A Photographer’s Perspective of The 2017 Boston Women’s March

First I’d like to thank Joanna Shea O’Brien, Mari Badger and Sarah Gusy of the BWMFA Marketing & Communications group for providing me with an official hat and badge to give me extra comfort in photographing the event. They also provided a nice hub to escape the crowds and recharge equipment. Our press passes, which would have provided us with more access, were re-distributed so that small, indie outlets like CNN could cover the larger-than-anticipated event. But no-matter, I wanted to be in with the people anyways.

This is not a political post. It will discuss the challenges and rewards of photographing the Boston Women’s March on January 21, 2017. I love everybody.

I armed myself with my standard 70-200mm lens, but had reservations about a zoom being my main lens. The huge crowds could make shooting from a distance near impossible as the lens requires a bit of distance to function and focus properly. People and signs could easily get in the way unexpectedly. In the end it provided a worthwhile challenge and I only took out my wide angle lens for about 30 minutes, just enough time to make it seem worth carrying on my back all day.

I had never photographed a march or protest on this large scale before. The closest thing in my experience would be a parade, which often involve protesting, especially Honk! and pride parades. But the massive number of people at this event made for a new set of rules, and a set of rules I had to conceive of on the fly.

Signed People

The photo one would expect from a march or protest is a passionate person holding a sign, and with no surprise, those photos made up the majority of my day’s collection. I have written before (see Fiddling Blog) about eye contact and in most all cases I find it to be distracting and inauthentic in most types of photography. This was an unexpected exception. A protester that made eye contact with the camera gave the impression that the marcher was speaking their message directly with the photographer, and later, the image viewer.

A photographer can’t ask for eye contact. My role was to capture the event while interfering as little as possible. A scream of “look at me” would have been disruptive and likely unheard or unacknowledged. When no eye contact was made, the image, to me, appeared more somber and powerful. They expressed their message to the world and not to a single person for that tiny second.

The flow of people, at times, could best be described as a flood. I likely knew hundreds of people who attended the march, and hundreds of them could have walked passed me at anytime. The chance of me noticing a specific face was incredibly unlikely. But in capturing that flood it was important to me to focus in on one person, especially given my lens of choice where it shines best with a narrow depth-of-field.

I could not stand on the ground while the endless surged passed by. I had to get to (slightly) higher ground to get photos that didn’t have have innocent viewers obstructing my shots. This included a park bench (in the commons), a cement plant container (on Boylston St.) and the steps of brownstones on Charles St. and Comm. Ave. If a police officer had told me to get down I would have politely obliged and thought “ya, I shouldn’t be standing there”. But people were peaceful and relatively safe so I think they just let some things slide that day.

I can’t capture the flood as a whole and have the photo do the flow any justice. It would appear underwhelming. Instead, capturing a specific person among the flood gave the photo the proper feeling of infinite depth, while also conveying the message of the person or people in focus. In these cases, the person is the important focal point, but the sign needs to be visible in its entirely, which was an added challenge. Even when a corner of white-space was cut off of frame the photo, to me, was unsettled.

A sign without an obvious person holding it appears rogue and impersonal, and ironically in a sea of people it can seem lonely. They are powerful in their own way, but not my personal favorite variety.

Reaching for a View

There were a lot of people there. By my count, millions. By people who are good at estimates, 175k.

During the speeches people got creative. The used fences, trees, baseball backstops, traffic lights and shoulders. Their view improved, as did the opportunity for some unique photography.

A Dance Party Erupts

The crossing of Arlington St. and Comm. Ave is a busy intersection requiring patience to cross. But on march day an idling firetruck blocked traffic and a dance party erupted. A single hula-hooper started the party, accompanied by a few percussionists who provided something to dance too. It quickly grew into something much larger.

It was at this point that I was driven to change lenses. My wide angle lens would better capture everyone instead of focusing in on the details (my usual preference).

I kept the lens on for a few more minutes, but mostly using it for from-the-hip shots, or more realistically, from-the-air shots. I’d hold the camera over my head and hoped for the best. It’s about a 1% chance of success. To get a photo of a single person or group would require me to get far too close to the subject. With a 18mm lens I’d have to get uncomfortable close for something usable and to a non-photographer this would seem very obtrusive, and a bit odd.

The Gang and the Squat

The title of this section isn’t self-explanatory? Fine. I’ll discuss.

If there are no additional barriers my preferred angle to shot from is from a squatting position. I can catch a piece of the ground to establish a bit more depth then I would from a more comfortable standing position. Squatting (picture a catcher’s position) doesn’t work when there’s a flood of marchers and spectators. I’d have nothing but shots of knees. This position shined when marchers went out of the flood for a bit and entered their own stream on a side street or park. I could snipe them (in the nicest use of the term) with less risk of interference.

A group of people positioned just right in this situation caused a more epic image. I could imagine these being stills from a movie, and being put into slow-motion for dramatic effect. A photo-shopped explosion behind the people would not seem out of place.

Ending with a Kiss

The best time for photography is often a few hours before the sun sets. In summer we have the golden hour that gives everyone’s head a pleasant golden halo. But in the winter the sun isn’t quite strong enough in the late afternoon. Instead, we have very forgiving lighting with less risk of a washed-out and over-exposed photo.

The crowd had thinned a bit at this time and I was taking some shots of couples and groups walking down the still-shutdown Charles Street. But the photos had become boring and I wanted something more. The couples I saw were understandably tired. So was I. I’m not a catcher and that much squatting gets painful after a while. I decided to get a bit adventurous and extrovertive.

I saw a couple holding hands and as they approached me, about 20 feet away, I scream “can you kiss?”. It was very noisy out so I couldn’t really tell if they heard me or not. I pushed my 2 index fingers together, which at the time seemed like the appropriate and non-creepy way to say “kiss” in sign language. I understand that it is not and I don’t know why I thought that. It was a better choice than making a kissing gesture with my mouth.

Every person I asked was overjoyed at the invitation. The idea could have gone very poorly but I think it was just the right environment, and time of day, to get the response I was looking for. All I really wanted was a peck on the cheek or lips, but what I got was typically 5+ seconds of serious kissing. One couple even went as far as removing their jackets and fixing themselves up a bit. Everyone was excited to participate.

So when’s the next march?

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