2019 has been a year of civil unrest. From the nearly nine-months-long (and ongoing) Hong Kong protests to the recurring climate strikes, people across the world have been taking to the streets to demand change on the issues that matter to them the most. While all the actions have some elements in common, they’re still separate stories with unique context, causes, and repercussions. Therein lies the challenge for photographers who are tasked with distilling that unrest—and the years of policy that precede it, and the waves of aftereffects to follow—into a few snapshots.
As Pancho Bernasconi, vice president of news at Getty Images, puts it, the question is, “How do you cover it in a way that the pictures from Barcelona to Santiago to Hong Kong to the Middle East don’t all look the same? What can we do to make sure each picture stands on its own and helps tell the story locally?” Part of that comes down to the photographer’s eye, but this year’s unique climate of upheaval has allowed for a distinct kind of protest storytelling. Rather than a one-off event, these protests have stretched for days or months, and that means a photographer can spend more time getting immersed in the community of activists.
Getty photographer Chris McGrath was on the ground in Hong Kong for nearly 60 days, and that time gave him the space to go beyond the breaking news angle or the idea of getting one dramatic photo. It allowed him to look at the issues surrounding this protest and also set the record straight about what people on the ground are experiencing. “Though it looked like the whole city was burning, a lot of the time it would be on one street and the next street would be life as normal,” he says. “One of the tricks for us is you show the protesters doing what they do—you share the consequences and the reactions to that—but it’s also trying to show the slice of that daily life. How people try to have some normalcy amongst all that upheaval.”
A crucial point about covering protests, Bernasconi notes, is that it’s not just about what is happening today. With every day of action, photographers are recording history and explaining the world, and the importance of these protests lasts beyond 2019. “What are the decisions that countries, people, or government organizations are going to make? And do we have the visual record to kind of help make sense of whatever’s next for us?” Bernasconi says. “These images, these stories help give that broader context of oh, that’s what all happened this year, and how it’s going to affect what we talk about and how we behave next year.”