If no one shows up, is it still news?
Photographers covering protests in many parts of the world need to consider logistics, politics and, above all, their personal safety. In Australia, one of the main considerations is whether to cover the event at all.
Last week my colleague Ahmad Masood wrote a noteworthy blog highlighting the stark difference between a protest he covered recently in Germany and the many demonstrations he covered in Afghanistan. His words were in my mind last Saturday as I set off to cover an anti-consumerism rally in Sydney, part of international “Buy Nothing Day.”
It was a fine, sunny day. There should have been plenty of protesters. The announcement said to expect hoards of demonstrators dressed as zombies, chanting anti-capitalist slogans while cutting up credit cards.
Here is what I encountered instead:
This scene was the sum total of the day’s civil disobedience, which underscores a frequent dilemma when covering protests in Australia: to file or not to file.
Maybe it’s our relatively strong economy, or our high standard of living. Maybe there is a deep vein of political lethargy in Australian culture. Or maybe the weather – and the beaches – are simply too good. Whatever the reason, Australians are generally not very active protesters; people tend not to need or want to raise a fuss.
There are exceptions. In 2000, hundreds of thousands of Australians marched across the Harbour Bridge in Sydney in support of Aboriginal reconciliation. In 2003 thousands of (mostly peaceful) protesters took to the streets to denounce the invasion of Iraq.
But mostly, protests in Australia are dud events. I have been to a number of demonstrations where police and/or members of the media outnumbered protesters. I have been to some where no activists have even bothered to turn up.
Some of these poorly represented protests are for large and well-reported news events like political crimes, Aboriginal and human rights, environmental issues and health care. A well-attended rally might attract just 100 people.
As news photographers, we frequently attend these protests but then are forced to make the call as to whether the event – with just two, five or 25 protesters – warrants coverage. How big is the story? Can this small protest illustrate a bigger issue, even if the event itself is not newsworthy? Is it visually captivating? These are just some of the questions that might determine whether an image makes it to the wire.
Needless to say, the above photo did not. It, like so many Australian protests, just didn’t make the grade. Rallies and demonstrations can provide a strong means for visual storytelling, but to justify coverage the newsworthiness bar is set higher than many protests in Australia can muster.