Photographers are increasingly being asked to blur the faces of protesters whose pictures are taken in public, but should that be an expectation? And does the image lose a degree of power if faces are obscured?

Prior to the emergence of the coronavirus, much of Adam Berta’s photography centered on capturing the city's music scene, whether shooting band promotional photos or taking pictures at concerts. But with live shows largely shuttered by stay-at-home orders, Berta found himself with extra time on his hands as a new round of Black Lives Matter protests sprung up in the city in late May, so he started attending  the rallies nightly, attempting to document the protests as they unfolded in real time.

While the setting might have been unfamiliar, Berta said his skillset was uniquely adapted to capturing the scene. “With concerts, you’re shooting in low light, and in unpredictable, fast motion,” said Berta, whose protest photos are currently on display at Sean Christopher Gallery in the Short North. “You have to compose on the fly, and you can’t really think about anything. You have to be fast with your settings, switching everything for different shots. It’s extremely similar to concert photography.”

One aspect Berta didn't anticipate, however, was how his photographs would be viewed by the protesters themselves, some of whom messaged Berta after he posted images to Facebook, requesting that their identities be obscured. 

“I kept getting comments like, ‘Hey, you need to blur these faces.’ … One protester, I posted a photo of him in a Facebook album, and he got kind of aggressive, so it was like, ‘Oh, this is something I should watch out for,’” said Berta, who generally tried to approach each person he photographed to ask permission to use their likeness — something that wasn’t always possible amid the chaos of the protests. “Initially I didn’t understand what the big deal was with blurring faces, but it became apparent quickly that, holy crap, police officers and independent groups are going after the people they see in these photographs. They're doing the research. They're looking them up.”

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It’s an issue photographers are increasingly being confronted with in this current protest era, which is being driven by young people who have strong ideas on the concept of privacy, as well as a growing desire to maintain control over how their image is used, particularly in a social media environment where a single image or video taken out of context can have far-reaching and sometimes unintended consequences. 

“I feel like it’s the younger generation coming out to protest that wants to have more control of their image being out there, which I understand, especially since they are the ones who grew up with social media being so all-encompassing,” said Katie Forbes, who has been documenting the activist scene in Columbus for years. “An image can be sent to anyone’s employer, or go around [the internet], and it can be scary because there’s no getting that back.”

At the same time, photographers are well within their rights to take pictures at public protests. One local photojournalist, who declined to speak on record due to the sensitivity of the issue, said the potential blowback has caused them to refrain from covering recent protests in the city. “[They] want to exercise their First Amendment rights while ignoring ours,” they said, noting that, owing to COVID, it’s never been easier for a protester to mask their identity if they wish to remain anonymous while in public. “It’s a real slippery slope when you start censoring the press.”

Forbes, who has occasionally blurred the faces of protesters in more recent photos, stressed that photographers have every right to take pictures of people in public. She also noted that photojournalists are not the only ones capturing images of the protests, which are also being documented by police photographers, as well as recordings made by other cameras installed throughout Downtown and the Short North and used to monitor traffic or provide security for area businesses.

“I want to work with people and I want to respect their wishes, but I don’t want to give them a false sense of security, or make them think that just because I’m blurring [a photo] that their image is not out there,” said Forbes, who, like Berta, tries to ask permission to use a person’s likeness in the immediate aftermath of capturing a shot. “There was a march [in the Short North] a couple of weeks ago, and as soon as my camera went up I was flooded with people asking me not to take pictures. And then I look up at the bars, and there are people on the rooftops recording the whole thing.”

In early August, Forbes attended “150 Days of Injustice,” a daylong rally centered on the idea of sustainable protest, which included sessions on protesting where the issue of photography was discussed. “You should be aware that, in that moment, there could be anyone filming or taking pictures,” said Women Have Options board member Kelley Fox, who helped organize the event. “And if you don’t want to be in pictures, you need to be covered, or if you see someone taking pictures, you need to tell them. … The press has the First Amendment right to tell the story, but I feel there’s also some kind of privacy people deserve. Both should exist, but I also feel there’s a lot of nuance in that.”

For Forbes and fellow photographer Joshua Edmonds, blurring individual faces can also bring forth a larger underlying narrative in a photo, focusing it more on the group dynamic than any one individual. “By blurring, people aren’t worried so much about the identities of the people in the photo, but are focused more on the action,” Forbes said. “You start to see the uniformed versus the non-uniformed, and that greater conflict is really the thesis of the picture.”

A similar dynamic plays out in Edmonds’ current exhibit of protest photography, “One Voice, One Message: Black Lives Matter,” which is now on view at Hopkins Hall Gallery and includes both blurred and non-blurred images taken during the Columbus protests that unfolded throughout the summer. “One of my thoughts was that [the Columbus protests] were just a fragment in something so large. Even what was happening outside of the Statehouse in Columbus was just a part of what was happening in Ohio, which was just a part of what was happening in the world,” he said. By blurring the faces, then, it becomes possible for the viewer to transpose anyone from anywhere into the frame.

Edmonds said that he approached photographing the protests with a cautious mindset, owing to the sensitivity of the cause, and he tended to shoot medium and wide shots in an effort to capture the scale of events rather than dialing in on specific individuals. “I tried to not get faces close-up because I didn’t want anyone to be identified by the police,” he said. “I was always cognizant that the movement comes first, the protest comes first.”

Regardless, everyone interviewed agreed that some of an image’s power can be lost when faces are blurred or otherwise obscured, and it’s difficult to imagine the period-defining photographs that came out of times such as the Civil Rights era or Vietnam having the same visceral impact if given a similarly censored treatment. “Especially with my perspective on photography, where my images are more focused on facial expressions and emotion, which is often shown through the face, I think it does take away a little of the impact,” Forbes said.

"I still wrestle with [the question]: Does this take away the human element of what is going on?” Berta said. “And when it comes to that, I’m definitely willing to sacrifice a little power in an image to protect someone. It’s a good philosophical question, though.”