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How to Photograph the Largest Demonstration in American History

A documentary photographer’s experience at the 2017 Women’s March on Washington, and why she chose film over digital.

As soon as I heard about the Women’s March on Washington, I knew I had to go—both as a woman and as a photographer to document the event. I couldn’t imagine being without my camera at an event of such significance.

I wanted to be part of the history being made, and for me, photography allows me to fully immerse myself. I was also intrigued because I didn’t know how the event would play out. In the end, half a million people showed up to protest. The event was the largest demonstration in American history.

“Stay aware—If your eyes are glued to your viewfinder the entire time, you may not be fully mindful of your surroundings.”

It was the first time I’d photographed an event at that scale, but I’d been to other protests with similar historical weight. In 2014, I was living in New York and photographed the Black Lives Matters protests in solidarity with Ferguson. I remember feeling that the protest through the streets of Manhattan was massive, but this was different. Instead of taking over the streets, the Women’s March took over the entire city.

When you’re photographing a protest, you should have knowledge of the mission of the event and respect its participants. You have to consider people’s privacy—not everyone wants to be photographed protesting, so don’t assume that they do. Plus, comfortable shoes are a must.

Also make sure that you’re aware of yourself and your surroundings. Thankfully, the Women’s March on Washington was peaceful, with only a few arrests and little violence. This is not always the case at political demonstrations. If your eyes are glued to your viewfinder the entire time, you may not be fully mindful of your surroundings. Get good shots by actually experiencing the event first-hand, look around for an interesting image, then raise your camera to your eye to capture it.

“Although the spirit of the crowd was bright, the lighting was not.”

On a technical level, it was hard for me to pull back to achieve wider shots. I always seemed to be crammed between several people. Plus, I had to be quick. No one wanted to be separated from their group, and if they lost sight of their crew for long, there was a good chance they might get left behind. The situation didn’t allow as much time as I would generally spend photographing a portrait.

Then, although the spirit of the crowd was bright, the lighting was not. I don’t really like to shoot on overcast grey days, but that was completely out of my control. There were baggage restrictions for the Women’s March, which I wanted to respect, so I travelled with only a 35mm camera and a point-and-shoot. I didn’t bring an alternative lens or flash with me.

I decided to shoot on film when I learned about the baggage restrictions. I had to make a decision, and I always choose film over digital. If I had brought a digital camera, I would have brought film too and I didn’t want to be dragged down with the weight of more than one camera.

It’s important to me that I’m present in the moment and not checking my screen to see if I got “the shot.” With film, I don’t have that option so I can’t be distracted by the image outcome. I can focus on image-making. The trade-off is that I have to wait anxiously for the film to be developed before I see what I captured.

Check out Brittany Carmichael’s photographs of the 2017 Women’s March in Washington below and visit her online portfolio here.

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