Gaza Flotilla Protest

The central part of Whitehall close to Downing Street was already fairly crowded when I arrived, and the rally which I had been told would start at 1.30pm was already in full swing a quarter of an hour earlier.

It’s always a bit of a problem to know when to turn up for demonstrations; often I arrive early and hang around for ages until the protesters turn up, and occasionally I’ve given up and gone away before things have actually started.  Also probably around one in ten of the events I find or am sent information about never actually take place at all or at a different time or place than the information I’m given. But this one was certainly going to happen, and if it wasn’t quite on the massive scale the seven or so groups organising it had hoped, there were probably close to 20,000 by the end.

One of the vital skills you need to learn to cover demonstrations is how to get to the right place at the right time. Often, as in this case, it means pushing your way through tightly packed crowds. You need to to have a certain amount of confidence in your right to do so and to keep saying “Excuse me” to people as you push past. Usually it works and I was soon in a good position to photograph the speakers at the rally.

There was a small area around the microphones surrounded by barriers which I probably could have gained entrance to with my press card, but it was really too small, and there were too many people – mainly stewards – in it already. The main group organising the event were ‘Stop The War‘ and I’ve found them to be one of the most photographer unfriendly organisations in the universe, and today was no exception. On previous occasions I’ve been deliberately assaulted by their stewards, and on other occasions narrowly escaped serious injury as they pushed me roughly backwards. On one memorable occasion, the photographers present were so outraged at the treatment we were getting that we actually sat down on Park Lane and halted the demonstration until we were allowed to take some photographs.

So I kept outside the pen to get a decent working distance and avoid the stewards, just in case. Unfortunately both here and at the rally at the end of the march opposite the Israeli embassy in Kensington – where I again kept outside the barriers – there were too many stewards in the way, along with a few people with camcorders  (rather than professional video equipment) who I imagine were working for free for one of the seven organising bodies but also rather blocked the view for those of us outside. Had I been working inside, I would have had the courtesy to keep my head down, certainly when I was not actually taking pictures, and stewards should simply be kept out of the way.

To photograph people speaking I like to be far enough away not have to point my camera up at them at a steep angle, and preferably to be able to get a tightly framed head shot with a focal length of perhaps 100-150mm.

© 2010, Peter Marshall
Stop the War stewards keep the press at a distance. Why?

Before the start of the march, when people are lining up, it’s good to be able to approach the front of the march fairly closely to take some pictures, preferably without any stewards to get in the way. That way you can usually get some good images of those who are leading the march. But at Stop The War organised events such as this, photographers are generally kept quite a distance away, and on this occasion I found myself shooting with a 200mm from around 20 metres when I would prefer to be working with a 28mm or even shorter.

© 2010, Peter Marshall
One of those held prisoner on the ship talks about the experience

Its perhaps less of a problem for some of the other photographers who carry huge lenses (something of a status symbol, particularly for Canon users who favour lenses elephantine in size and an off-white colour, and which I think really should be provided with a bearer.) But I only use a really long lens when I have to – like the Summer when I got Arts Council money to photograph women’s cricket – nice people but as well as the pictures here I also photographed the games.

So my 200mm is a slow 55-200mm, all of 340 g and 4 inches long with the hood reversed.  It’s a Sigma DC lens, f4-5.6 and no longer made, but noticeably sharper than the Nikon 18-200 zoom (which I managed to write off a couple of weeks back in any case.) Although only designed to cover the smaller DX format, by removing a few mm from the nicely effective lens hood, it also gives pretty acceptable results on full frame FX from around 70mm up (more here.) Compared to the elephant trunk lenses it looks a toy, but it delivers pretty well.

More pictures in Gaza Flotilla Atrocity Protest on My London Diary.

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