We've had a large number of contributions to our coverage of the ongoing riots in London. We're deeply grateful to everyone who's uploaded images of the violence and its aftermath - we hope that you're all taking good care of yourselves and avoiding risks as far as is possible. We're very excited about your fantastic photos, but we're far more interested in all of you staying safe and not getting hurt.
I caught up with one of our contributors, HeardinLondon, on the phone this afternoon to talk about how she found herself covering the violence in Tottenham over the weekend.
Twitter as a source of breaking news
Her first point is one with which we'll all be familiar at this stage - she heard about what was happening through Twitter. Even if you'd rather avoid sharing the details of your movements and breakfast with the world, you don't have to tweet to get the benefit of the service. If you choose who you follow carefully, balancing established news sources, other citizen journalists and people in your local area can give you a fantastic breaking news feed which will often be even quicker than the 24-hour news channels.
One thing to point out, though, is that Twitter may not provide a complete picture. HeardinLondon tells me that she originally headed into Tottenham to cover what she thought was a contained incident of a police car being set on fire. "If I'd have known what had been going on, I wouldn't have gone," she says. Check as many sources as you can before setting out to cover an event - it could be the difference between a successful shoot and a trip to the hospital.
Who is impartial?
HeardinLondon calls herself "very much a political leftie", who has been photographing street protests, demonstrations and other events for around eight years. She says that she's "midway between being involved and an observer," something which often made her angry with coverage in the newspapers of events she had attended. To her, it seemed like papers often chose photographs to illustrate stories about these events which weren't representative of the atmosphere on the ground. "I wanted some kind of documentation," she explains, "rather than just hunting the picture that sells or that fits an agenda."
Think about safety - and improvise
None of this is to say that the Tottenham riots fit into this familiar pattern - as HeardinLondon says, "I very much felt that had my identity been disclosed, I would have been in danger." This brings her on to the subject of safety - and some unconventional tips. "I tend to be on my bike," she says, "and make sure that I keep my cycle helmet on. Being able to scoot out of there quickly makes a big difference."
The cycle helmet serves a double purpose as well - HeardinLondon recalls a moment during TUC protests in June when she fell against a wall after being pushed. Fortunately, the helmet protected her head. This is a passable stopgap solution, but remember that this type of helmet isn't designed to protect you from blows or assault - HeardinLondon has been quite lucky here. "If I'd known what had been going on, I wouldn't have gone," she says, and she's right - there's no good reason to consciously and deliberately put yourself in the level of danger that you might experience in such violent environments.
She goes on to point out that you need to take care with how people around you are perceiving you - "I was wearing a flourescent jacket, but I wouldn't do that again -everyone assumes you're a copper." This was also a reason why she avoided too many interactions with police - when a violent confrontation is going on, anyone who seems able to approach the police with impunity is likely to become a target.
Lastly, remember that your role as a journalist and an observer can sometimes afford you some protection from the hostility you may encounter. "People were very suspicious of me at first, but were won over very quickly when they saw I wanted to hear what they had to say," says HeardinLondon. "I think it would have been even better if I had had a press card."
So, to reiterate; if you can, avoid violence. There are journalists who make it their business to cover violent events, and they are usually backed up by large organisations with appropriate equipment and training. If you can't avoid it, then try and make sure that your position is clear; you're there to document events, not to take a position - and certainly not to collaborate with whatever antagonists might be present.
Update: Further tips
ODS offers some useful tips in the comments below, in the event that you do find yourself covering civil unrest:
- Know the area! If you don't know the neighborhood or the city, you can get lost and drawn into unwanted situations.
- Whenever possible, work in groups of photographers. This way you can avoid attacks by the police or rioters.
- When objects are being thrown, take cover. A corner, a phone box... can serve as a parapet.
- Wide-angle photos, will never be the best. Use the tele, if the situation permits, you can take your images cleaner and work safe.
- Always watch the movements of both rioters and police. You can easily find yourself in the crossfire.