It’s here, in the palms of our hands, what military strategists and other organizers have dreamed about for millennia: instant, live, visual communications across any distance. People in ancient times used to consult oracles and pray to deities for the power that we now have in smartphones with livestreaming capability.
I’ve written elsewhere about how I think livestreaming video capability is game-changing in terms of social movements, so I won’t repeat it here, instead focusing on some ways to improve the quality and utility of the livestreams.
The streams I’ve watched range from excellent (shout-out to @Oakfosho), to unwatchable. We have to remember that we’re the eyes for the world. When people chant “The whole world is watching!”—they’re watching through us. It’s a big responsibility that we should take seriously. Even if there are a dozen or hundred streamers at a big action, we might be the one to catch the footage that makes a difference. In any event, what is the point of doing it if your footage is unwatchable and your narration garbled?
Since I’m not familiar with all the various livestreaming options out there, I hope others will jump in with suggestions on the best apps/platforms/phones and how to best use them. Here are my off-the-cuff suggestions for effective camera operations in the field, more or less in order of importance:
* Have a buddy. The streamer can focus on keeping the picture framed and steady while calmly narrating, letting the buddy keep an eye on the cops, plan escape routes, go check on side commotions, help clear a view-space through the crowd, respond to the social media stream and so on. A buddy can watch out for tear gas rifles or shot-bag guns or other hardware being deployed and warn about other tactical information so you can keep filming right up to the last second before moving.
* Keep your focus on what your audience needs or wants to see. If it’s a General Assembly or blockade, keep it there. Don’t get sidetracked by cops down the street or other off-topic events until it actually matters. Don’t waste time filming cops’ badges or helmet numbers or license plates and so on if they’re not doing anything. Save that for when they’re busting heads or if legal observers need that data.
* Narrate effectively. Speak slowly and clearly and repeat often since people log in and out of the stream constantly. Clearly repeat human-mic statements for viewers. When livestreaming, you need to become more of a journalist, less of an activist. Resist the impulse to scream or chant or get in confrontations. Your job is to film those events and make them understandable for the thousands of people counting on you to be their guide.
* Hold the camera steady. Brace against a lightpole, etc. if possible. Avoid the common phone-in-outstretched-arm-over-head position. It’s too shaky and the footage is usually junk. Use two hands and hold the camera close-in to your chest, bracing one or both elbows on your hips.
* Keep your facts straight. Don’t repeat rumors, even if you say they are rumors, unless you’re specifically asking that someone watching to the stream help you verify it. Be the reliable source of info. Learn to give accurate crowd estimates. (Count a group of ten or a hundred, then extrapolate.) Your audience is also connected to other streams and Twitter, so recruit them to be your eyes and ears to help figure out what is happening around you if you’re not sure. Engage!
* Hold the shot for at least 30 seconds before reframing the scene. Or, longer. Switch between wide, slow pans for context and focused shots of the action as necessary, but avoid the tendency to switch every two or three seconds.
* Move slowly, especially at night. These phone cameras still suck, so the slightest movement shows nothing to viewers but light trails and pixellated garbage. Even in good light, it doesn’t take much movement to garble the image.
* Pay attention to direction of light and sound. If you can move so that loud noises or bright lights are to your back when filming something like a GA, your viewers will appreciate it and the recorded footage will be more usable later.
* Interview the peeps! If there is a lull, have your team buddy tell people that you are livestreaming and ask if they’d like to tell the world why they occupy. That’s often the most interesting part of a livestream or other video, to be able to see fellow occupiers in other places. Find the greatest diversity of voices that you can. Interview passers-by to see what they think. This technology can facilitate so much understanding between people if we use it right.
* Carry enough extra battery power to keep going if things don’t go as planned and you need to keep filming a raid or something important.
* Take care of yourself so you can stay calm and steady and persevere when the going gets rough. Eat, drink and stay warm and dry. Pack what you need or have your team buddy carry it in a pack and get it out for you.
* If tear gas is used, stay upwind and consider whether or not you really have to run away. You’re in an important position, doing an important task. Tear gas is not a chemical weapon so much as a psychological weapon—i.e. it’s not really that painful. Often, moving upwind and covering your eyes with goggles and breathing through a Maalox-soaked bandana (NOT vinegar) for a couple minutes will allow you to stay right up in the action where you’re most needed. If they’re gassing us, the world needs to see it. Ignore flash-bang grenades. They’re mostly harmless.
* Use a phone dedicated for streaming, if possible, so you don’t lose other data if you get busted and the cops take or trash the device.
* Consider your legal standing carefully and decide what is worth risking arrest for. Since the footage is already out to the world and up on a server somewhere, it doesn’t matter if they take your camera. If what is happening is important and especially if you’re the only one filming it, it may be worth filming until you’re in zip-ties. You can appeal to your audience later for things like a new phone and bail money.
Let’s refine all this and come up with something that can be posted everywhere. Post ideas and revisions in the comments, please! It would be nice to have something to put up by Monday’s action.