5 Tips for Safely Photographing a Dangerous Event

5 Tips for Safely Photographing a Dangerous Event


A Guest Post by Chris De Bruyn. WARNING: some images in this post may cause distress to some readers.

It seems that almost every time I turn on the news these days, there is a new massive, potentially dangerous event such as the Arab Spring or Occupy (Major City) Protest. Since moving to Iraq in 2009, I have shot a number of events such as national elections, cockfighting and political protests. While these events can produce very thought provoking photos, there are a number of things to keep in mind when decided whether or not to shoot them.


1. Blend in – Do your best not to stand out. If you are in a foreign country, knowing the local language is a big advantage when photographing a dangerous event. At the very least try to learn phrases such as “Pardon me”, “May I take your photo” and “thank you very much.” Wearing local clothes and ha right kind of facial hair will help as well. Make sure to have credentials/passport on hand in case you are questioned by police.


Don’t go alone – Go with at least one friend and make sure to have your cell phone turned on, ready to dial emergency contacts/police.


Be alert – Be aware of your surroundings at all times. Have a sense omosphere of the crowd and be ready to respond accordingly. Keep an eye out for trouble and take appropriate actions to prevent it.


Know the area – scout out the area before hand if you can. The more familiar you are with a location, the less likely it is than an accident will occur.


Know when to leave – No photo is worth putting your life in danger. If the atmosphere of an event becomes too heated, leave.


Chris De Bruyn is an English lecturer and photography instructor at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani. His work has been featured on VOA News, The Bay Citizen, BBC, and National Geographic. Feel free to visit his website at www.chrisdebruyn.com

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Some Older Comments

  • Andrew Miller December 3, 2011 08:54 pm

    Some really good pointers there Chris. I would also add that you should not go alone; take at least one other person with you as an extra pair of eyes, make sure you understand the local cultures as body language differs form place to place and also be aware that your own body language can cause offence if you don't mask it.




  • Evelyn November 23, 2011 12:30 pm

    I shoot drag race cars and I have managed to scape from some explotions.
    You have to develop premonition skills ja ja
    Liked your article very much. facebook.com/miadrenalinaephoto

  • rick November 22, 2011 06:36 am

    i photograph a lot of motorcycle events, it is very easy to start out safe and end up in danger, i know this is probably very tame in regards to the photos above, but one step or one swerve the wrong way results in being run over. A spotter is very helpful,along with safety vest etc.
    i also shoot from bridges, roofs, trees etc.safety harness's are very good items to invest in. the notion of "in won't happen to me", takes a back seat to my projects.

  • Max E. Scott November 19, 2011 02:40 pm

    As an older, hobby photographer I find myself doing “dumb” things on occasion. On a recent trip to Greece visiting the Acropolis I would often lean out over fences to get that cliff-hanger shot. Guides and policemen would tell me to get off of the fences and after the shutter had closed, I would obey the authorities’ guidance. I was satisfied with my photographs and thought the risk of falling over a fence was worth the effort to get the shot. BUT- What if I had fallen? I can see it all now as the doctor in the emergency ward ask me if I’m allergic to anything and I tell him- Yeah, gravity. Funny thought but then again, in a foreign country they take a dim view of tourist doing dumb things. The original post repeats one thing for those who take the time to read it- Be Aware of Where You Are and What Is Going On Around You. His unspoken caution bears repeating, “be responsible for your own safety!” Enough said.

  • Doc November 19, 2011 04:14 am

    Paul -

    I am with you on the P&S.

    Evan Wright carried a smaller camera for the march from Camp Mathilda in Kuwait to Baghdad with 1st Recon Marines, ("Wake up Thrombly, we're invading a country.")

    (Wright wrote the book and much of the mini-series "Generation Kill'. He, also, bought his body armor on eBay - go figure.)

    If I had been in his situation, I would have been sorely tempted to carry not one, but two DSLR bodies and had to carry a MacBook Pro with two 1TB HDDs... I would have been taking pictures of everything. The restriction of movement and speed would have been a major pain, not to mention two DSLRs would make you a great target. And I would have been worried about my cameras, instead of getting perforated through my eBay body armor

  • Mark K November 18, 2011 11:16 pm

    @Paul I think that comes down to knowing what your walking into - and your point is very valid. And in some manner goes to Chris's point on blending in; not just in clothes but also knowing when to NOT bring the big bazooka lens. Street and urban photography are probably good examples where small and invisible is the better choice.

  • Regan November 18, 2011 11:00 pm

    The picture of the cockfight is, to me about cultures and evolution. Things change in time, Cockfighting, which I really don't care for, is a form of validation of Darwin's theory, the fittest survive and are used for breeding, the others for soup. Being able to capture history in the present, and demonstrate societal movement (away from the agrarian) is a value to current and future society. Now, if you set up a fight just to take pictures, you're a lout.

