Tips for Capturing Peaceful Protests with Street Photographer Steve Sweatpants

Street photographer, co-founder of Street Dreams Magazine and CreativeLive instructor, Steve Sweatpants on capturing Black Lives Matter protests, ethical storytelling and the feeling of seeing his photographs become part of history.

Photo of the Black Lives Matters protests in New York City by Steve Sweatpants
Photo by Steve Sweatpants

Photography encapsulates a moment in time like no other art form. A single photo can portray meaning, essence and emotion in ways words alone can not. Photography revolutionized how we see and understand history. It gave us the ability to witness the truth of people, places and cultures we could never reach. And it has become one of the most, if not the most, crucial mediums for how we see and view the world. 

Steve John Irby, better known as Steve Sweatpants, is a photographer capturing images we will see go down in history. As a self-taught street photographer based in New York City, he never knew his signature black and white documentary-style photography would move the world the way it has this past week. 

After the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis, MN police, protests erupted around the United States and beyond. New York City protesters became one of the largest groups of people taking to the streets and alongside them, capturing one of the biggest united protests in our country’s history, is Steve Sweatpants. 

We caught up with Steve this week to get some tips on how to capture the protests, what it feels like to have his photos in The New Yorker and GQ in the same week and what it’s like being a black photographer capturing the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Let’s start by talking about what it feels like to be capturing the protests right now?

You know, it doesn’t feel that much different from what I’ve been doing for the last five years or so… I’m just capturing my people and my life and this is what is happening in it. Obviously right now, it’s been beautiful to see so many people from different walks of life coming together. It feels like we are actually seeing history unfold and I get to shoot it in my style. 

You are so upbeat and positive, what helps you stay positive when there is so much grief in the world right now?

I’m just a hippie kid from Brooklyn, I just see so much positive work being done and it feels like we can continue to pick up momentum. It’s unbelievable to see so many fighting the same fight. Plus, getting my work in The New Yorker and GQ in the same week is pretty sweet.

That’s amazing, congratulations. Did you have a creative process in capturing the protest and those shots?

I always want to make sure I am capturing the truth. Then I make sure I have consistency in the way I shoot. And to me, black and white imagery is timeless. But that’s how I shoot all the time, it’s just that those things speak to capturing protest photography.

Photograph of Black Lives Matter protesters in New York City, by photographer Steve Sweatpants
Photo by Steve Sweatpants

Do you have tips for other photographers shooting the protests?

Yeah, first and foremost, be aware of exploitative situations and make sure you are capturing ethical shots. Remember, we are all here [at the protests] for one reason, to make change. That is what you should be capturing not people exploiting the protests. Or if you do capture that… make sure you think ethically about how you use and share it.

What does capturing ethical shots mean to you in this moment? 

I mean as a photographer, it’s part of your job to protect the people who are involved in your work. Make sure you are capturing shots that tell the whole story and if you have a photo where you can clearly see someone’s face ask their permission to use the photo. 

As black photographer, do you think photographers of different races should think about photographing the protests differently?

As a black man, I see it as long as we are all fighting the same fight, there is room for everyone. The more people capturing the truth of what’s happening the more momentum it gets.

Any tips on gear?

Travel light! Bring one lens or two at most. A 24-70mm is great or a 50mm. I shoot on my Sony AR73.

Steve Sweatpants is a street photographer, the co-founder of Street Dreams Magazine and an instructor on CreativeLive. A lifelong New Yorker, the core of everything associated with Steven is paying homage to his New York roots through passion, transparency and creative integrity. Follow him on Instagram, check out Street Dreams Magazine and listen to the Street Dreams weekly mixtape that comes out every Friday.

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Kate Dessa has been writing about culture, creativity and entrepreneurship for over 12 years – getting her start when magazines were something you still held in your hand. When she is not writing, producing or creating you can usually find her eating. Find her across platforms @katedessa