A woman raises a placard calling on legislators to scrap the proposed anti-terror bill last June 4, in Quezon City. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez
Culture Spotlight

OPINION: Should we start blurring the faces of protesters?

When the Anti-Terror bill remains in danger of being signed and trolls are making netizens feel watched, having one’s photo on the news adds to a real fear of being identified and dispatched. By EMMAN MAYO
ANCX | Jun 12 2020

Gil Scott-Heron says that the revolution will not be televised. Alright then. So how do we photograph it?

Poynter recently released an article entitled “Photographers are being called on to stop showing protesters’ faces. Should they?” It’s a question supercharged with all the things that make our current political crisis so stupefying. The issue of what it means to document protest is not new to the field of photojournalism but merits deeper discussion, especially now. The up-in-the-air state of the Anti-Terror Bill, trolls making the populace feel watched,and the everywhere-ness of surveillance technology all coalesce into a stomach-turning fear of being identified and dispatched. That goes not just for here but for other movements in other parts of the world, from the Black Lives Matter movement in the US to the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

“Legally there’s no question—when protesters are in public spaces engaged in newsworthy activity, visual journalists are well within their rights to document them,” says the article. “But protesters fear retaliation when images become public.” 

Members of Gabriela Youth, a group that advocates women’s issues, shout slogans and wave placards near the U.S. embassy in Manila on March 6, 2020 as they protest in celebration of International Working Women’s Day. The group is calling for “national sovereignty” amid remaining US-Philippines military exercises in the country. Photo by Basilio H. Sepe, ABS-CBN News

The article frames the issue as one of rights vs. responsibility, and as an issue of consent. It suggests that photojournalists include among their responsibilities 1) to censor the faces of dissenters in order to protect their identities, and 2) ask for the consent of their subjects whenever possible to capture their likeness. One solution the article proposes is for photographers to shoot from angles that obscure the faces of their subjects.

There’s a wisdom to this. On June 1 and as mentioned by the Poynter article, the FBI put out a request for photos of looters or vandals during protests in the flimsy interest of maintaining a sense of peace during events of civil unrest. Why help the FBI, or any instrument of the state, to quash dissent? One report named the Philippines as the fourth most dangerous place in the world for civilians, which include drug war targets, the urban poor, and activists. (Let’s not forget the 25-year-old teacher who, after putting out a P50 million bounty for President Duterte on social media, was arrested by the police.) Hong Kong protesters also fear being identified, which explains the inventive strategies protesters have devised to hide their faces. The possibility of being spotted might seem like a non-issue to some, considering the prevalence of face masks, but still. There is real fear here. One anonymous source says that she feared for her and her husband’s life after a photograph of her husband in a protest went viral.

On the other hand, it is logistically unfeasible to ask for the consent of every person you photograph, especially in outdoor political demonstrations, which are often busy and hectic and fast-moving.

Veteran photojournalist and founder of Trailblazers of Light Yunghi has made pointed counterarguments towards the Poynter article. “Many question the ethics of showing person’s identity. In fact, this is completely backwards. You have to ask yourself: is agreeing not to show a person’s face against the ethics of journalism?”  After all, the prerogative of journalism is to show the truth, and hiding faces can be tantamount to censorship—and censorship is not something we want more of, especially in the context of efforts by the government to silence the press.

Protesters picket against the Anti-Terror Bill at the UP Diliman in Quezon City on June 4, 2020, amid the general community quarantine, where mass gatherings remain prohibited. The controversial bill recently passed under the Lower House in its third and final reading. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

Yunghi continues, “A big part of photojournalism is about capturing emotions, faces, and expressions in the moment,” and that shouldn’t be hampered by constantly asking permission to capture people’s faces, especially those who should know full well everything that comes with being in a public space. Shouldn’t it be protesters who make the effort to obscure themselves in the first place? As Jes Aznar, who shoots for the New York Times, says in a Facebook post, “It is always the prerogative of the person if they want to show their faces or not. Not saying that they shouldn't, but the photojournalist’s job is to record what is only there. No more, no less.”

“It is therefore crucial to show the faces you photograph,” says Yunghi. “Need we be reminded of the basics of reporting (read: caption writing) who, what, when, where and how? If you agree to some activist’s dictate [to] not show faces, then you need to ask yourself, are you a photojournalist or activist? And where do you draw the line?” Good question.

It is sensible to make the qualification that shooting for the story is obviously not the same as snitching on the movement. And there are obvious exceptions to be made for, for example, protected witnesses and rape victims, as Yunghi has acknowledged.

Otherwise, why hide? A photograph of a mass movement is often powerful because we can see clearly the faces, the human-ness, of those who participate in it. Take for example this photo of Ieshia Evans bravely standing up to cops, which went viral and fortified the power of the Black Lives Matter movement. Then again, the Tiananmen Square photo of 1989 is powerful even though we don’t know who the Tank Man is.

Activists and workers rights organizer Rafa La Viña acknowledges that the job of photojournalism comes with complications, and suggests workarounds. One could coordinate with the organizers of the demonstration, which is easier than constantly negotiating with a mass of individuals. The organizers would know more about who may or may not want their presence publicized, for whatever reason. “I guess my overall answer would be, it would be best if the photojournalist were in direct communication with the people involved in the action, rather than just as a completely separate third party,” La Viña states.

Protesters march and picket against the Anti-Terror Bill in Quezon City on June 3, 2020, amid the general community quarantine which still bans mass gatherings. The proposed measure, certified as urgent by President Rodrigo Duterte, is one step away from being passed by the Lower House, while its counterpart in the Senate already hurdled final reading last February. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

Perhaps part of what makes this issue so contentious is that it might suggest that the goals of activists and photojournalists clash, but for La Viña, that’s not necessarily the case. “I think about the riots that are happening in the States right now, and about how without those photojournalists on the ground and with the people, most of what we would have are the accounts of the police and a corporate media that insists on whitewashing the protests.” That said, it is not enough for La Viña, and perhaps for others in the struggle, for journalists to cover dissent as neutral third parties. “I think there's a responsibility to wield their cameras at least in support of the movements on the frontlines against state repression, if not as a direct part of those movements.”

The last thing anyone needs is a paralyzing debate between the press and struggle, so it might help to look at the common thread that runs through all these questions: the police.

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Consider the cases of the Piston 7, the Cebu 8, and the San Roque 21. None of the identities of the people detained were tipped off to the police through some random photojournalist’s picture. There were no background checks, no fancy facial recognition software, no asking of questions. Typical of what we expect of law enforcement, the police asked questions later and apprehended first.

The burden of responsibility is shifted to the badge, and makes apparent very important distinctions. Photojournalists don’t make criminals out of activists; cops do. Activists aren’t at fault for putting themselves in danger; the police are the danger. Both the press, and the dissenters they cover, stand in the crosshairs of a smoking gun. They don’t put themselves there. It’s the police that do the aiming.

The stakes are high. Both Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra and Philippine National Police chief General Archie Gamboa have stated that mass gatherings, and protests of any kind, are prohibited. Gamboa has said that the police would enforce this on June 12. Think again of the Cebu 8. Think again of who protects who, and who endangers who. And expect that, for as long as the state exercises repression and as long as people are angry, both the protesters and the press go bravely into the fray, cognizant of all there is to gain and lose.