These photographers want to change the way you view protests
Our Streets is a column by writer and reporter Ray Levy Uyeda that highlights activists, artists, and organizers who are doing the work and reclaiming power for the people.
The images from protests often tell a single interpretation of news events. Standoffs between police and protesters are presented as a battle between two sides that are equally resourced and similarly protected; water protectors locking down on oil pipelines are petulant rather than courageous. Sometimes, photographs will miss elements altogether: the joy of coming together, the quietness that falls upon a crowd as someone picks up a megaphone, the mix of young and old voices chanting in unison, “Whose streets? Our streets!”
All reporting offers a specific perspective, and for many photojournalists, maintaining “objectivity” can mean dehumanizing the people they’re photographing and regarding them as distant subjects. But for movement photographers, the goal is to capture with their lenses the full range of the power that is created when people stand together to challenge institutions.
Movement photography differs from standard photojournalism in both mechanics and mission. Movement photographers will intentionally capture peoples’ faces and often take photos closer to subjects rather than from a distance. They know that their images can shape the way people perceive protesters, so they photograph joyous moments or young people leading a protest, and specifically don’t valorize police. Movement photographers intend to go beyond simply documenting and instead answer the question: What does it look like to demand respect?
“What we have always needed is not just to correct for the destructive imperialistic, white Western gaze. We can't correct for that, that damage has long been done,” says Tara Pixley, a Los Angeles-based movement photographer and professor. “What we can do is expand the field and just continue to expand out what our social imaginary can be,” she explains, referring to the values, ideologies, and laws that make up our society.
Pixley is a cofounder of the Authority Collective, which works to break down barriers women, trans, nonbinary, and gender non-conforming people of color face in the photography industry. For Pixley, movement photography is about making a better future. “It's correcting the course,” she tells Mic. “It's correcting our future directions and allowing for us to have a different experience with the multimodal ways of being human.”
Photography, and photojournalism, has racism baked into it. For years, before photographers could develop photographs themselves, lab technicians would use what was called a “Shirley card” to evaluate the quality of the photograph’s color. Until the mid-1990s, Shirley was a white woman with brown hair, meaning that the skin tones of Black and brown people were measured against what was supposed to be a “neutral” skin tone but was really just a white one. These industry standards sent implicit messages about who was worthy of being photographed.
Intertwined with the physical production of images is the reality that journalism is overwhelmingly white. In 2018, Pew Research found that newsrooms were actually less diverse than American workplaces overall, with 77% of workers in newsrooms identifying as white. This means that more often than not, photographs are deemed “newsworthy” by a white person.
Vanessa Charlot, a Miami-based documentary photographer, chronicled protests in St. Louis in the summer of 2020. “History is often told from the position of the victor, not the victim,” Charlot tells Mic. “I wanted to make sure that I provide visual nuance to whatever history is going to be told, specifically to provide that to the lens of children of color, but also parents who really wanted to understand the complexities of what happened. How can we move conversations forward through photography?”
Charlot’s photos of the 2020 protests tell stories that are critical to understanding the push for liberation: a photo of a Black man standing opposite a row of white police officers, with a caption featuring the words of Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton; a photo of a Black woman blocking traffic and holding a sign that says “WE FED UP!!!!, which Charlot captioned, “Another name. Another life loss. More excuses made. As if there is ever a good enough excuse. This is exhausting. America’s apathy. Peace and justice runs through the fingers of black hands like sand. Escaping, never to have or hold or experience.”
Charlot says her approach to photography is influenced by great thinkers and movement workers who came before her. “I'm an avid reader. I'm a huge fan of Tony Morrison and [Chinua] Achebe — people like that. And what I really like about their work is that you have these rich Black stories that exist outside of the white gaze and they exist outside of the oppressive gaze,” she says. “When we ... focus the story from the perspective of a Black person, I think it really brings to light the idea that our life still has meaning, we're still doing a lot of things outside of what you say.”
“It's not always a battle against oppressive forces, because those forces have existed forever,” she adds. “It's more about, how do we live in spite of those things? How do we love in spite of those things?”
Charlot recounts a photoshoot she did in the summer of 2020 in her studio with a couple, while a protest happened to pass by outside. “There's a picture with their heads together, and it's actually not a staged picture,” Charlot says. “People were chanting, and it just seemed like they were just being with themselves and processing, What does it mean to be a Black man right now? What does it mean to be a gay Black man right now? Where is safety? And it seems like they found safety in that moment with each other.”
Brooke Anderson, a movement photographer and photojournalist based in the Bay Area, says she wants “my camera and the images it produces to really be one of the tools [and] one of the weapons in the struggle for collective liberation.” Anderson came to photography through her work as an organizer, and says she sees herself as being “accountable to the movement.”
Accountability can mean any number of things, she tells Mic, including building relationships with the people she photographs and specifically asking for consent to capture someone’s image — two things not common in standard photojournalism. When Anderson wants to take a photo, she says she’ll make eye contact with people, point to her camera and signal with a thumbs-up that she’s interested in capturing their image, and then wait for the go-ahead. For someone standing at a microphone or on stage, who likely knows they’ll be photographed, Anderson might not ask for permission first, but for everyone else her method is an acknowledgement that protesters are people, rather than just subjects in a story.
Anderson also says that she makes sure to put the camera down sometimes and just listen to what’s being said. It’s part of an interrogation of her own role as a human, and as someone tasked with documenting public actions. “An ongoing question for me,” she explains, “is, here's someone who's crying on the microphone about what it's meant to have their son murdered by police. Do you capture that moment because it's important to show the grief? Or is that the moment at which you put the camera down and you put a hand on your heart and try to be a human being?”