Over the last three years I’ve taken somewhere around 60,000 photos. I’ve taken photos from the air, from the inside of caves, in deserts, in jungles, on islands and on mountains. I even spent one memorable day on the Great Barrier Reef as an underwater photographer.
Until last week, however, I had never found myself in the middle of a real honest to goodness news story. For four very exciting hours last week, I found myself between thousands of Thai political protesters and hundreds of Bangkok riot police. I was shoulder to shoulder with seasoned pros from Associated Press and Agence France Presse. The difference was that they had an audience of millions spread across hundreds of news outlets and I’m just a guy with a blog.
I had spent two previous days photographing the protesters in Bangkok. For the most part, there was nothing special about either day. Day 1 was more of a festival atmosphere. It wasn’t too dissimilar from photographing the Minnesota State Fair, except there were no statues made of butter. Day 2 was basically a long march for me from Victory Monument to the 11th Infantry HQ following the long parade of protesters. My feet hurt, but for the most part the protesters were friendly and everything was peaceful.
On the third day I didn’t go to the protests and they changed their strategy. They began taking blood samples from all the protesters and dumping it on government buildings. The next day they were going to dump several gallons of human blood on the home of the Thai Prime Minister who lived about a block from where I was staying. I certainly couldn’t pass that opportunity up.
When I arrived on Soi 31, the atmosphere was totally different than what I had seen earlier. The protesters were grouped at the end of the street with about 100 police officers barricading the street about 150 feet away. For the first time someone asked me where I was from and started to complain about America. Whereas the previous two days had a zero chance of things getting violent, I felt the odds were about 15% this time. Mentally, I mapped out an escape plan in the event that the shit should hit the fan. (Plan was to run up a ramp into a parking garage)
The area between the protesters and the police was mostly press. There were video guys, photo guys and your normal run of the mill reporters. There were even a few people with “Witness” badges from some sort of non-violence project. Most of the press had green arm bands or bandands that labeled them as being part of the press. This is probably more important for the Thai reporters that it was for me. As a farang with a fancy camera, no one really questioned my presence and I obviously wasn’t on either side. But for the arm band and the standard issue helmet with “press” on the side, I looked like I knew what I was doing.
Eventually the protesters started to move towards the police and the difference between me and the pros become pretty obvious. It wasn’t in the quality of the images per se, at least not from a technical standpoint. It was in knowing what images to get and where to get them. The pros were much more aggressive than I was muscling into the scrum of other reporters to get the shot they wanted. I got many good photos, but I didn’t get any of the shots which really summarized what was happening. Check out this photo essay on the Washington Times. The photos are all from AP. I was basically in the same location as the photographers who took those photos. There are two photos in that group which really do a good job of capturing what was going on: the old woman giving the flower to the police officer and the photo of the blood being tossed on the wall of the PM’s house. (compare this to my photo essay in the Washington Times)
The photo of the old woman I was shut out from because there was so many photographers surrounding her I couldn’t get close enough. I could have been more agressive I suppose, but just didn’t bother. The photo of the blood being splattered required being situated either on a building or on a ladder before hand with a good zoom lens. I had access to neither nor did I know where the PM’s house was exactly before I arrived with the crowd, so there was no way I could have pre prepared.
My photos are fine, but I don’t think I got that “one” photo which captured the nature of the protests. I think I did OK for my first time doing something like this, but I wouldn’t give myself an A.
What would I do differently next time? First, I’d bring someone with me. Second, I’d bring a small step ladder. Third, I’d bring a poncho so I have some sort of hands-free rain gear. An umbrella doesn’t work well when holding a camera. Finally, I really need a better camera. It was raining during most of the protest and the lighting was often poor. Once again, the low light capabilities of my Nikon D200 which I’ve been using for three years now let me down. I ended up using my 50mm lens most of the time just because it is the fastest lens I own.
I have to confess that the time I spent covering this protest was one of the most exhilarating things I’ve done since I’ve started traveling. I totally understand why some journalists get addicted to covering the news in dangerous places.