The day after Scott Olsen was shot in the head by Oakland Police, all of the Bay seemed to descend on either the Oakland or San Francisco camps for Occupy Wall Street, waiting for a fight—or, at least, a good picture of one.
It was hardly the first time I’d seen a multitude of photographers at a protest—Occupy Wall Street was sustained by its own media presence after all—but it was here that I began noticing the nature of photography itself changing. The people taking pictures were not there to document the movement and the associated confluence of individual anxieties joining to form a social bond of hope, but rather whatever the best opportunity was for watching a person get hit by a cop.
The thing is, Occupy was about so much more—in fact, it was about how police were just a microcosm of the issues facing us—that it was so disheartening to see the narrative so quickly turn to exclusively violence. This is what a police state looks like: when all issues inevitably end up facing off with the cops.
January, 2012: Occupy Wall Street protesters form a human chain around the entrance to Bank of America in downtown San Francisco. A majority of all #OWS actions and camps were extensively documented as non-violent.
At its onset, conflict photography posed a legitimate threat to the establishment, for people had not been inoculated to images of horrific violence yet. Thumbing through an issue of Life to see a child burned by Napalm during the Vietnam War could turn more public opinion than online images of a severed arm in the crater from a drone strike under the Obama administration. As a society, the amount of violence we’re used to accepting (both in terms of what we’re presented with, as well as what we’re told is the nature of our State) is so vast, conflict photography loses its punch.
This summer alone, images from every city in America were full of non-violent protesters being ruthlessly assaulted by police, yet de-funding is still a third rail topic for most politicians. We live in a society where violence is accepted, and so it doesn’t feel right to me now to be photographing it; it feels almost promotional.
While I’m no stranger to being at the front lines to document a spat, it’s also the responsibility of those telling stories to understand the entirety of the context—something the media illiteracy of most ends up derailing into a lowest-common-denominator of If it bleeds, it leads. I’d like to show something else; the parts we’re fighting for while we’re getting beat back by the state.
October, 2011: The people of Oakland hold a nightly public meeting.
That may seem counter-intuitive, but the photographs from the 2020 uprising often felt like they were being published by institutions solely for archival purposes or a stockpile for awards consideration.
It felt like this because journalism as a whole feels detached from our society as an imperative. The ineffective nature of reporting—in whatever medium—to influence policy is partially based in the symbiotic relationship between the institutions of the press and the state. So long as the decisions of both are dictated by the will of commerce, neither will do any good in accurately reflecting the view from the other side of the fence.
So at this point, pictures of people getting their heads caved in by riot police feel more like ads from the powerful, saying You lost, you’re all fucked now. See this? It never stops. They know how the media game is played, and they know there won’t be a photograph that will outlast the news cycle long enough to change things.
September 2020: Black Lives Matter protests continue demonstrating nationwide with a march through downtown Los Angeles protesting the grand jury verdict in the case of justice for Breonna Taylor.
It seems the most substantial difference between the Occupy and BLM movements was how ready the police were to deal with behavior in a outright aggressive way. Protests and marches have become so staged that the expectation of violence allows for the police to get away with a certain amount of publicized brutality before facing any real consequence.
It’s only when the photographer is unexpected now that they pose any real threat: the video of George Floyd’s killing and the picture of Michael Brown in the street both were visual documents that instigated the push for change, because that’s the world we live in now. As our society has been consumed by the spectacle, the roles of revolutionary and documentarian alike feel more and more like performances than positions of social change.
Photography has been a massively volatile creature as its many forms evolve through digital technology, and there’s a substantial social side effect to all of this in how we appreciate the world around us. The power of an image has been lost, and now they have become predominantly commodities, documents of a space and time that can be sold. It’s an existential question, much like the nature of our social institutions: what do we do when we outgrow our own inventions?