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On the Front Lines: Photography and Protest

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The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month sparked hundreds of thousands of people across the country to protest, participating in marches, vigils, and mass demonstrations against systemic racism and police brutality. Mainstream media covered these protests extensively at first, some especially focused on the destruction of property more than the conditions that provoked such a response. Several weeks later, as largely nonviolent protests have continued across the country, including Baltimore, that coverage has waned.

We’ve seen this before, like in Baltimore five years ago when the media helicoptered in to tell an incomplete story about the uprising sparked by Freddie Gray’s murder and then left once the fire died down. So it is essential that photographers, writers, artists, educators, and activists record and take note of what goes on, and that they continue to use a variety of tactics to make demands of elected officials. It’s crucial that those present at protests are able to tell their personal stories and record their experiences, especially those historically excluded from the narrative.

Online platforms like Instagram and Twitter have made images of protests available to a much larger audience than ever before and, in the case of Devin Allen in particular, have opened up professional opportunities and fame. Five years after his iconic image from a 2015 Baltimore protest for Freddie Gray made the cover of Time magazine, Allen’s photograph from a recent Black Trans Lives Matter protest and vigil in Baltimore (which appears below) was recently selected for Time’s cover.

The ethics of photography are always up for analysis, and within the context of protest right now those questions are particularly important. As suggested by Authority Collective, a group of women, nonbinary and people of color working in the photo, film and VR/AR industries, photographic documentation at such protests can yield unintended psychological consequences: “The constant circulation of images depicting violence on Black bodies adds to the desensitization toward Black suffering, while white bodies are photographed with dignity, subtlety and nuance.” There are also discussions about potential harm and repercussions for protesters identifiable in such photos as well as an insistence that Black Lives Matter protests, in particular, should be documented by the Black artists whose lives have been most directly affected by systemic racism and police brutality in America.

BmoreArt talked to six different photographers, five based in Baltimore and one in DC, about what it’s been like to participate in and document the recent protests.

 

Devin Allen documentation of Black Trans Lives Matter protest and vigil on June 2, 2020
It's not the pictures you take, but sometimes it's the photos you don't take. The best photographers know when to put the camera down.
Devin Allen

Devin Allen
IG: @bydvnlln
Twitter: @byDVNLLN

Bio: Devin Allen was born and raised in West Baltimore. Allen gained national attention when his documentary photograph of the Baltimore Uprising was published on a Time Magazine cover in May 2015 – only the third time the work of an amateur photographer had been showcased there. Allen has turned his attention towards arming the youth of Baltimore with cameras, not guns. The mission of his Through Their Eyes project is to spread “hope and love through art” by training students from districts where arts education programs have been underfunded on how to use photography to express themselves. Through crowd-sourced fundraising, Allen provided students with cameras, donated his time holding youth photography workshops, and organized an exhibition of the students’ work. Allen is dedicated to empowering young people to tell their stories and the fellowship will support the continuation of his Through Their Eyes project. Devin Allen has been recognized as a 2017 Gordon Parks Foundation Fellow.

What have you been seeing and hearing at the protests?
I was so proud of the youth-led protest on Monday, June 1 in Baltimore. This generation is taking up the mantle and expressing what they feel and it’s been amazing, watching older activists helping them out but allowing them to lead. Our youth is really bright and strong, and this was beautiful to see. Baltimore protests have been peaceful for the most part and I’m proud of the city and my peers that have returned back to the front lines, five years after the uprising. There are a lot of us who went through the uprising, and we might not all agree on our tactics, but we all want the same end goal. We have all grown and matured and we understand what we want to do even more.

What changes have you noticed in the way photographers are documenting the protests?
Five years ago I was the only one, that I knew of, shooting protests in black and white. For me, it’s always been easier to relay a message this way and color can be distracting. Back then I only did real stark black and white, straight from the camera, and I still think it goes straight to the emotion. Also I am slightly color blind, so it is a struggle for me. Protest photos are a trend right now, and a lot of journalists like me are on the ground shooting. I shoot a lot of protests and everything in between, here in Baltimore. Once the national media leaves, photographers will return to whatever work they were doing before, but I have been doing this for a long time and my work will continue here.