  • Paul November 18, 2011 10:58 pm

    Consider using a high quality compact.... my DSLR kit is a D700 + f2.8 glass, but if saftey was an issue, you wouldn't want to hump that around a) it draws attention to you and b) it's heavy and weighs you down. I recently purchased the Nikon P7100, a high end compact with full functionality. A camera like this would be great in these situations, you can pop it into your pocket and move fast!!

  • Sam B. November 18, 2011 03:14 pm

    Thanks everyone for your insights, feelings/fears and perceived precautions. The words SAFELY and DANGEROUS are contradictory terms when it comes to lending practical advise. If it's dangerous let the adrenaline addicted photographer bring it to light. If you want to do it safely shoot it from a satelite, from far far away. All in all a good piece, not what I was expecting, but thought provoking. Thanks again.

  • Andy November 18, 2011 06:24 am

    EXCELLENT post! There is a real world out there folks, where PETA has never been heard of (& would be laughed at if it had been), & people don't stick flowers in rifle barrels. It would behoove everyone to quit worrying about the cruelty of the cock fight, & understand the point the man is trying to illustrate.

  • Sam November 18, 2011 04:27 am

    I believe everybody has the freedom to think differently and I respect it.

    I am, nevertheless, sorry for this guy named Rick as I think he is too blinded when it comes to attribute misconceptions where there are not any. He sees ghosts where there is not any and well, I am sure that all of us have been enriched and understood the point of this article (as it might be dangerous to depict in a photography events such as cockfighting) and will take into account these advices.

    Darren, you made a good decision by allowing that picture to appear here. I am sorry that kind of people miss a point that somebody with your experience, knows is appropriate. As a photographer, I am thankful for each picture depicted here and for every word written.

  • Luis November 17, 2011 03:38 am

    I do not think the cockfight photo is promoting anything at all - it is just depicting other cultures' traditions which might not be compatible with others. Would you also react the same way with a picture of a matador in a bullring in Spain? I do not support animal cruelty in any way and even though bullfights are legal and cockfights are usual in Mexico, this stuff is happening here - and a photograph may serve as testimony of these unfortunate practices, which I think the author of this article meant this for.

  • Doc Holliday November 16, 2011 02:56 am


    There is a difference between photojournalism and the cockfight picture - I assume.

    Photojournalists take pictures of what is happening now. The cockfight photo is more for art.

    Shows the huge difference in cultures.

  • Johnp November 15, 2011 06:02 pm

    Good post and points to remember if going to any unsafe area in general. And I thought taking wedding photos was dangerous!

  • Alexander Rose November 15, 2011 05:53 pm

    tear gas doesn't have an IFF. It floats where the wind makes it floats.
    And when police decides to use rubber pellets, they won't give a whatever whether you're in the way or not.

  • susan November 15, 2011 12:47 pm

    so...if i took a picture of police beating up a protester, and posted it online....suddenly that would make me supportive of police brutality? It be nice to think that all photojournalism is all sunshine, puppy dogs,rainbow, and glittering unicorns, but that doesn't make it so.

  • Doc November 15, 2011 11:16 am

    Jordan -

    You have to follow police orders. Given what I've seen at various protests, being a journalist isn't any protection, at all...

  • jordan November 15, 2011 09:36 am

    I have a question about blending in: let's say I'm not abroad, let's say I'm in my home town, let's say its an "occupy" protest. My first instinct is to not blend in. If I am there to photograph and document the event I want the police to know that. I want them to view me as a member of the press not some guy with a fancy camra. If tear gas and rubber bullets start flying I want the police to know who I am and why I am there because I want to be able to gtfo of there without an officer thinking I'm a threat. Ok, so that was more of a statement than a question, but what are your thoughts?

  • Alexander Rose November 15, 2011 09:17 am

    It's funny - only Americans are so concerned about their safety when abroad,
    I've been to lots of countries so far, away from all touristic centers, and never had any issues yet, not even a feeling of being in danger.

    Forget about facial hair. Cell 911 ready? Come on!
    Be respectful. Be interested. Be open. Learn some sentences in the local language. And be polite.
    And don't be scared the whole world wants to kidnap you because you have a blue passport.

  • Doc November 15, 2011 06:39 am

    I think I may have just posted this, but I can't find it:

    Any shooting, exploding stuff, potential for severe penetrating trauma from a MVA - wear body armor. See if you can get the military guys to give/loan/sell you a vest with ceramic armor. Civilian kevlor is designed to stop pistol rounds. (note: civilian kevlar vests are good for one hit, after that they have to be replaced) Ceramics gives you a chance if you are hit by a rifle round. The chances of living after being shot with a rifle round go up, markedly when you wear a metal or ceramic 'trauma plate' in addition to your ceramic armor vest. While you are bumming body armor from the military, bum a kevlar helmet, too. Downside: All this armor his heavy.

