With Trump Threatening to Track Protestors Down, Should Photojournalists Show Faces in Photos?

With Trump Threatening to Track Protestors Down, Should Photojournalists Show Faces in Photos?

I’ve covered protests in my time as a photojournalist and photojournalism educator, and there are always a chorus of conspiracy theorists postulating that by posting photos that show protestors’ faces, you’re setting them up to later be hunted down and killed and/or imprisoned. The thing is, a leaked phone call on Monday of President Donald Trump talking to the nation’s governors has all but confirmed that this is happening, or at least that the ostensible leader of the U.S. government wants this to happen.

And so maybe it’s time for us photojournalists to change our tune. Sort of.

Names and faces give photos power. If people are tiny ants in a photo, it’s harder to convey visceral emotion in the moment. Think back to the Kent State shootings, where an anguished Marry Ann Vecchio screams over the body of a student killed by the Ohio National Guard, or Nick Ut’s Napalm Girl (her name is Phan Thị Kim Phúc OOnt) photo from the Vietnam War or more recently Jonathan Bachman’s photograph of protester Ieshia Evans being arrested in Baton Rouge protesting the death of Alton Sterling in 2016.

We know who the people are in these photos, and what the story is behind each photo. We connect with the photos on an emotional level, whether it’s feeling the anguish of someone who just witnessed a murder, the pain of the young girl who was hit in a napalm attack or the look of calm on Evans’ face even as she knows she is being arrested. It is 100% important to have faces in a photo. But it’s equally as important to have names, and here’s where the calls to not show faces may have some merit - and what can be done to create compelling photojournalism while also maintaining safety from a government determined to transform the United States into a surveillance state.

If you’re going to have a face in a photo, have a name. Having a name means you’ve talked to the person and are using the photo with their full knowledge of that fact and the consequences that may or may not follow.

The “Journalism” in Photojournalism

One of the things that saddens me to see in protest coverage is a photojournalist that only commits to the “photo” part of the job title. It’s something you’re still seeing in protest coverage even today, from photographers and organizations I’ve written about before. Protests are often fast moving, yes, and many will argue that you can’t get the names of everyone all the time. That’s true. But you can get the names of a lot of people a lot of time, it just takes patience.

Synead Nichols (center) lead this Black Lives Matter March (dubbed the Millions March) in New York City in 2014 as a response to the killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. She was a little busy in this photo, but I was later able to walk and talk with her after this moment.

In the middle of a heated confrontation with police, it’s difficult, if not impossible to get names. But the people protesting aren’t only there for the five minutes of heated confrontation that you happened to photograph. People stay in a general area for a while at many protests, sometimes for hours after the action ends. If the protest is for a righteous cause — such as black lives being important, or economic injustice, for instance — there’s a good chance the people there are friendly and will not mind if you walk up, identify yourself as a journalist, and ask for a name. Many want their story to be told, though I can see instances where that might not happen, of course, such as at a rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Rare has it been for me to use a photo that I didn’t have a name for in a protest. In the rare instance I used a photo without a name, it’s because the action being depicted and showing what happened are the most important considerations. I’m always keeping an eye on people I’ve photographed, waiting for the right moment to walk up and ask for a name and some background info.

These are journalistic rules drilled into every intro-level photography student, but are thrown out when it becomes inconvenient or it is perceived to be impractical to do so.

Are There Formal Rules?

There’s no license or certification needed to be a journalist, but there are codes that proscribe best practices and acceptable behavior. The Society of Professional Journalists has this to say about this particular situation:

“Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.

Journalists should:

– Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.

– Show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage. Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles, victims of sex crimes, and sources or subjects who are inexperienced or unable to give consent. Consider cultural differences in approach and treatment. 

– Recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast. 

– Realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures and others who seek power, influence or attention. Weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting personal information.”

Trump’s phone call with governors demonstrates why it’s more important than ever to do the work of getting names and talking to sources in your photos. It’s the “don’t be an asshole” rule of journalism. With the president’s inclination to identify, track and arrest people for exercising the constitutional right to protest, journalists should now seriously weigh the pros and the cons of posting a photo where a protestor they have not talked to can be identified.

Ultimately, it’s important to remember photojournalists put their lives on the line right next to protestors to create photos that impact the public’s perception of an event. Just check out how close Luis Sinco of the Los Angeles Times came to being hit in the face with a rubber bullet in the Tweet below:


Being photographed at a protest amplifies the message a protestor is trying to send. But if photojournalists want to be good citizens of the community they are covering, they should also make every effort to identify and talk to the people who appear in their photographs.

In these uncertain times, a person’s life could depend on it.

Lead image by Daniel Passapera, used with permission.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Wasim Ahmad is an assistant teaching professor teaching journalism at Quinnipiac University. He's worked at newspapers in Minnesota, Florida and upstate New York, and has previously taught multimedia journalism at Stony Brook University and Syracuse University. He's also worked as a technical specialist at Canon USA for Still/Cinema EOS cameras.

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I could very well be wrong, but I don't necessarily think this was about "protestors" but more so the people inciting violence and damaging/burning property for no real reason other than being complete assholes. I'm all for protesting but the ones that are destroying property are taking the voice away from those that want real change, they're turning parts of the country against the real movement.

Then again, I don't trust the government anyway so who knows what could/is happen(ing)

If it was only that simple; there are lots of videos online where police force is being used against peaceful protestors before curfew hours -- just like the protestors themselves have been infiltrated by looters/anarchists, some police are behaving like counter protestor eager to seek revenge on their enemy.

Trust me I get it, this whole thing is a gigantic mess.

