News & Politics

What It’s Like Photographing a Protest for the First Time

One journalist's trial by fire during the contentious "Bush v. Gore" Supreme Court decision.

Protesters outside the Supreme Court the day Bush v. Gore was decided. Photograph by Mark Wilson/Newsmakers.

The lens popped off and fell into my hand. I cradled the bulbous object while peering into the sightless body it had left behind. I’d never held a camera with a detachable lens, but there I was with one—just out of college, lucky and nervous—in the headquarters of the national broadcast network where I worked. It was December 2000, and I’d just been asked by a producer if I could take photos at the Supreme Court on the day Bush v. Gore was to be decided.

My job was to help bring the network’s cultural shows together with its website, but this was unexpected: Would I forgo my music project to head out to the protest site with a digital SLR so the website could continue displaying original photography of the scene?

The producer wanted shots of “everything.” I’d written for the Washington Post and taken videos of musicians, but I was no photojournalist. I felt twitchy, terrified. “It’ll be safe,” he said. I thanked him and ran out, hugging my pricey tool to my body as if it were a Stradivarius.

I’d rarely tried my journalistic hand anywhere outside of a concert hall, but after a rushed Metro ride with a videographer, I arrived at 1 First Street. The collective anger was palpable. People screeched, pumped signs, slapped hands. TV correspondents reported live while journalists with recorders shoved to get ahead of me. I shot like crazy—spinning, pushing, whirring through the crowds, surprised I had an actual sense of proprioception.

In my job, I’d learned about ambient audio—capturing the sound of a scene—but this was about imagery. My skills as a multimedia producer didn’t include camera work or mob psychology, but I knew that if I didn’t get every shot I could, the network wouldn’t have its own photos of protesters on one of the most important days in political history.

I plunged in, entangling my limbs with strangers’. More than once I almost tripped, then saved myself (and the Canon EOS), like an awkward bar mitzvah dancer. I photographed an older man crying through a sea of screaming mouths; hands grasping in the air; people my age, miserable that their first presidential vote might not count. I also caught a feeling inside me: that I was much more a part of my news organization and my nation than I’d realized.

Back at HQ, I handed off the camera, memory card full, to a producer I’d never met. Had she come down from a different department? No matter—it was our job to band together, document the “stolen election,” and more important, inform our audience of what had happened that day.

My first published, if uncredited, photo appeared that evening. I was alone and not particularly proud of it: It was just passable. But the entire presentation—the audio, the reports, the stats—made me happy (giddy, really) that I had been a part of this honest, large-scale media endeavor.

I would return to my regular duties but would never forget that first chance I had to observe, and participate in, real reporting in the field. I’d been an apolitical kid, but the experience changed me into someone for whom politics would always matter.

That night, after looking at the work I’d shot at the Supreme Court, I called a friend. He lived in rural California and didn’t “trust the media”; in fact, after the day’s events, he was despondent. I told him that I, too, felt robbed of the President I wanted but that, even if I considered the election results unfair, I was more committed to journalism than ever.

He was glad for me—but that was all.

This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of Washingtonian.