Devin Allen’s photo of Baltimore’s Black Trans Lives Matter vigil, now on the cover of Time magazine

What are the ethics around shooting protest photos? What are the boundaries for you?
Some of the photographers shooting right now are doing more harm than good. They’re not out there for the right reasons, they’re coming around from other places and they don’t understand the impact of their actions. For example, some activists can get harassed by the police. Some photographers have had their cameras taken away by police.

The biggest code that I live by when shooting is this: It’s not the pictures you take, but sometimes it’s the photos you don’t take. The best photographers know when to put the camera down. I don’t have photos of Freddie Gray’s funeral, I don’t have images of anything on fire. I am a citizen. I am from Baltimore. We are peers and family. Sometimes you have to say, it’s not about taking pictures right now. You can tell the story and if you’re really about the cause and change and really out here beyond your work—you have to take care of people and things can get really bad really fast.

How is this playing out while you are in the moment?
So many photographers are shooting me and when they see me put my camera up, they’re questioning me. When they were shooting rubber bullets and I put my camera up, someone asked me why I didn’t take photos and I said it’s not the right time, clashing with National Guard and the police. Someone asked me, what about controlling the narrative? I said, I am an activist and concerned citizen first. Now is the time to see if people are OK, directing traffic, getting people milk for tear gas in their eyes.

Do you have suggestions for other photographers who want to respectfully capture protest photos?
There are a couple of rules I follow, just in general, for protest. Shoot from behind. Shoot really dark. Look who is actually there and get to know the organizers. Regular people protesting are fine, but when you photograph organizers or leaders it can get dangerous for them or can be used against them. I don’t want anyone going to jail under the work that I’m doing, that’s counterproductive.

Are there specific techniques you use for protest photography?

Shooting up to the sky, shooting upwards, blurring effects with low shutter speeds, these techniques are all pushing my creativity, but it’s way more than pictures for me. I have been trained and went through activist training. I know how to interact with the police and when you document these things—a peaceful protest—you want to capture that. Even when there is unrest, you want to capture that, but you have to protect the people first.

 

 

Elena Volkova, photo of protest signs from Baltimore's Youth Led Protest on June 2, 2020
It was inspiring to see so many people protesting, and to see that white people are showing up in support. Racism is our collective issue; we all need to stand up against it.
Elena Volkova

Elena Volkova
Web: elenavolkovaphotography.com
Podcast: 10 Frames Per Second
IG: @thinstring

Bio: Elena Volkova was born and raised in Kiev, Ukraine, and moved to the U.S. in 1994. She earned two degrees from the Maryland Institute College of Art: an MFA in Studio Arts as well as a BFA in Photography. Elena’s current body of work follows post-minimalist aesthetic and focuses on liminal space, bringing attention to the everyday overlooked moments and addressing viewer’s interaction with an art space. Volkova has received several recognitions and awards, including the Janis Meyer Traveling Fellowship, Hamiltonian Fellowship, Sondheim semi-finalist awards well as Vermont Studio Fellowship. She has exhibited her work regionally and internationally. Volkova resides in Baltimore, MD and teaches Photography at Stevenson University.

What was it like attending BLM protests in Baltimore with your five-year-old son?
We went to the youth-led protest at Sharp and Pratt, earlier in the day on Monday, June 1 and marched about two hours. This was Luka’s third protest… He had been to an environmental protest and the Women’s March. There were sidewalk writings about justice and we had a whole conversation—my son asked what does it mean? How do you talk to your five-year-old about these issues? You don’t want to burden them or give them anxiety, but he understands on a personal level. He initiated the conversion and this created space for him to explore in his own way, which is in line with our philosophy as parents.

What did you see?
People were wearing masks and we tried to keep a healthy space from each other. It was huge. I didn’t think it was going to be this big, and considering the quarantine, it was a lot of people. There were volunteers giving out water and hand sanitizer and sunscreen. People chanted. It was peaceful, the intent was felt and apparent. It was well organized, and about 50-50, in terms of the balance of white and Black protestors. There was a lot of 20-something people. Where we were, there were a ton of young people. I saw very little media, one guy with a camera, but a few photographers. For a protest this big, it seemed newsworthy.

Why is it important for you to attend protests?
As an immigrant from Ukraine, which the president refers to as a “desired” country, I was there in an act of resistance to the narrative that some demographic groups are more desired/preferred. And I was also there to represent a community of people who do not always express outrage with racial discrimination in the US. As a human being, it’s important to push against stereotypes and narratives. I came to the US at age 19 in 1994 and attended MICA in 2000. I know that I am privileged, regardless of my immigrant status, despite the suffering that immigrants experience.

