The Image-Makers: Documenting Protests

By now, we’re no strangers to photos and videos of police escalating confrontations with demonstrators and the killing of individuals in custody. Such visceral imagery has been captured for decades: “What the camera had to do was expose the evils of racism, the evils of poverty, the discrimination and the bigotry, by showing the people who suffered most under it,” said photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks in 1983.

Photo: Maiya Wright

What’s newer is the immediacy between the act and distribution of the images, and the new dangers to the image-capturers. Police have attacked more than 100 credentialed press photographers, reporters, and video camera operators in just the last weekend of May, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

But the immediacy of image distribution also can magnify the outcry and in turn, the response to it. Four police officers in Minneapolis were fired on the same day George Floyd was killed.

“It’s shocking today how quickly images and videos can be transmitted via Instagram and other social media outlets,” says Photography Chair Brad Paris. “Politicians are expected to respond in real time to interactions between police and protesters. Hopefully, the new media landscape will lead to increased accountability.”

Photo: Alex Golshani

Photography senior Maiya Wright and alumnus Alex Golshani have been capturing images at recent protests in New York City. They talked to us about how photography has helped propel the protests, about the emotions and experiences shared among the protesters, and how that gets translated, and sometimes mistranslated, to the public.

Photo: Maiya Wright

Q. What were the expressions such as pain, anger and frustration that you were observing as photographers?

Maiya Wright: As a photographer and a black woman at times it became overwhelming and painful being in a crowd full of rightfully angry people. I witnessed a protester stating to an officer: “What are you going to do, shoot us?” while the officer stood  there looking down on us and grinning and laughing. Sometimes I needed to put my camera down and just breathe, but I knew I had to keep photographing because otherwise who was going to believe any of this happened?

Alex Golshani: There were a lot of emotions being expressed, a lot of people giving monologues of their experiences and the pain they feel. It’s striking to listen to someone’s account of their run-ins with police and how it has hurt them, and experiences of police brutality. There’s a combination of fear and resignation about society’s silence.

Photo: Alex Golshani

“It’s so important to have photographers and videographers documenting these protests. Maiya and Alex are working in the great tradition of photographers like Danny Lyon, whose photographs of the Civil Rights Movement brought images of marchers and their conflicts with the authorities to the rest of the country.” – Brad Paris, Chair, Photography

Photo: Alex Golshani

Q: Images can be a convincing record that moves rapidly through media channels. How does the process advance or alter the discussion and reaction?

Alex Golshani: I came across a woman (above) lying on the pavement. The cops were saying she had a seizure. Other people were saying she was pushed by a cop and her head hit the ground and she became unresponsive. People sent footage of her sharing her story from her hospital bed, as well as video of the cops pushing her.

Maiya Wright: It finally shines a light on what we have to face in society. It is legitimate proof that these are things that happen to black people on a daily basis.

Photo: Maiya Wright

Q: Is that enough?

Maiya Wright: No; there are people who will try to justify the images as something other than what was actually captured. When a form of racism and violence is caught clearly on camera, it is the job of the viewer to decide whether to ignore it or not.

Photo: Alex Golshani

“It’s shocking today how quickly images and videos can be transmitted via Instagram and other social media outlets,” says Photography Chair Brad Paris. “Politicians are expected to respond in real time to interactions between police and protesters. Hopefully, the new media landscape will lead to increased accountability.”

Q: What were the protesters’ messages and demands, and how are they being expressed?

Alex Golshani: The messaging is very clear, the demonstrators want reform within police departments across America. They want police officers who break protocol in their conduct with people — whether they’ve allegedly committed a crime or not — to be professional and not brutal. You hear a lot of  “We just want you to stop killing us.”

Photo: Alex Golshani

Maiya Wright: At the Barclays Center on May 29th, an officer began talking through a loudspeaker saying that, “This assembly is unlawful. If you do not disperse, you will be subject to arrest.” This was after they began pepper spraying the crowd, beating people and arresting people for peacefully protesting.

Q. What were you capturing that might not otherwise come across or even published in a news story?

Alex Golshani: There is a lot of debate about the role of photography and video at protests because of what happened in Ferguson, Missouri; the photographs and video footage that the press published was used by police and private thugs to hunt down protesters and carry out violent acts against them. Video in particular is important because it can show a sequence of events. Yet people covering these protests have to be sure that what they’re capturing and what is being published cannot be used to harm peaceful protesters.

Photo: Maiya Wright

Maiya Wright: The focus in news stories is mainly on the violence that occurs and rarely on what the healthcare people are doing to help the people who have been pepper-sprayed or beat up. They are an important part of the story that is not being shown! You have to be observant about every little thing that occurs, the good and the bad, to get the correct story into the media.

Photo: Maiya Wright

Q: What, if anything, defines these protests as specific to NYC?

Alex Golshani: Protests in New York are different. If the city’s police department were a military force, it would have about the 25th largest military budget in the world. Also, the scenes are iconic, in locations that people are used to seeing. That has a visual impact. A protest in Times Square or Union Square strikes an extra visual chord.

Photo: Alex Golshani

(Golshani, con’t) The police are being fairly facilitating up to a point. I have witnessesed, however, police being wrongfully agressive such as shoving protesters when it didn’t seem at all necessary. They’ve mainly stepped in to prevent looting and violence. The main message is peace and change.

Photo: Maiya Wright

Q. How might this experience impact your direction as a photography student?

Maiya Wright: I have become fascinated and inspired by documentary photography. This semester I took Intro to Journalism and fell in love with it. With the protests across the world, it is important to me to photograph the truth. It is important to get photographic proof of exactly what is happening. We have to be seen.

To follow the work of Maiya and Alex, visit their websites and IG accounts at: MaiyaWright,  IG: @maiyaimani, and AlexGolshani, IG: @alexgolshani

Photos used with permission

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