    Don't carry any type of firearm. That makes you a combatant. Combatants get shot at. I am not a big fan of taking firearms into any situation. Firearms may be give you a false sense of security and you may go into situations where you wouldn't, if you hadn't been carrying a firearm.

    Carry QuikClot - this is amazing stuff you pour into a wound that causes the blood to clot in just about every instance. I'd carry, at least, three of the professional packages. I'd also carry a tourniquet. In 30 years as a paramedic, I've never seen a wound that necessitated a tourniquet; but in war I wouldn't the the chance. Wear the tourniquet around your neck, that way your rescuers won't have to look for it.

    I have a friend who goes to Africa to shoot pictures a lot. He carries his own IV catheters; IV tubing; IV solutions; and a good supply of various types of drugs. He buys insurance that will send a jet to the nearest airport and evacuate him within 24 hours to Europe, hopefully before he needs a blood transfusion. If you are photographing in an area where the US military is and you get hurt, you will probably get taken to a Combat Support Hospital and worked on by Americans.

    Anti-malarial pills - always.

    Yell, "Journalist" in the appropriate language as necessary.

    Carry, at least, two Camelbaks full of water. Hydrate regularly.

    I would think, attempting to photograph a cock fight where it is illegal would be more dangerous than going into a combat scenario. You are by yourself, you have no security and a lot of people won't like their pictures taken when they are involved in an illegal activity.

    Taking pictures of things like cockpits, just encourages it. I wouldn't want to get dead taking pictures of something I think it is morally reprehensible.

  • Nicholas Dudeck November 15, 2011 05:48 am

    Good post. As stated above they're fundamental safety issues we would all do we well to remember. Complacency kills.

  • dok November 15, 2011 12:20 am

    chillax guys! you're giving too much gravity to ricardo's post. he made me laugh actually and i guess it was pretty much the point. A bit rough maybe...

  • Dewan Demmer November 14, 2011 11:20 pm

    While the advice given in this article might seem like common sense its nice that it put out here, a dangerous place can be at any number of varied scenarios and the above 5 simple rules will work with each one, whether its a protest or backyard mayhem fireworks.
    So nice article, short and pertinent.

    Darren: While I am no fan of animal cruelty I am and comfortable and glad you put the image selection in, I think it is within context and objective without detracting from the subject at hand. As I consider the images I realise how this could be difficult, deciding what works without being sensational cannot be a quick task.

  • Chris De Bruyn November 14, 2011 05:09 pm

    Thanks for the candid feedback, everyone.

    Mark K, you gave to good suggestion for me to exand a bit on my points with examples.

    When I shot the cockfighting match, I made sure to go with an Iraqi friend: a big, friendly, 300-pound teddybear of a man named Saman. We sat together and he explained the ins and outs of cockfighting; the way people bet, the types of patrons, the rules for the roosters and their trainers etc.

    At one point one of the trainers was handing his rooster to the vet/doctor sitting near me. I raised my camera to snap a few choice photos but Saman advised me against it. He could tell that the trainer didn't feel comfortable with it, so I heeded his advice and kept the camera in my lap. Had I taken the photos, it is likely that there would have been some tension, which is the last thing you want when you are in a questionable environment. That is one small example of the benefits of bringing a friend with you on a potentially dangerous shoot.

  • Darren Rowse November 14, 2011 03:20 pm

    thanks Rick - appreciate your feedback.

  • Rick November 14, 2011 01:49 pm

    Darren: Point taken, and I'm glad you at least put some thought into it. I believe in tolerance and accepting points of view of other cultures, but there are some things that are just plain wrong, no matter what culture is doing it. Making animals fight each other to the death would be on that list.

    I'm normally a big fan of DPS, but I think you missed the boat on this one. I'll move along to the next article now.

  • ccting November 14, 2011 01:47 pm

    LOL, i will never go to these dangerous places... I never put myself and my gears in danger.. :D. I wander why so many great photographers loose their lives for photos.. I really sad for them.

  • Mark K November 14, 2011 01:21 pm

    I mean no disrespect, but Ricardo have you ever shot conflict? I have, from conflict zones to high altitude climbing, and the suggestions he offers are not only valid, they keep you alive - especially when a crowd turns ugly - and often turns on the photographers. The only thing Chris left out is also watching out for the police or military - as I learned the hard way, they can turn on you even faster. This is particularly true of shooting in riots where you are NOT viewed with a lot of love.