As a mother, I saw an opportunity to have a conversation about injustice with my five-year-old son. Although he could not understand the nuances of what was happening, he was quite moved by seeing thousands of people marching.

As a teacher, I see every student in my class, and I try as much as I can to be tuned in to the experiences of minority students, racial and otherwise. As an educator, I see my role as a leader and a role model, and inspire students to stand up for justice. Because we were out of the classroom for so long, it was important for me to express where I stand and reflect on my white privilege publicly.

What are your takeaways from the experience?
It was inspiring to see so many people protesting, and to see that white people are showing up in support. Racism is our collective issue; we all need to stand up against it. Black people have been fighting enough, but the system still perpetuates inequality. Perhaps if we all join the fight we could tip the scales. Protest is one of the many ways to resist, and for me, being an educator is empowering.

 

 

Shae McCoy, photo of an anti-Trump rally
For Black photographers this is a time to properly tell our story and not cause more trauma than what's already present.
Shae McCoy

Shae McCoy
Website: shaemccoyphotography.com
IG: @shae.mccoy.photos
 / @west_baltimore_ruins

Bio: Baltimore’s own Shae McCoy has been consistently blazing platforms and leaving her media footprint within DMV and beyond. At the ripe age of 22, she founded uncommonrealist.com. A media source positively cultivating the minds of the public in not just the realest way but in a realist way. McCoy’s deep passion for pop culture, the arts, and news has enabled her to expand her brand and be in the same room with the greats. Shae had the honor to interview actors, activists, community leaders, and local politicians. One of the highlights of her career was interviewing the Michael B. Jordan, who has starred in The Wire, Fruitvale Station, and Friday Night Lights.

When and where have you protested?
I protested for the first time in 2015 when Freddie Gray was murdered. My first time protesting as a photographer was a few days ago. All protests that I have attended have been in Baltimore City.

Anti-Trump Rally, 2017

What did you see, hear, and feel?
Well, in the recent protests I’ve noticed a lot of white people protesting. I am for people trying to bring awareness to a cause or situation if it is genuine, but I won’t lie and say that I wasn’t skeptical of them being there. I questioned their intent heavily. I also noticed a lot of artists out, which I felt good about. Although I was skeptical, I had to remember my purpose in this and press forward. I felt drained, honestly. I felt confused because even though I had my camera I felt more like protecting the people I was around instead of photographing them. I know it is my duty to document, but I am not in the business of exploitation.

Anti-Trump Rally, 2017

What did you notice about the experience and how did it impact you emotionally?
To a lot of people, protests are just social movements. Everyone isn’t built to be out on the streets and that is OK. There are other forms of protesting. Some think that we solely are going out to raise hell and then going home to do nothing. A lot of people participate with little to no understanding. I was one of those people in the beginning. Emotionally, I felt drained, angry, and tired. I am still feeling drained, angry, and tired. We revisit this nightmare year after year, day after day, week after week. Only one person or three make it to national headlines. It is deeply saddening that brutality in some form has been part of every Black generation and I will one day have to explain to my children how the color of their skin makes them a target from the womb.

In your opinion, how can artists and photographers make a difference in supporting justice, equity, and a better future for Baltimore?
I feel like, for photographers, while we are documenting times like this, it is our duty to be responsible while on the front lines, making sure that we are keeping identities safe and being honest with our work. We have to understand that this isn’t a time to be selfish and do things for our personal gain. For Black photographers this is a time to properly tell our story and not cause more trauma than what’s already present.

 

 

Philip Muriel, Photo from May 30 Protest in Baltimore
Philip Muriel, Photo from May 30 Protest in Baltimore
Capturing someone in a moment is really about creating a moment in time, a piece of history.
Philip Muriel

Philip Muriel
Web: philipm.pb.photography.com
IG: @philip.muriel

Bio: Philip Muriel was born and raised in the beautiful city of Baltimore, Maryland and has been practicing photography since he was nine years old. Muriel has a bachelors of art degree from the University of Baltimore and currently works as a full-time artist and a part-time educator, who also mentors other photographers along their journey.

