated) screen, use that and shoot from the hip.

Police and armed services: the object of the police and the armed services is to keep law and order and to bring fear into the hearts of the people protesting in order to maintain that order. Do not be too friendly with them as the crowds will see you as one of them in plain clothes and you will become a target. Remember that the crowd is watching every move from all the outsiders.

Photographers from the authorities: Look out for men and women posing as photographers and wearing the latest riot equipment including oxygen masks, bulletproof vests, helmets, and the very latest equipment. Their boots normally give them away, they are shiny and look like they have just been unpacked. They are normally working for the civil authorities and are there to find and interview the ringleaders so that they can make arrests. Do not stand with them as at least some in the crowd know full-well what they are up to. Genuine photographers from the media might have helmets and some protection, but they will look more like members of the Bang Bang Club, with soft shoes and battered cameras. Stand close to them for protection. If you are new at this, watch what they do because things like body language and even the look on your face can give you away.

Opportunists: these unpleasant characters are always on the prowl and you need to look out for them. They will normally wait until you leave and follow you at a safe distance until the crowds have dissipated. Then they will make their attack. They normally roam in groups and the attack comes from one of them, usually armed. If things go wrong for him (or her) then the others will move closer and start to attack. When you leave the scene and have finished filming, find a few people that are also leaving and ask if you can walk with them. Otherwise stay with the demonstration as it is, ironically, safer.

Curious People: As in the scene of an accident, there will always be those people who come to gawk. Don’t engage in conversation as you are not there to discuss the merits or demerits of the situation. If you have to, use them as human shields if the going gets tough. You are there (as if you didn’t know) to record the situation in order to show it to the world. Yours is a useful function, theirs is a nuisance.

Selecting the media house to send your images to

Please be careful to whom you send your images – there are media outlets that will take them but who are famous for disseminating fake news and their own ideologies. In my opinion, it is immoral to make money in this way. Rather live with a good conscience and send to mainstream media. If you post to Facebook, remember that your posts might be shared, so be careful what you write. Of course, you can express your own feelings and opinions but phrase them carefully and with wisdom. You will also get answers from the lunatic fringe – only this week one of them threatened to burn down my house!

I am wishing you all the best if you have chosen to photograph difficult and dangerous situations; this article by no means covers even a fraction of what you should know and I will not be held responsible if anything goes wrong – and it can. My earnest desire is that you feel you are about a meaningful task as you show the world what is often injustice and clearly poor governance, as it has been here in Hout Bay, South Africa recently.



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