Martin Middlebrook describes how he came to be photographing the ‘Gilet Jaune’ riots and shares some learnings on how he stays safe
In 2011 I was in Kabul, and had spent time with the Afghan man I lived with, trying to get security information for an upcoming religious ceremony, which takes place across the Islamic world annually. My guy was well connected with the security services and he warned me repeatedly not to go. His previous intelligence had always been accurate, but I was determined to have this as part of my portfolio. So finally I went, with a colleague, a Canadian war photographer. We were in a seething crowd, hundreds, who were self-flagellating as is the central part of the Ashura ceremony. My guy had told me that if I was determined to go, stay twenty minutes, no longer and leave. But in the heat of such things time passes, and moments like this come around so rarely, that you stay anyway. Who knows when they might come again?
After an hour, my colleague came over to me and said he was hungry, it was time for lunch, time to leave. We argued over this for perhaps ten minutes as I still had shots I wanted, but eventually, under the testosterone assault you come to expect of all good war photographers, I capitulated, we jumped into my fixer’s car and left. Within minutes, a suicide bomber detonated where I had just been standing for the past hour, killing ninety innocents. By the time we returned having fought our way through roadblocks and negotiating with secret police for access, the last of the bodies were just being loaded onto the back of flatbed trucks, and what remained was a street painted with blood, partial remains of exploded flesh, and an angry mob. As we moved gently towards the scene the crowd turned on me, hurling rocks and throwing punches.
I ran for my life as people chased me. The road seemed like a chilling, demented tunnel with people closing in on all sides, rocks flying past my head, the feeling of people clutching at me from behind as I ran in hope of safety. Twice, I found Afghan police who I begged for help, but they just hit me with their AK47’s and threw me back towards the crowd. I got tripped by a man and went flying head first into the tarmacked road, somersaulted and in one movement rebounded to my feet and kept running. Blood poured from my head and my lens was smashed. But still I ran, until two men grabbed me and threw me in the back of a car and drove off. For a while they wouldn’t speak with me, I didn’t know who they were or where they were taking me, and I was just as anxious as I had been with the angry mob. But in time they showed me their badges, Afghan secret police, and I relaxed into a few days of concussion and explaining my behaviour to family members.
Two years later and comfortably living in Paris, I heard of riots on the Champs Élysée and felt a sour temptation to go and shoot it. But something stopped me. Fear. I was just scared of angry mobs now, and I couldn't defeat it. The next day, the French news bulletins were full of images of photographer’s being attacked and beaten and I was just damn relieved that I had stayed at home. The truth is that I was still scarred, still traumatised from my attack in Kabul.
Then in November 2017, after a day of protests and violence in Paris, a large group of ‘Gilet Jaune’, yellow vests, started to riot in my street, setting fire to anything they could lay their hands on. It was late afternoon, so I grabbed my cameras, found my way through the roadblocks, and after being stopped by several riot police, found a neat route past their prying eyes, and headed into the middle of the battle. The thing is, I needed to get back on the bike. You can only put these things in a box for so long, and it had been long enough.
On that first evening I was tear gassed three times, and spent, frankly, a happy couple of hours, listening to the crescendo of stun grenades, gasping for breath and wiping stinging eyes. And shooting. It felt good. It felt better than good.
Everyone knew that the following week, the protests were going to ratchet up a notch or two, so on the Friday evening, I prepared all my kit, and then headed out the following morning. I joined with a company from the CRS, France’s famed riot police, and walked from Place de la Concorde, along various streets, up Boulevard Haussmann until we arrived at the Arc de Triomphe, the site of the main battle. As the water cannons and tear gas, flash bombs and stun grenades began to take effect, people retreated in large, now angry groups, looking for any conduit to escape, or cause further trouble. I spent the next six hours with various companies of the CRS, moving gently between them and the protestors, as the security forces tried to control the destruction.
It was slow progress, baton charges followed by reinforcement, taking stock and so on. A hundred meters here, fifty there. At one point I found myself with perhaps ten CRS and another photographer. We were the meat in the rioter’s sandwich, a small pocket of safety between a hundred or so up the street, the same in the other direction - with absolutely no escape route. One of the rioters threw a large bag filled with rocks which hit the other photographer, and he collapsed. Two CRS officers carried him off to the side of the road, and I gave them my phone to call for help. We formed a protective barrier around him whilst we waited. When it was clear that he was OK, I started chatting with the CRS company commander, and asked if they had sent for reinforcements given our precarious situation, and he said, ‘I hope so or else we are all dead’. As is often the case in such moments, we smiled and then laughed - what else to do.
