Photographing Today’s Youth: Young People and Protests


Demonstration organizer Caroline Gleich and photographer Valery Rizzo discuss the roles and responsibilities of a photojournalist capturing youth in protest.

In response to the rapid spread of the coronavirus, 17-year-old youth activist Greta Thurnberg tweeted: “Keep your numbers low but your spirits high.” It felt simultaneously ironic and appropriate, considering she launched a worldwide climate movement with her one-woman protest on the steps of Swedish parliament only a few years ago. 

In the age of coronavirus and social distancing, the breed of global mass protests Thurnberg and other youth activists normally helm are indefinitely on hold. Yet, this is still a critical time for activists to show up for major issues like the election, environment, and economic fallout of a pandemic. While large gatherings are on hiatus, grassroots groups are adapting by turning to online activism and phone banking. Leading the charge are the citizens most adept at mobilizing in the digital age: Gen Z. 

Global Climate Strike in New York City (2019)
Gen Z protesters are leading the change. Image by Valery Rizzo.

Thunberg is urging activists to join digital strikes in the age of COVID-19, using the hashtag #ClimateStrikeOnline, prompting a deluge of young people posting photos to social media of themselves with protest signs in their homes. The organizers of March for Our Lives, a youth gun violence prevention movement that stemmed from the Parkland, Florida shootings, is shifting strategy as well, announcing on Instagram: “Two years ago we marched. Today, we’re asking you to stay inside … join us for a whole new phase of the movement.” These are just two examples of the many youth-led organizations pivoting to meet participants where they’re at this moment. 

The importance of youth participation in political, social, and environmental justice demonstrations has perhaps never been so immediate or obvious. And, while coronavirus has limited mass demonstrations — like the Women’s March and the Global Climate Strike — until further notice, imagery of those events continues to ignite conversation about the issues they sought to address and inspire future participants.

We caught up with Salt Lake City-based demonstration organizer and athlete activist Caroline Gleich and Brooklyn-based photographer Valery Rizzo to discuss the roles and responsibilities of a photojournalist shooting youth in protest.

Caroline Gleich at the Global Climate Strike in New York City (2019)
Caroline Gleich showing her support at a demonstration on climate change.

What is the role of a photographer during a protest demonstration? 

“It’s important to photograph protest events to let the world see what the people involved are feeling and what they are experiencing, especially young people, as they are the future,” says Rizzo, who has documented demonstrations in New York City including the Women’s March, Global Climate Strike, March to End Homelessness, March for Science, and Tax Bill Protest.

Whether shooting a protest is a self-assigned project or an assignment for a media outlet, it’s important to approach the shoot holistically. Aim to capture a full range of participants, emotions, and vantage points. 

Women's March in New York City (2018)
Capture a range of protesters’ emotions. Image by Valery Rizzo.

How can photographers be better allies to youth protesters? 

“One mistake I made [while organizing my rally] was that I didn’t ask youth activists for permission in the beginning. Striking on Fridays is what so many youth organizations do and I should’ve consulted them before I even got the permit, but as soon as I did, I made connections with them through 350 Colorado and asked for their feedback on messaging. Instead of giving myself a speaking slot, I gave the mic to youth speakers,” says Gleich. 

Gleich has worked alongside youth activists for many years on clean air and energy policy work in the state of Utah. In 2016, she attended a youth-led rally for clean air. While she didn’t photograph the event, she explains that simply showing up is an act of allyship.

“Show up when they ask us and make sure we are supporting their leadership, not taking credit for it ourselves,” she continues. “We can also ask them what they need directly. Each youth activist might have a different answer. Every youth-led organization might have different wants or needs, and support may look different for each one.”

If you aren’t sure how to directly support a youth activist organization, start the conversation directly with its leadership.

Young Leadership at the Global Climate Strike in New York City (2019)
Young people globally are taking leadership roles in creating change. Image by Valery Rizzo.

Why is it critical to give visibility to youth who participate in protests?

According to Gleich, being a climate activist is exhausting, demanding work that often goes unrewarded and unrecognized. “Youth strikers who show up week after week — missing school, coordinating with their peers — are working extremely hard to speak truth to power. Some days, it feels futile.”

Giving visibility to youth activists helps document those efforts. That way, when major legislation passes, there’s evidence of who created the social impetus for that to happen.

“I am often documenting what I see, but with a recurring event like the Women’s March, I like to give each event a different twist,” says Rizzo, who went last year with the intention of shooting closeup portraits of each protester. Her favorite photo is of a youth activist, but she wanted to provide some context by including women of all ages in the shot. “I like the young woman in the center in red, with her fist held up and her passionate chanting, the older woman with the hat in contrast on the left, and the girl holding the photo of the burning gun, with Radio City in the background.” 

Women of All Ages at the March for Our Lives in New York City (2018)
Women of all ages protest in the streets of New York City. Image by Valery Rizzo.

Gleich echos that while giving visibility to youth in protest is critical, it’s also important to provide context. “The youth who are leading on climate are doing an amazing job of advancing the conversation, but I also want to add that they are echoing many of the same sentiments that older environmentalists have been saying for many years. Sometimes, I see ageism in society today, and I want to be sure older people are recognized for their contributions as well. Basically, we need all hands on deck, and we need to be sure our messaging and media coverage is inclusive of all people!”

Girl Scouts at the Women's March in New York City (2018)
Let’s remove the stigma of ageism. Young people and elders should be equally recognized for their contributions. Image by Valery Rizzo.

What should a photographer be conscious of when documenting youth protesting? 

In most events, photographing people in open, public spaces is legal, but if you have questions about shooting participants, reach out to protest organizers ahead of time. “If the people protesting are very young and with parents, I’ll make sure I ask them, as well as the parents, if they are okay with me taking photographs,” says Rizzo.

Photographing Protestors with Permission at the Global Climate Strike in New York City (2019)
If you have questions about photographing participants, ask organizers. Image by Valery Rizzo.

Representation matters when making visuals. So, aim to capture and elevate BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) youth activists and leaders, who are often part of the communities most affected by these global and local issues. 

“There is a certain privilege of being able to pursue photography as a career,” says Gleich, who organized and led a 400-person climate rally in downtown Denver earlier this year. “Explore your own implicit biases and make sure your photos are representative of the people and movement you are capturing. If you have questions, don’t assume. Ask your subjects.”

Cover image by Valery Rizzo.

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