For Some Protest Photographers, There’s No Such Thing as Neutral

Photographs of protests in America have shaped our understanding of our nation's history. For many people behind the lens, activism is the point.

America is a nation born of protest. From the day rebels dumped British tea into Boston Harbor up until the Black Lives Matter rallies happening this month around the country, civil disobedience has shaped American identity. And when we look back on similar turning points in our history — the Suffrage and Civil Rights movements, the Vietnam War protests, the Stonewall Riots, and Occupy Wall Street — we see what remains of them: photographs.

Images of protest have, since the early 20th century, shaped our understanding of our nation’s history more than perhaps any other medium. We see Suffragettes picketing in front of the White House and the haunting images of nonviolent Black protesters in Birmingham in 1963, attacked by dogs and hosed down with firehoses. We see a Kent State University student screaming over the body of her murdered classmate, and ACT UP AIDS activists lying on Wall Street with tombstone shaped signs. And while we often reference, remember — and in the era of widespread social media— re-share these iconic photographs of protest, we rarely stop to consider the people who made them.

Penn[sylvania] on the picket line (1917), photograph by Harris & Ewing, Washington, D.C. Photograph courtesy of The Library of Congress.

The Washington, D.C.-based photographer Dee Dwyer has been covering protests since 2017. Like so many other Black protest photographers in America right now—Malike Sidibe, Patience Zalanga, and Alexis Hunley are just a few others who have been documenting the scenes on the streets of New York, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and beyond—Dwyer has spent the days since George Floyd’s murder dodging rubber bullets, tear gas, stampedes, racist police, and the national guard, all while exposing herself to the invisible threat of COVID-19. With D.C.’s government buildings as a backdrop, her images of protest carry a historical weight. “It feels like pulling back a bandaid to show a festering sore,” Dwyer says. Photographers like Dwyer have been risking their lives to ensure that stories about police brutality and systematic racism are told the right way. “I don’t mind putting myself at risk to make sure that Black kids in the future, and in fact the entire world, will look back on this moment and see the truth through our eyes,” she says.

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, protestors march to the White House for the death of George Floyd who was murdered by the Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin (2020). Photograph courtesy of Dee Dwyer.

While images of protest have always had the power to change hearts, minds, and politics, photography was, for most of the 20th century, far from inclusive on both sides of the lens. Up until the Civil Rights movement, many organizers orchestrated the exclusion of minorities from photographs. “[Suffragists] used their photographs to emphasize that white women were fighting for the vote of white women,” explains Suffrage image expert Allison Lange. “They believed that Americans would not support women’s voting rights if black women were the face of their movement.”

When we look back on early images of protest, we see the struggles of many captured by the eyes of a select few men. The reasons for that are not surprising, says Tamar Carroll, the co-curator of the traveling photography exhibition Whose Streets? Our Streets! “In general, [protest photographers] have been more privileged people and more often white people than Latinos, African Americans, or Asian Americans, because for one thing, it used to be very expensive to have the necessary equipment,” Carroll says. “It was also cumbersome…and even if you had a camera, it wasn’t easy to get your photographs published.” The images in the early canon were often taken by photojournalists on assignment, who had no personal stakes in the cause or community they captured. But as barriers of entry into the field gradually lowered, more activism-oriented photographers — realizing the vital role that images play in furthering a cause — have gotten behind the lens.

Woman Suffrage Picket Parade (1917), photograph by Harris & Ewing.Photograph courtesy of The Library of Congress.

This idea came to a head during the Civil Rights era. Doing away with the reverence for “unbiased” or “objective” images, great protest photographers like Charles Moore, George Ballis and Bob Fitch were by no means neutral in their cause and sought to “live within the movement.” Although Fitch died in 2016, his website serves as a lasting monument to his ethos. “Photojournalism seduced me,” Fitch wrote. “It was my way to support the organizing for social justice that was transforming history, our lives and future.”