Correction, track down the instigators, rioters and looters. Unless, you're trying to say the peaceful protestors were the ones causing the damages; or you're turning a blind eye to the damages.

CNN and WaPo, lol, I see where you get your style of "journalism".

Could be far worse. Could be Fox 'News'.

There is no punishment for peaceful protest. So, for them no issue. Now if they are committing crimes, by looting (theft), or destroying property (a crime against a fellow citizen at best, terrorism at worst), then I hope the images help track them down and punish them.

The right to peaceful assembly to address grievances is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution, and is extended to the 14th Amendment which forbids States from enacting laws counter to this right. Both have been upheld by the SCOUS.

There are no such protections for rioters.

"There is no punishment for peaceful protest." In a perfect world you would be correct. But a little awareness of history may help you understand. There's the example of Martin Luther King, Jr., a peaceful protestor. But the FBI described him as "the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country." Despite the Constitution, he was surveilled and wiretapped. Threatened. Ultimately killed.

lol. When the hell has constitutional protection ever stopped Trump? Releasing the military under the Insurrection Act without the request or approval of the governors is unconstitutional. Banning members of the media from attending WH press conferences because you don't like them is unconstitutional.

But sure.

Correction- the entire country is a mess.

"Dem states" subsidize the "Repub states" by quite a lot. And sorry, the president doesn't just get to decide to "step in" because he feels like it. The Constitution didn't say "unless the president thinks that the governors should do what he wants."

Your comment is yet another example of how Trump has convinced y'all that there are "Dem states" and non Dem states and the Dem states are evil. As if tons of Republicans don't live there. But he doesn't give a damn about them, he'll withhold funding or emergency federal aid just because a governor was mean to him.

Like, do y'all realize that borders are literally made up? He is supposed to be the president of the UNITED states. Not the states that give him electoral votes.

It's sad how everyone eats this garbage up.

That hasn't happened, so it's another right-wing false narrative.

You're right. They just want to disband the police entirely.

No, that's just more right-wing deliberate distortion of the facts.

I appreciate you sharing the public comment I made on our own Twitter feed that helps better explain what Trump's recording (linked in the first paragraph) said about using photographs to track down protestors. Such actions from the government will have lasting ramifications for photojournalism.

I take it you didn't listen to the recording. If you did, it's pretty clear, from the beginning, he was referring to the violent actors. Now, I realize it's 55:44 mins long so no doubt it would have taken too much time out of your journalism to get the facts right. Sad you teach journalism.

You journalists are tracking down innocent citizens on a daily basis to "shame" and "cancel" them. Even teenagers. Doxxing is what you do on others everyday, you have become the "KGB fishwife version" of the US society. Malicious gossip on others your profession and legacy. Don't like it when it happens to those you support? What about when people protested against the recording of all London citizens? You called those who protested "right wing nazis" because the cameras were installed mostly by a leftist government.

Can you cite an example of a legitimate journalist "doxxing" a teenager? Or "tracking down innocent citizens"? I mean it happens every day apparently, so it should be easy for you.

Ahh another politically motivated article here...I wish there was a way to block certain authors, so I could see actual news instead of opinion pieces

Um, this is serious news right now.

you literally did not have to click it or read it

Very misleading headline and content from a journalism professor, IMO.

The only people being tracked down are ANTIFA (read: imported riot instigators) and their handlers & funders. It completely undermines the sacrosanct righteousness of the actual protestors to conflate these in such a causally misleading way.

Very misleading comment. From what I have read, there are instigators on both side of the political spectrum, or do you take a blind eye to the groups on the right? Didn’t Twitter just took down a alt right group account that was posting as a Antifa group?

The wet dream of every government in this planet's history, was to spy on its citizens. In the US, since the days of the NSA, and then via the voluntary (!!!) provision of information by the citizens themselves (!!!!!), who do it with pleasure and without compensation (!!!!!!!!!) on Social Media, to start raging all of a sudden "hey, this president is spying on me", is laughable. Bush, Obama, Apple, Microsoft , Huawei etc, are all aware not only of what you are doing, but what you will do next. Since we already know that, what's the purpose of this article? Btw, has anyone of you seen the numbers of government cameras in London in the last 10 years?

You can't "spy" on citizens when they're in public spaces. Same reason photographers can take pics of people in public places without needing their permission.

There was a case where someone videoed the stripping of an Apple store in DC. The person posted those online and got grief about faces could be seen. His response was that if the authorities wanted the pictures, they were welcome to have them.

This article is a can of worms waiting to be opened, but I'm sure you knew that.

I entirely agree with you. This is a rather terrifying time for journalists. Getting arrested live on TV (CNN) for doing nothing at all. Getting shot in the face and blinded. Getting arrested (who knows how many hundreds that's happened to). Getting tear gassed and beaten.

But Trump has been courting this for years. His "enemy of the people" rhetoric was not a mistake. It's how the worst dictators and fascists in history have worked - convince people that facts aren't facts and that all of the media is against you and that it's fake news and then convince people to actively hate the media and see them as the enemy.

Ok everyone, go ahead and downvote now.

Spot on! Plus the local reporter in Minneapolis get chased down by and cop as he was walking away.

There are protesters and violent protesters. The fact that you don't distinguish between the two in your title is insulting. Also Trump doesn't track down criminals, law enforcement does.

The political facts are instability is the truth at this moment. And to be honest - i'm happy i'm not living in the USA at this moment.

Even in such a climate the photographer has the duty to keep things in balance.

Is that a political talk? I don't think it is. He's making us think about our moral obligations.

This can differ a little bit for every person - but with a simple usage of common sense we all know what we have to do. Keep ourselves save and try to keep the ones we interfere with safe.