    Chris my only critique would be that you perhaps could have expanded on your central points, maybe offering examples of situations you've been in.

    [eimg url='http://i696.photobucket.com/albums/vv325/vertikallimitz/G20%20SHORT%20SET/G20_Blackblocleader.jpg' title='G20_Blackblocleader.jpg']

  • Bekah November 14, 2011 01:11 pm

    Some of the commenters on here are ridiculous. Promotes cockfighting? Too stupid and basic?
    It's definitely basic stuff, I know it all, but it's a good reminder.
    Seriously people.

  • Darren Rowse November 14, 2011 01:05 pm

    Rick - I thought long and hard about using that image. In fact I decided not to use 2 others that were submitted with the post because I felt they were too graphic (again they had animals). I decided to include that image - not because I want to promote the 'sport' (and I don't believe it to be sport - I personally find it to be cruel) but because I think it was taken more to document something rather than to promote it. In the context of the article I hope that it speaks for itself. I did however include a warning on the post and hope that those who find it distressing would have had opportunity to move onto something else.

    I do understand your comment but guess I wanted to let you know I didn't post the image lightly.

  • Steven November 14, 2011 12:52 pm

    Rick: the world lives differently. Photos tells us how other people in the world live their lives. So that you know, in my country you face life imprisonment for having a single live bullet.

    BTW, thanks for this write up

  • Shawn M November 14, 2011 12:40 pm

    Does not make *it* something

  • Shawn M November 14, 2011 12:39 pm

    @Rick: Just because it is illegal does not make in something you cannot take pictures of. I think it's a fitting photo in an article on "dangerous situations". I don't think the idea is to promote cock fighting, but maybe to spread awareness or even evoke emotion (which it seems to be effective at).

    Don't forget that photography isn't limited to happy things ;)

  • Chris Baldwin November 14, 2011 12:25 pm

    The picture is not promoting anything...it is a picture...if some one does a photo piece about war it does not mean they are promoting it...photographers take pictures of what they see. It reflects what is going on in the world....if it is something you think is wrong, do something about it, but bitching about or even getting rid of the picture does not serve that purpose....there is a lot of things happening in this world that need to be fixed or stopped but hiding them won't get the job done. Its a good article and well presented. Thanks Chris and Thanks Darren!

  • Ryan November 14, 2011 12:19 pm

    What a coincidence!.. I just watched Bang Bang Club last weekend and I told to myself I don't have that guts to shoot like those guys... I guess the least I could do is to pull out a long lens and shoot from a bunker :P

    btw... I guess Ricardo's cock lost during the fight....

  • Merle November 14, 2011 11:37 am

    I for one would love to hear more about the experiences by this contributor.

    As for ricardo, not sure what your problem is.
    How about you put your National Geographic pix out there.

  • Rick November 14, 2011 11:28 am

    Darren: The first image in this post promotes cruelty to animals. AFAIK, cockfighting is illegal in the US, and a lot of other countries as well. It is inhumane to breed, raise, and train animals for the sole purpose of sport fighting. Let's please not promote it by displaying pictures of it.

  • Boxy November 14, 2011 11:22 am

    Thanks for posting Chris - maybe another heading should read "Be aware of rabid posters" An old adage is "If you can't say something nice, keep your [insert expletive here] mouth shut"

  • Teach_J (Robert Courtemanche) November 14, 2011 11:04 am

    These are very similar to the things I tell my sport photographers when shooting football, baseball or track and field. You can be in danger in lots of situations, not just when crazy people have guns. Safety first if you want to come back with the photos. Remember you are more important than your camera or the shot.

  • GradyPhilpott November 14, 2011 10:44 am

    This is pretty fundamental stuff, but forgetting the fundamentals is often the kiss of death and being reminded of them never does harm.

    In fact, these tips apply to very many activities and not just photography.

  • John November 14, 2011 10:27 am

    Great post here! There are a lot of dangers that come along with photography and photographic hostile locations is definitely one of the most dangerous I can think of. I think that the hardest part for me is knowing when to leave. While no photo is worth your life, it's so easy to push that line between safety and crazy.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Darren Rowse November 14, 2011 09:27 am

    thanks for the 'constructive' and 'encouraging' feedback Ricardo. If you'd like to contribute a post that you think would be more helpful to our readers please feel free to submit one. I personally appreciate our readers submitting these kinds of posts and sharing from their own experience (which they do for free in the hope of helping others).

  • Ricardo Sampra November 14, 2011 08:56 am

    What a total load of RUBBISH!
    Why bother putting this crap out there?

    Why not add in ....."Be on the look out for aircraft crashing from above" or "Meteors from outer-space".


  • hansi trompka November 14, 2011 06:33 am