“I love [protest photography] because its bias is right out front,” Carroll says. “The goal is very clear: to present the perspective of marginalized communities, in the name of social justice. The great photographers in this tradition have real empathy for their subjects, which helps the viewer feel empathy too. It creates a sense of human connection that isn’t always present in other kinds of photography.” Arguably the most emblematic and powerful images of the Civil Rights era were taken by Gordon Parks, who was the first Black staff photographer at Life magazine. Informed by his own lived experiences of racism, Parks’ arresting images articulated the Black experience to the national audience from an inside perspective, and in doing so, illustrated the pivotal role point of view plays in advocacy photography.

Solomon stands in front of a Police care with a face mask with George Floyd’s last words at the Black Lives Matter march for George Floyd in Washington, D.C. near the White House (2020). Photograph courtesy of Dee Dwyer.

Towards the late 70s and 80s, photography became more accessible, and more women, BIPOC and LGBTQ photographers stepped forward to tell the stories of their own struggles. In the 90s, people like the Asian-American photographer Corky Lee and LGBTQ activist Carolina Kroon embarked on a quest to make their causes and communities more visible in the American media and imagination. “I learned how important it is to interrupt the narratives that have been fed to us,” Kroon says. “And to reflect on what’s right, humane, and fair to anyone who is not part of the white, hetero, male, colonialist vision of the world.” Photographers like Kroon and Lee strove to familiarize the public with “othered” groups and in doing so, incite supportive action.

A lot has changed for protest photographers since the new millenium, but the issues themselves remain. “One of the first subjects I ever addressed was police brutality and racism in New York, and we’re still dealing with this,” Ricky Flores says. The South Bronx native has been documenting the effects of systematic racism in New York since the late 70s. “[BIPOC] have been [speaking out] for years and were gaslighted for it. But now that everyone has a camera phone, it’s hard to deny it when the evidence is right in front of you,” Flores says.

Today, almost anyone can take and publish images and videos of protest, but modern technology has also brought new ethical concerns to the fore. With improved facial recognition software, police forces are more frequently using images of protest as evidence — meaning photographers seeking to further a cause could potentially harm activists, if they’re not careful.

Images of people engaging in protest, particularly people of color, can result in legal action. “As a Black American, I understand the gravity of the repercussions [of protest photography],” says Dwyer. “Once the hype dies down, these people are left vulnerable. No photo is worth someone’s life, to me.” While some photographers have started to blur their subjects’ faces before sharing to social media, groups like Authority Collective encourage photographers to mitigate harm by “focusing on people wearing masks, using strategic compositions, stepping back for wider frames and experimenting with light and shadow.”

“[Protest photography] requires a very specific skill set,” says Kroon. “You’re moving in something that’s actually in motion and volatile, so you have to be extremely aware. You’re constantly anticipating moments that will convey messages and create impact, all while trying to compose it as beautifully as you can.” Capturing modern protests means juggling the task of action photography with the threat of violence, Coronavirus and legal action. Recognizing the delicacy of this juggling act makes those “stop in your tracks” kind of protest images all the more powerful. “It’s incredibly difficult to tell a story in just one image, but every once in a while you get that miracle shot that encapsulates everything,” says Croon.

Protestors outside Trump Tower on May 30th, 2020. Photograph courtesy of Mark Clennon.

NYC based editorial photographer Mark Clennon’s image of a Black proster with his fist raised in front of Trump Tower is one of a handful of photographs that have become synonymous with this iteration of the Black Lives Matter movement. Clennon is the first to admit he is not a journalist. “There is no ‘objectivity or neutrality’ from me; from birth, the skin on my back has been politicized. I approach my work this way because it’s important to know that my black truth is valid,” he says. The image is very much a kind of self portrait for Clennon, who feels abandoned by his country. It’s an image that was created in the face of the endless external threats and stresses, and one which will surely be printed in history books. “Sometimes things don’t need to be said,” Clennon says. “They need to be felt. This image [does] that for people around the world who feel like their flag has let them down. That is the true power of photography. ”

Related: Will The Protests Change Instagram For Good? Maybe. Probably Not.