As the day progressed, as dusk arrived, the riots were ramping up, with cars alight and the air acrid with smoke and gas. I shot it all, until in time the protestors melted away into the night and I headed the same way, negotiating with the police for access along the way, until after the most circuitous travel, I arrived home, and began my edit. The whole thing had been an almost zen-like experience - I had let this terrible fear fester for seven years, let it root me to the spot when it came to angry crowds but now I felt that I had finally laid it to rest. As a photojournalist, these are the moments that you want to be in the middle of. You don’t want to see it on TV the next day, and regret. I couldn’t have lived with myself if I had seen all my colleagues posting their work and I had shied away - and in no time at all of course, they all did.
And on the plus side, my wife gave me a massive ear full when I got home, and my daughter said she would never speak with me again if I even thought about heading back to the madding crowd. Which of course I immediately did.
Some photos from the ‘Gilet Jaune’ riots
To read Martin’s blog and see more photos – click here
What I’ve learned about photographing in complex situations
Last week I attended an event at the SPEOS International School of Photography, where I will be giving a lecture in March. After, I was talking with some of the students, sharing thoughts and opinions, they asked for advice on how to shoot in complex situations such as the French riots.
Back in 2011, when that bomb went off and a multitude died, as I was returning to the scene, Jason Howe, a friend and war photographer, texted me to say whatever you do, don’t go back. But when there is an attack in Kabul, the security services cut all comms, and the message was never received. Unwittingly I was walking into a trap. Jason had already heard that western photographers at that dreadful incident had been turned on. It was big lesson and one that you can’t really easily learn from a book. A year later, Jason and I setup the Conflict Photography Workshop, with a view to imparting just this kind of knowledge. What you learn from these moments is that in the list of priorities, taken pictures is sixth. This may seem odd because that’s why you are there. But it was my desire to take pictures that nearly got me killed in Kabul.
What keeps you safe are some of the following things:
- 360° situational awareness. Know as much as you can about everything that’s going on around you. Not just in front, but from every single angle, including the ‘rock throwing’ above you. Don’t become attached to your viewfinder and know your exit strategy.
- People skills. There were plenty of moments when I was with the protestors, when as things became more complex it was safer for me to gravitate back towards the CRS. But they need to trust you. They have a job to do and you will be in their way. I spend more time building relationships with them, watching exactly how they operate, so that they will let me work with them - and they will offer protection when it’s needed. I offered my phone to help a colleague, but also to gain trust. The downside to this is that you may be perceived by the rioters as part of this systemic enemy ‘the state’, so you need to go back and forth in an almost invisible fashion.
- Intelligence. As things stand at the moment, for the rioters and protesters, French channel BFM TV are hated, because they have continually represented them as violent thugs. Four times I have been asked by fairly dissolute individuals if I work for BFM. Clearly I don’t anyway, but if you get that kind of information wrong, you may be on the wrong end of a beating.
- Clothing and safety. All the press I was with were wearing gas masks and hard hats. Most were also wearing vests with ‘press’ emblazoned on them. I choose not to do that, because I don’t really want to be a particular target, I like to be low key drifting between places of no consequence. For many this is stupid, and it’s hard to disagree. But whatever you do, think of comfort and safety. You have no idea where you are going to end up, the weather conditions will change, you may be walking for ten hours.
- Peaceful scenes can turn ugly in an instant. Never get complacent.
If you do choose to take some pictures in these sort of circumstances, always remember, that no picture is ever more important than your safety
Martin Middlebrook - Photographer, Writer, Director
Martin originally trained as a wildlife artist before commencing a career as a commercial photographer, eventually turning to photojournalism full time. He has worked extensively around the world on projects as diverse as conservation and refugees. He has also directed for TV. Martin has written over 80 articles for many of the UK’s leading photography magazines, including being lead columnist for Professional Photographer Magazine. He lived and worked in Afghanistan for a year producing a body of work that went on to exhibit at the British Museum. He presently lives in Paris.Photographing the 'Gilet Jaune' Paris Riots - by Martin Middlebrook appeared first on Blog.