A Visual Journalist’s Guide To Packing For A Protest
Tara Todras Whitehill is an award winning photo-journalist who has covered protests in the Middle East. Some of her honors include a World Press Photo Award for her work in Sierra Leone on Ebola survivors and the James Foley Conflict Reporting Award. In light of the protests occurring throughout the United States over the murder of George Floyd, we asked Tara if she could pass some advice on to our community on how freelancers can protect themselves if they’re working in these unpredictable and dangerous situations. She put together this list of essential equipment specifically for video and photo journalists who are documenting these protests.
Please keep in mind that even though these protests are being held, there’s still a pandemic. It’s imperative that you continue protecting yourself from the coronavirus as best you can, in addition to being prepared to work in these high-danger areas.
I’ve spent a lot of time covering demonstrations in the Middle East and it’s taken me a while to get my toolkit down solid. But, I can safely say that I’ve perfected the gear and equipment I pack for a protest.
My tips and recommendations can help you navigate and stay organized, so you aren’t left scrambling mid protest and compromise your experience.
The list I’ve compiled below started in 2014, and since then I’ve given birth to my first child, so naturally my list has evolved. Check out what I recommend to bring for those badass breastfeeding mommas at the end of the list.
Gas mask — One of my biggest tips is to find one in a satchel so it doesn’t get scratched and can be slung over your shoulder separately. It’s easily accessible as it’s not always obvious when tear gas is going to hit. The one below is super expensive, and there are other less expensive options out there, but MSA is a great brand.
If the one I linked isn’t available in your country, try your local hardware stores. It, of course depends on the country, but in Egypt, they sell gas masks in stores where they sell paint supplies — some are more effective than others, but you can definitely get a full-fledged gas mask.
Helmet or Hard Hat — Some people use motorcycle helmets or hardcore combat helmets, but I find those weigh you down. And unless you really need it (live fire, for example) I don’t end up using it because the weight gives me a headache.
I use a hard cap. It’s light and also doesn’t look like a helmet which is great. And bonus for keeping the sun out of your eyes.
Important Note: NONE of these will stop bullets. I don’t think this is something people initially understand (I certainly didn’t). The hard helmet is for tear gas canisters/rocks and the combat helmet is for shrapnel, but none of these will stop a direct bullet to the head.
Foldable Hat — Absolutely necessary for long days in the sun. It will make you look like a tourist, but if I don’t have to use my hard hat I prefer a brimmed foldable fisherman’s hat.
Vest with Interior Pockets — There are always pickpockets around trying to take advantage of distracted people, I can’t stress this enough. And, believe me, there are many of those moments during protests. I’ve had my iPhone stolen in the heat of things.
Even though it’s annoying to have an extra layer — if I can handle the heat, I always try to wear one. There are a lot on the market that look super touristy and I’ve spent a fair amount of time looking for one that isn’t. This one is the closest I’ve found
It’s stupidly overpriced, but well worth it in the end as it saves me from getting my valuables snatched.
Shatterproof glasses — Too many people I’ve known have had injuries to the face and eyes to not have these in your repertoire.
You look like a total idiot in them, but it’s a thousand times better than having a rock to the eye!
Smartphone — Who can work in the field without one these today? That’s why vests are so important, you can be sure people are eyeing your phone when you check it during protests.
Power — iPhones and laptops seem to drain quickly, so you need to have a reliable backup power source. You never know when you won’t have access to electricity and will need to file asap. I like the Jackery.
Backpack — I try to stow my cameras until I get to where I’m photographing, as to not bring any extra attention to myself. I also keep my laptop and accessories in there. It’s burdensome for sure, but if I need my stuff close to me, it’s the best option.
Photocopy of Your Passport — I try not to bring my passport out with me, only a copy just in case I get pickpocketed.
One credit card — I don’t like to bring all my credit cards out at the same time in case my wallet does get taken.
Press ID — Assuming you are a journalist, always try to have a Press ID if possible. If you don’t have one from the country you are in, try to get one from your company or agency. It’s super helpful in protests and makes you more legitimate.