Where did you attend protests?
Downtown and through Station North: We started on 20th street by the Crown, marched all the way up North Ave., down Pennsylvania Ave., Charles Street, and then to City Hall.

Philip Muriel, Black Lives Matter Protest in Baltimore

What did you see and experience?
Being out there was super uplifting, seeing people come together for a single cause inspired me in a lot of ways, not only as a citizen of Baltimore, and as an artist—specifically a Black artist, to understand my role in this protest and what that means. I’m doing a lot of thinking about what that means, how I can continue to push the narrative of Black artists in Baltimore. Our lens is unique to this city and it’s really important for us to get our view out there—for people to see what we see and where we come from. Also, going out there and marching with everyone, it seems like a huge support from community members marching with us, also from the sidelines, younger and older people supporting and chanting and clapping, smiling, this all meant so much to me.

Why do you photograph at protests?
It was important for me to be there in that moment and to document. I’m realizing that a lot of people who were protesting on Saturday weren’t typically people who look like me or who are from where I am from. I am realizing that more and more people who look like me and are from where I’m from, they’re not seeing the amount of coverage—people where I’m from are busy surviving. It was important for me to document and share what’s going on.

What do you want readers to know that hasn’t been widely reported in mainstream media?
I don’t think people are seeing the reality of these protests. I feel like there are a lot of opportunities here that aren’t given to people where I am from in Baltimore City. (I’m from the east side of Baltimore and I am a City College graduate.) The creativity and talent is here, but there are few opportunities to display in galleries, to have their work featured and seen online. I see a lot of outsiders seeing opportunities here, and it limits artists here from being a part of a local-global art market. It actually suppresses a lot of artists based here, doesn’t give them necessary resources to succeed.

Philip Muriel, Black Lives Matter Protest in Baltimore

Why do you make photos of people at protests and how does this relate to the other work that you do as a photographer?
I have been shooting people since I was nine. I was on a third grade field trip in 2002, and I picked up a camera and never stopped. For me, capturing the essence of people, especially in a moment, speaks to me as an artist and a person, as a person with a soul. Capturing someone in a moment is really about creating a moment in time, a piece of history.

I do portraits but I love doing documentary and event photography. I am good with people, and people are important to me—the importance of connecting with your audience and those you photograph. Even with me taking pictures of the protest on Saturday, there was nonverbal communication—with all of my subjects—because it was important for me to have consent, not always written, but a connection with that person. It’s really important to respect people’s privacy, and I respect that.

 

 

Kyle Pompey, Black Lives Matter Protest in Baltimore
I heard chants, cheers, horns, and helicopters, all of which made a sweet sound of unity.
Kyle Pompey

Kyle Pompey
YouTube: youtu.be/kwueinYJV7A
IG: @niceshotkyle 

Bio: Kyle Pompey, owner of Nice Shot Media, LLC considers himself an “organic photojournalist.” Whether collaborating in his studio or documenting throughout his travels, Kyle avoids posed or planned pictures. Instead, he perceives the energy of his subject, which he allows to define the story of the moment. Breaking the mold of perceptions is the goal of his debut photography book “Perspective: Baltimore.” Designed to promote freethinking—every image will deliver a different narrative from the reader. A Baltimore native, Kyle is featured in a variety of publications such as Ebony Magazine, The Huffington Post, GQ, Essence, Japan Magazine, and The Baltimore Sun Dark Room.

Where were your protest photographs made?
The images that I’ve chosen to share are from two separate protest marches, two Saturdays apart on May 30th and June 6th, 2020, both protesting against police brutality sparked by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of four police officers. I’ve attended many others in the past as well: protests for the Clean Air Act to shut down the BRESCO incinerator, the Truckers strike at the Port of Baltimore, Freddie Gray, and a few more, however this one hits a bit harder.

What did you see, hear, and feel at these protests?
While at the recent protest for George Floyd and against police brutality I saw Black, white, and brown people all protesting for one thing: anti-racism. I heard chants, cheers, horns, and helicopters, all of which made a sweet sound of unity. I saw people doing what they could to express how they felt, from holding signs, to passing out water and granola bars, to capturing the moment. It was great! It was exhilarating! It was necessary!

What is your personal takeaway from these protests happening right now?
The moment made me feel like we are headed in the right direction and that our kids are seeing what’s right vs. what they’ve been taught. It starts from the seed and we will thrive through them.

