How an amateur photographer captured the Arab Spring


Throughout 2011, the world watched the Arab Spring unfold through the lens of photographers in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and beyond.

Those who documented the Arab Spring were – variously – professionals sent by newspapers to cover events, locals shooting on their mobile phones, and amateurs who had come to witness history.

Between them their images captured events from the banal to the momentous, including the camel charge of Tahrir Square in Egypt, riots and strikes across Tunisia, and the former dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s final moments on the dusty outskirts of Sirte.

Chris Belsten doesn’t regard himself as a photojournalist. After Mohamed Bouazizi’s death sparked protests across northern Africa, Belsten decided to travel to Tunisia because he knew the country well, having visited in the past. When the pictures he took during his trip came to attract the interest of the BBC and international photography agency Getty Images, he was taken wholly by surprise.

“It started off from the student protests in London. I knew something was going to be changing this year. The way people were organising themselves, particularly through social media.”

Having monitored the planning stages of the student protests in London, Belsten arrived on 10 November last year at the Tory headquarters at 30 Millbank and shot what he saw. When he got home he uploaded his images of students smashing windows and being kettled by riot police to his Flickr account. These images of violence sat alongside his other picture galleries of rural English countryside and other personal snaps.

As the Arab Spring came to dominate the news agenda at the start of 2011 Belsten, who works as a freelance guide and tour manager, booked his trip to Tunis.

“I just wanted to be part of history. For me it wasn’t like a holiday – I just can’t imagine why people wouldn’t want to be in a situation like that – to be part of a significant movement and be part of something big.”

Belsten is cautious about ascribing the revolution in Tunisia to social media, as some media commentators have done: “I resented the way some journalists were spinning these revolutions as Facebook or Twitter revolutions […] As though we should all be celebrating social media. Social media was merely a tool. Certain things just came together at a certain time”

He says that his trip to Tunisia wasn’t as planned as were the coordinated movements of press photographers: “I got to Tunis after the main round of violence, and I left long after media attention had shifted to Egypt.”

Equally, he is conscious of the limitations of what he was able to capture: “A lot of the attacks [on protesters] were happening at two, three, or four o’clock in the morning when I was safely tucked up in my hotel room. I did make an attempt to go out and wander the streets during curfew, but I couldn’t always be in the right place at the right time.”

The gallery of images above is just a small collection of Belsten’s exhaustive documentation of his take on the revolution in Tunisia. For more, visit his Flickr stream at

To read more about The Journalism Foundation’s project in Tunisia click here

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  • Stephen Slominski

    Great press shots.Love ‘em!
    I see you are described as an ‘amateur’ Chris and you say you are not a photojournalist.
    I would be interested to know if the Journalism Foundation have paid you for the use of the photos above.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Stephen. Chris kindly allowed us to post a selection of his photographs without payment. Virtuous and talented.

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