Photographers' Blog

May Day, the same procedure every year

May 3, 2012

By Fabrizio Bensch

Every year I know how my Labour day will end in Berlin. May day concludes in Kreuzberg with riots between radical leftists, the so-called “Autonomen” (autonomists), masked and wearing mostly black clothes and the police.

Since 1987, May Day has become known for very violent riots in Berlin’s Kreuzberg or Prenzlauerberg districts. This annual ritual is repeated but with less violence in recent years. Three years before the Berlin wall came down, violent riots broke out in West Berlin by radical leftists during a demonstration in Kreuzberg, where protesters set cars on fire, built barricades and looted a supermarket.

After Germany’s reunification in 1990, the riots moved to the eastern district of Prenzlauerberg. Riots often broke out during Walpurgis night, on the eve of May Day. That’s the history of the 25-year-old bad tradition in Berlin.

To work in such an environment requires good planning and experience in how to cover riots. In the old days when we shot on film, one of the photographers left the scene as soon we had our first riot pictures, to develop the film, print or later scan the negatives and then send on the wire.

After we changed our technology in 1998 to digital, we were able to stay longer on the spot. One photographer collected the memory cards of his colleagues and would start editing and filing from one of the Turkish Kebab restaurants in Kreuzberg.

Today we have a much more comfortable workflow – no laptops anymore to edit and file the pictures to the desk. We are able to send our images directly from the camera using a wireless lan transmitter attached to the camera body. We have manpower to edit and send the photos out to clients with the help of our own remote editing system. If the mobile phone network is stable enough in such a crowd during riots, you can stay much longer on the spot, taking pictures and transmitting the best frames fast to the desk.

What a change from developing film to digital photography. The sensitivity of the latest generation of digital cameras is amazing, you can even shoot pictures on ASA 12800. Pictures shot with available light are more atmospheric and without using flash, you are more likely to stay undiscovered as a photojournalist during riots.

We always use our own personal protective gear, like a stab vest, helmet and cleaning liquid against pepper spray during such riots. Over the last 20 years the protective equipment helped me to avoid being seriously injured during the riots.

But one thing remains each year; the streets are always covered with shards, bottles and stones.

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