What rules do you follow, as a photographer, especially at a protest?
I just like to capture the vibe of whatever it is that I’m shooting. I’m not trying to disrupt the natural flow of life and want to just show the world through my eyes.

 

 

Randall Scott, Washington DC Protests in front of the White House on June 1 before the president's now infamous Bible photo-op, at Lafayette Park corner of H Street and 16th Street, Washington, DC.
My first thought was, if this was planned, they had to know this would incite crowd reaction.
Randall Scott

Randall Scott
Web: randallscottphotographics.com
IG: @randallscottphotographics

Bio: Based in the Washington DC area, Randall Scott considers it a privilege to photograph the amazing individuals he encounters. People have such an endless treasure trove of stories and experiences, what better way to understand the world and humanity by listening and then retelling their adventures through a photograph. Recent clients include National Geographic, Time, and NY Magazine.

When and where did you make your protest photos?
On June 1st, I decided midday to head to the White House and support the protest and demonstrators who were peacefully assembling. My form of support has always involved my camera and the documentation of things I see. I was not on an assignment, it was just me and I had not planned to be out past the imposed 7 p.m. curfew. I wanted to be a part of what was peaceful and community-led. I needed to understand what was happening and my role in it all. So there I was. In the crowd.

What was the scene like before the President’s now infamous photo-op with a Bible, where police and military forces attacked legally assembled protestors?
The police were set back some 150 feet from the barricade which lined Lafayette Park separating the protesters from the White House grounds. At first there didn’t seem to be that many of them. I crossed over to the church and photographed people organizing water and first-aid kits. There were two church officials in collars chatting with people. It was all peaceful. I continued to move further down H Street looking for people to talk with and photograph.

Around 6 p.m., the police line started getting larger. New police and what appeared to be national guardsmen quietly moved in formation to elongate the line. I was photographing a Secret Service police officer, when I noticed a group of men in suits heading from the White House. It was William Barr and he was inspecting the troops. It wasn’t long before the crowd recognized him and it sent the protesters into a tailwind of insults. My first thought was, if this was planned, they had to know this would incite crowd reaction.

About 6:30 someone on a muted bullhorn announced that curfew was approaching and this was the first warning. It was barely audible—if you were not near the front you would not have heard it. Then, a second warning that included the word “Final.” The police spilled through the barricades and formed a line on H Street near St. John’s. Protesters moved in and stood their ground. Then the first tear gas canisters ignited behind me and the crowd surged backwards as the police moved forward.

Randall Scott, Washington DC Protests in front of the White House on June 1 before the president’s now infamous Bible photo-op, at Lafayette Park corner of H Street and 16th Street, Washington, DC.
Randall Scott, Washington DC Protests in front of the White House on June 1 before the president’s now infamous Bible photo-op, at Lafayette Park corner of H Street and 16th Street, Washington, DC.

What did you see and feel?
I moved to the side to put on my goggles. That’s when I heard the first of many rubber bullets. They make a heavy whizzing sound. I turned around and there was a man I had seen earlier covering his face. Several people sprayed a milk solution into his eyes. I moved toward the protestors directly in front of the police, camera raised, it was only 15 feet. I shot several images of people with their hands up, then a flash grenade went off and one of the officers lunged forward. Maybe two seconds later there was a Secret Service police standing in front of me with his baton high in the air, he looked right at me and I turned in anticipation of taking the hit on my back.

As I turned I somehow instinctively grabbed my press credentials, held them out, and screamed, “Press Press Press.” He hesitated just for a moment and I quickly moved away. I am not sure if my press badge saved me, or he just stopped when he saw I was not wearing helmet. Other journalists there that night and across the country were not as lucky. Journalists were targeted.

As I made my way east the tear gas, flash grenades and rubber bullets continued for perhaps another 20 minutes. By that time the streets had been cleared and Trump was on his way to get his picture taken, holding a Bible, in front of a church where just an hour earlier a priest was handing a thirsty protester a bottle of water and a granola bar.

What is your takeaway from the experience?
There was no violence on the part of the protesters in the beginning, it was peaceful. Most of the demonstrators had their hands up and were moving away.

 

Randall Scott, Washington DC Protests in front of the White House on June 1 before the president's now infamous Bible photo-op, at Lafayette Park corner of H Street and 16th Street, Washington, DC.
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