I’ve spent a lot of time covering demonstrations in the Middle East and it’s taken me a while to get my toolkit down pat. But after years of trial and error, I can safely say that I’ve perfected the gear and equipment I pack for a protest. My tips and recommendations can help you navigate unpredictable environs and stay organized so you don’t compromise your experience by scrambling mid-protest. And judging by the swell of demonstrations that have taken place in recent times — most of which focus on systemic racial injustice — these are tricks of the trade that photographers the world over should bear in mind. You never know when the next protest in or around your community will take place.
The list I’ve compiled started in 2014; I’ve since given birth to my first child, so my list has subsequently evolved. Check out what I recommend bringing for those badass breastfeeding mommas at the end of the list.
Gas mask: One of my biggest tips is to find one in a satchel so it doesn’t get scratched and can be slung over your shoulder separately. It needs to be easily accessible because it’s not always obvious when tear gas is going to fill the air. The one below is quite expensive, but MSA is a great brand.
If you’re having trouble finding a good mask online, visit your local hardware store. It depends on the country, of course, but in Egypt they sell gas masks in stores where they sell paint supplies. Some are more effective than others, but you can definitely get a full-fledged gas mask if you do your homework.
Added COVID note: Even if you don’t have a gas mask, you will want to have a good breathable face mask that you switch out every couple of hours. N95s are good but I find it hard to breathe in them, so make sure you bring a mask that protects you without hindering your ability to document the demonstration.
Helmet or Hard Hat: Some people use motorcycle helmets or hardcore combat helmets, but I find those weigh me down. And unless I really need it — like if a fire breaks out, for example — I don’t end up using it because the weight gives me a headache. Thus, I use a hard cap. It’s light and also doesn’t look like a helmet, which is great. As an added bonus, it can keep the sun out of your eyes.
Important Note: NONE of these will stop bullets. I don’t think this is something people initially understand (I certainly didn’t). The hard helmet is for tear gas canisters/rocks and the combat helmet is for shrapnel, but none of these will stop a direct bullet to the head.
Foldable Hat: These are absolutely necessary for long days in the sun. It will make you look like a tourist, but if I don’t have to use my hard hat I prefer a brimmed foldable fisherman’s hat.
Vest with Interior Pockets: I can’t stress this enough: there are always pickpockets around trying to take advantage of distracted people. And, believe me, there are many of those moments during protests. To wit: I’ve had my iPhone stolen in the heat of things. Even though it’s annoying to have an extra layer, if I can handle the heat, I always try to wear one.
Although it costs a pretty penny, my SCOTTeVEST is lightweight, has 16 pockets, and is built to prevent physical and digital theft.
Shatterproof Glasses: I’ve known too many people who have suffered injuries to the face and eyes to not have these in my repertoire. You might not love the way you look in them, but it’s a thousand times better than having a rock to the eye! The brand I use is KLEENGUARD, more specifically pairs (you get 12 per case) with a black frame and blue mirror lenses.
Power: iPhones and laptops seem to drain quickly, so you need to have a reliable backup power source. You never know when you won’t have access to electricity and will need to file ASAP.
Backpack: I try to stow my cameras until I get to where I’m photographing, as to not bring any extra attention to myself. I also keep my laptop and accessories in there. It’s burdensome for sure, but if I need my stuff close to me, it’s the best option.
Photocopy of an ID: I try not to bring my actual identification out with me in case I get pickpocketed, only a copy. This photo ID could be a driver’s license or passport.
Press ID: Assuming you’re a journalist, always try to have a press ID if possible. If you don’t have one from the country you’re in, try to get one from your company or agency. It’s super helpful in protests and makes you more legitimate.
One credit card: I don’t like to bring all my credit cards out at the same time in case my wallet does get taken. Just one suffices.
Stab vest: I usually don’t use one, but it’s a good thing to have when protests look like they could get out of hand. You can also take the plates out of a flak jacket and use that instead.
Scarf: For women, I highly recommend it. It’s generally helpful for prayer times, mosque visits, tear gas, and wiping lenses as well. If anyone is familiar with The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, everyone travels with a towel — I think of my scarf that way!
Loose clothing and hard boots: Since working and living in the Middle East, I’ve always worn a tunic with long sleeves that covers my butt and baggy pants with lots of pockets. I mostly stick to neutral colors to try and blend as much as possible. And good hard boots are important — they will save your back when you are standing a lot and your feet will thank you as a result.
Power bars or tuna fish: I like to have food on me in case I’m in a place where I have to stand for hours without food options. Quest Bars are my go-to, but I also love the pouches of tuna fish, which have huge amounts of protein and keep me going for hours on end.
Sunscreen: I fill a travel sized bottle with sunscreen for those days in the blistering sun.
Cameras and Equipment: Last but definitely not least! I always carry extra batteries and cards. I work with Canon, which I love. Typically, I have a 24mm, a 35mm, and a 70-200mm. I don’t work with flash, so I don’t carry one, but make sure you have it if you do.
First Aid: When I first wrote up this list, I missed this part completely. Ben Curtis, a talented Associated Press photojournalist and photo editor, was the person who reminded me to add it to my updated article.
During a protest, you’re already carrying numerous items, so packing a complete first aid kit isn’t something we have room for. But it’s so important that you bring a few essentials. If you’ll be somewhere where there is a real threat of shooting, then make sure you are carrying CAT tourniquet, Quikclot, chest seal, and light trauma shears with a blunt tip. And ensure that they’re easily accessible, so put them somewhere close like your vest pocket.
If shooting isn’t a threat, make sure you have at least compression bandages on you at all times.
Since having my son, packing for a protest took on a whole new meaning for me. Adding breastfeeding to my ever-increasing to-do list needed to be reflected here, not just for myself but for my fellow mothers in the same line of work.
It’s important that you streamline your packing while simultaneously making sure you don’t compromise your health. There are several things I need in order to maintain my breastfeeding relationship with my son when I’m in the field.
Portable Breast Pump: I use the Spectra S9 Plus because it’s lightweight, quiet, and battery-operated. I researched numerous options and the S9 ticked all my boxes — I especially love that it’s discreet and doesn’t come with all the bulk! Also, don’t forget to keep hand wipes with you in case there isn’t a place to clean your equipment.
Breast-Pumping Sports Bra: It’s super important to be able to work and pump. The normal breastfeeding bras aren’t made for physical activity, in my opinion. Getting a more advanced version of this product (above, right) was a game-changer.
Scarf/Shawl: One of my must haves. Before my son, I always had a scarf with me when I packed for a protest as there are numerous uses. I use a shawl so I don’t have to search for a broom closet or bathroom to go pump in.
TriLens Belt Attachment: The TriLens keeps my lenses on my hip for easy access. Being pregnant and breastfeeding has done a number on my back, so the less weight I can carry there the better. I HIGHLY recommend this product. It’s awesome.
Massager, Vitamins, and Comb: That may sound like an odd combo, but I’m sure other mothers can relate to the pain and frustration of clogged milk ducts. I’m highly susceptible to them; it’s hard on me physically when I’m away from my baby, and I can’t tell you how many times I thought I was getting mastitis while on a multi-day assignment.
A breast massager (yes, it does look like a vibrator) is very helpful for getting a duct unclogged. Also, I take sunflower supplements which help thin my milk out. And finally, this is where the comb comes in: I get in a hot shower and comb my boob to get that milk moving! It’s an invaluable tip that was shared with me — believe me, it works!
Anything I’ve left out? Leave a comment below and let me know your protest must haves!
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