There probably isn’t a feeling as frightening as having someone pull a gun on you. Time loses its definition, with seconds, minutes and hours dissolving into one incomprehensible lump, and all that’s left is the quiet anticipation of gunfire. I felt this a few weeks ago while reporting a protest in Braamfontein. Hundreds of disgruntled workers had marched to Pikitup’s Braamfontein offices over a wage dispute and, given that LIVE’s offices are only five minutes away, I hung my camera around my neck and headed to the scene.
What I initially figured would turn out to be nothing more than an unremarkable event – with the usual toyi-toying and occasional trashing of dustbins – soon turned into a very dangerous affair. An hour into the strike, Pikitup’s management called in security to deal with the protesting workers and it was nothing short of scandalous. On arrival, the security guards pulled their guns on the protesters before promptly pepper spraying a couple of people and wrestling a pregnant woman to the ground. Thankfully, no one was seriously injured and the protest died down soon afterward.
As a young journalist who’s only just recently entered the practice, nothing could have prepared me for the challenges that come with protest photography. While the profession comes with the obvious danger of bodily harm (like a protester hurling a rock at you or knocking you out with a knobkerrie), there are also a few things that I’ve had to learn on the job that weren’t taught to me in journalism class. I’ve learned that some people might want to beat the snot out of you for taking their picture and how it’s almost always never a good idea to take a picture of the cops (unless you want to be shoved around or have your camera smashed into a million pieces). They don’t teach any of this stuff in college.
Another invaluable lesson I’ve had to learn quickly is that mobs are not your friend. Given that tensions are always high at protests, mobs change their moods faster than the projectiles they hurl at police officials. One minute they’re laughing with you and posing for pictures, the next they’re shouting an assortment of four-letter words at you while telling you that “you have no right” to take their picture. I’ve learnt never to take anything said to me at a protest personally. Usually the protesters are just genuinely frustrated that no one is meeting their demands and, given that the people who can address their demands are usually never at strikes, cursing out the photographer is often the next best thing.
With South Africa widely accepted as the protest capital of the world, I’m pretty sure there’ll be another protest to cover soon. If there’s anything I’ve learnt from the few protests that I’ve covered is that we live in a fractured country – which is understandable given that we’re still yet to fully loosen ourselves from the effects of our country’s history. What I hope to achieve with my photography is an accurate documentation of that transition – no matter how ugly it may be.
All photography by Rofhiwa Maneta (@RofhiwaManeta)
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