Stab vest — I usually don’t use one, but it’s a good thing to have when protests look like they could get out of hand. You can also take the plates out of a flak jacket and use that instead.
Scarf — For women, I highly recommend it. It’s helpful in general for prayer times, mosque visits, tear gas, wiping lenses, etc too. If anyone is familiar with The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy everyone travels with a towel — I think of my scarf that way!
Loose clothing and hard boots — Since working and living in the Middle East, I always wear a tunic with long sleeves that covers my butt and baggy pants that has lots of pockets. I mostly stick to neutral colors to try and blend as much as it’s possible.
And good hard boots are important. It will save your back when you are standing a lot, and your feet will thank you.
Power bars or tuna fish — I know this might sound weird, but I like to have food on me in case I’m in a place where I have to stand for hours without food options. Quest Bars are my go-to, but I also love the pouches of tuna fish. It’s a huge amount of protein that keeps me going for hours on end.
Sunblock — I fill a travel sized bottle with sunscreen for those days in the blistering sun.
Cameras and Equipment — Last but definitely not least! I always carry extra batteries and cards. I work with Canon, which I love. Typically, I have a 24mm, a 35mm, and a 70–200mm. I don’t work with flash, so I don’t carry one, but make sure you have it, if you do.
Update: Ben Curtis, a very talented Associated Press photojournalist and photo editor, pointed out something I completely missed. First aid!
During a protest you are already carrying numerous items, so packing a complete first aid kit isn’t something we have room for, but, it’s so important that you have a few essentials.
If you’ll be somewhere where there is a real threat of shooting, then make sure you are carrying CAT tourniquet, Quikclot, and chest seal, and light trauma shears with a blunt tip — and that they are easily accessible, like your vest pocket.
If shooting isn’t a threat, make sure you have at least compression bandages on you at all times.
Packing for a Protest: Breastfeeding Edition
Since having my son, packing for a protest took on a whole new meaning for me. Breastfeeding and, all its glory, means that my list has needed amending.
It’s important that you streamline your packing, while, at the same time, making sure you don’t compromise your health. There are several things I need in order to maintain my breastfeeding relationship with my son when I’m in the field.
Portable Breast Pump — I use the Spectra S9 Plus which is lightweight, doesn’t make much noise and is battery operated. I researched many on the market, and the S9 ticked all my boxes. I love that it’s discreet and doesn’t come with all the bulk! Also, don’t forget to keep hand wipes with you in case there isn’t a place to clean your equipment off.
Scarf/Shawl — One of my must haves. Before my son, I always had a scarf with me when I packed for a protest as there are numerous uses. I use a shawl so I don’t have to search for a broom closet or bathroom to go pump in.
Breast Pumping Sports Bra — Super important to be able to work and pump. The normal breastfeeding bras aren’t made for physical activity in my opinion. When I got this it was a game-changer.
TriLens Belt Attachment — The TriLens was the best Kickstarter campaign I’ve ever invested in. It keeps my lens’ on my hip for easy access. Being pregnant and breastfeeding has done a number on my back, so the less weight I can carry there the better. I HIGHLY recommend this product. It’s awesome.
Massager, Vitamins and Comb — That may sound like an odd combo, but I’m sure other mothers can relate to the pain and frustration of clogged milk ducts. I’m highly susceptible to them. It’s hard on me physically when I’m away from my baby, and I can’t tell you how many times I thought I was getting mastitis while on a multi-day assignment.
A breast massager (it seriously looks like a vibrator) is very helpful for getting a duct unclogged. Also, I take sunflower supplements which help thin my milk out. And finally, this is where the comb comes in, I get in a hot shower and comb my boob to get that milk moving! It’s an invaluable tip that was shared with me — believe me it works!
Anything I’ve left out? Leave a comment below and let me know what your protest must haves are!
Disclaimer: To keep my son in diapers, links to Amazon go through their affiliate program. Every order throws a few cents my way. I’m not sponsored or paid for my opinion from any company — all views are completely my own.