Refugee Protest 1

Photographing a Refugee Protest – By Ali MC

Like many photographers, I’ve always aspired to become a photojournalist. However, the global media industry is rapidly changing and the ‘golden era’ of photojournalism – featuring the globe-trotting likes of Sir Don McCullin and James Nachtwey – is in decline.

Yet I’ve been fortunate enough to develop a side hustle writing and photographing feature articles for publications such as Al Jazeera, SBS, The Guardian and others.

Recently I covered a story for Al Jazeera about the ongoing human rights issue of refugees and asylum seekers in Australia. Over the past 15 years, the Australian Government has developed a very strict immigration policy, which ensures that anyone seeking asylum and arriving by boat will never be permanently settled here.

Not content with this policy – which is a direct contravention of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, to which Australia is a signatory – anyone arriving by boat has been locked up in offshore detention centres in far flung islands such as Manus and Nauru.

There, refugees and asylum seekers are confined in horrendous conditions in what can only be described as prison camps, often for years at a time in legal limbo awaiting an outcome of their refugee application status. In 2019 a group of men needing medical treatment were transferred to the Australian mainland, and have subsequently been confined to hotel rooms for the last 18 months in a state of permanent lockdown.

I managed to interview one refugee – Farhad Bandesh – who finally was released about his experience, and to add to the article, I photographed a protest that occurred outside one of the prison hotels in Melbourne city.

I had assumed the protest would be relatively peaceful affair, but as has been occurring in Australia recently, a large contingent of police attended in what turned out to be a violent attempt to shut the protest down, which I was able to capture.

While most photojournalists use long-range zooms with all the benefits that digital technology offers – super fast autofocus and multiple burst shots – I seem to be stuck in a previous era.

As I usually shoot film, my preferred method of photography is to use fixed manual lenses and I have carried this process over to digital.

For this shoot, I was using a Sony A7 with a fixed 35mm Carl Zeiss manual lens attached by way of an adaptor, and simply had the camera set to aperture priority mode.

I am not inherently ‘against’ digital technology (and in many cases wind up regretting my outdated approach) I personally find the fixed, manual lens forces me to get closer to the action and compose the photo with a bit more forethought.

My other rationale for using this approach is so that I remain in the habit of shooting in an analogue style, so when I transfer back to film I haven’t lost my technique.

While I am in no means an expert photojournalist, here is a selection of photos that I shot on that day which gives some insight into the way I went about covering the protest.

The image at the top was taken as the protest started peacefully. It was an evening event, the light was on my side. I like this photo as it is clear there is some kind of injustice happening with the raised fist, outlined by the sky. The mask also signifies the Covid restrictions that were in place.

This next image is really just a generic photo that demonstrates what the protest is about – nothing that special, but a solid photo to submit to an editor.

Refugee Protest 2

At one point, a light rain began, and protesters started dancing to the music that was playing, as the protest featured hip hop artists and DJs. Although probably not a very clear photo for publication, I still like this one for the dynamic between the obvious police presence and the positive aspect of the protestors dancing in the rain.

Refugee Protest 3

The police then decided to try to confiscate the sound system and shut down the protest, and a tense standoff began. Being a fixed lens camera, in order to get this shot I had to position myself right between the line of police and the resisting protesters.

Refugee Protest 4

The police then threatened the use of capsicum spray, and while this photo didn’t turn out exactly how I wanted, my aim was to try and capture a dramatic ‘front line’ type of photo. It was at this point I realised if they triggered the capsicum spray I would be in the direct line of fire!

Refugee Protest 5

The police then moved in very heavy handedly, and luckily I was in the right position to capture what was happening. I always find that when shooting events or protests, there is a lot of waiting around but that is also the time to find the right position to be ready if any action is about to happen.

Refugee Protest 6

After two attempts to shut down the sound system – which the protestors resisted – the music continued. This shot is of Melbourne rapper Mr Monk and I like how the raised fist mirrors the sky scrapers of Melbourne’s city skyline in the background – the solidity of the buildings mirrors the strength shown by the protesters standing their ground.

Refugee Protest 7

This last photo is one of my favourites. The protestors were all looking up to the third floor of the hotel where the refugees are located, and the range of emotions in this young woman’s face conjures up the passion she feels for this human rights issue. Again, I am very close to the subject to the point it is a little out of focus due to the minimum range of the lens, but I find that my favourite photos convey emotion rather than having to be super sharp or technically perfect.

Refugee Protest 8

While the days of (mostly white, male) photojournalists being flown around the world to cover dramatic stories of starvation and war may be all but over, I believe there are always events and issues that can be covered in our own backyard.

And with some solid photography and a genuine passion and interest in the story, there is always a newsworthy subject to go out and shoot.

Thank you for reading – I hope you have enjoyed this brief insight into my experience of photojournalism – you can read the full article that was published in Al Jazeera here.

You can also listen to the full interview with refugee Farhad Bandesh on my Youtube Channel and also follow me on Instagram @alimcphotos

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About The Author

10 thoughts on “Photographing a Refugee Protest – By Ali MC”

  1. There are true refugees and there are economic migrants. True refugees are covered by the UN Convention, and quite rightly so, but economic migrants? I know of no convention that places an obligation on States to accept economic migrants.

    1. The refugees and asylum seekers in Australia are largely fleeing persecution in Iran, Sri Lanka, Burma and Afghanistan. The risks and costs of making the journey are so immense there really isn’t any economic benefit to speak of. And while there may not be a convention to accept so-called ‘economic’ refugees, there are conventions and laws in place to prevent purposeless indefinite detention that occurs in Australia. A really good (and full on) book describing the refugee experience in Australia is ‘No Friend But the Mountains’ and also a recent graphic novel ‘Still Alive.’ Both represent refugee perspectives far better than what I can.

  2. I like your images and appreciate your reporting. I wonder if a wider lens, perhaps a 28mm, might have been even more effective for such close up, immersive, shots.

    1. Hi Nick I thought the same thing while taking the shots. I might invest in a 28mm fixed lens for this purpose. Thanks for checking out the article. Ali

  3. Great photos, Ali, thank you for sharing. Legitimate protest activity isn’t getting any easier wherever you are in the world. Getting the message out there with “in the thick of it” images like these is more important now than it ever was. Keep up the good work.

    1. Thanks for taking a look Ralph, and yes, both protesting and reporting are becoming much harder – in Australia we are pretty fortunate, but I have friends in Burma/ Myanmar who are feeling the full force of the military dictatorship which is heartbreaking to see. You might be interested in this article I wrote for Al Jazeera on the role of punk music in the current protests over there:

  4. On a positive, you got some great energy in several shots. On the flip side, this isn’t reporting or journalism though, sorry mate. It’s clear from the article you are not an objective observer, but you are giving your support to the protesters. You are in fact an activist by giving your slanted opinion. You never attempted to report on the other side’s view. This I find seems to be the method of all and yes I mean all (at least that I have seen) reporters these days, because journalism is DEAD.

  5. Hi WillimB,
    Thanks for the comment and positive note about the photos. With regard to the comments more broadly about objective journalism are you referring to this article as penned for 35mmC or the actual article that appeared in Al Jazeera? If the former, no of course this isn’t a journalistic piece, it just a blog article I wrote about a small aspect of my freelance work. If you are referring to the actual Al Jazeera article, you would have read statements from the Ministry of Home Affairs, whom I contacted with an array of questions to present ‘the other side’s view’. If you have not read that article, you can find it here:
    The more overarching question is also, has journalism or journalistic photography ever been objective?

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