Assignment 3: research on protest photography

As usual whilst working on an assignment, I took a look at the output of other photographers working with similar subject matter. Rather than finding a few specific projects however, I discovered a diverse set of individual photojournalism images; it seems that protest groups are the subjects of news photography more than documentary photography in its more investigative sense.

There has been a lot of what you might call ‘protest photography’ since the middle of the last century, as significant movements such as civil rights in the USA, anti-apartheid in South Africa and more recently anti-capitalism (Occupy) have taken to the streets and given photographers interesting visual material.

There are some tropes or clichés of protest photography, specifically marches / demos, that I have observed (if not totally avoided in my own work). David Hoffman, a veteran of protest photography, said this on the nature of the genre, saying that little had changed since the 1970s:

“We still have flags, placards and banners; crowds walking from one symbolic spot to another; lightly-armed police constraining, directing and sometimes disrupting them; news-gatherers working the same formula of long shot with a compressed perspective on large numbers of people, and close-ups documenting contexts and police actions.” (Hoffman 2011)

I’ve picked out a few of the tropes that I noticed.

Banners and placards

A staple of protest photography, but can be a little lazy and often making the text do the heavy lifting.

The placard is such a cliché that there’s been a recent sub-genre of protest photography that picks out the ironic ones, though this can diminish the effect of the protest somewhat as these are the signs that get photographed rather than the more serious ones.

Juxaposition

A more visually interesting technique is juxtaposition, often of the protesters with the local law enforcement:

Movement

The word ‘movement’ has a pleasing double meaning in the context of protest marches, so imagery that shows a ‘direction of travel’ is loaded with metaphorical meaning… the very notion of marches involves moving from one place to another, which in itself has metaphorical value, and photographers recognise this.

The cynic in me notes that some photographers chose to depict marchers moving from right to left (i.e. ‘backwards to the past’, as we read from left to right) rather than ‘forward to the future’, i.e. rightwards.

Crowd shots

Usually from a high vantage point, sometimes fully aerial, the crowd shot is shorthand for how significant the issue is: if 100 people turn up for a particular cause, it is inherently less important than if 10,000 do. Again, being cynical, photographers can look for vantage points that either minimise or maximise the crowd size, depending on their intention.

My big issue with crowd shots is that they are hardly distinguishable from each other – the specificity is lost. A good crowd shot usually only works in the context of other images from the same event (or a really clear caption).

Summary

It’s been interesting to note that here has been a kind of visual language for protest photography that has persisted for decades. Part of the reason for this is that, as noted in my introduction, protests are generally material for news photographers rather than project-based documentary photographers, and there is traditionally less room for creativity and expressionism in news photography.

I have reviewed my images in the context of this research, and decided that I have indeed ticked off a few of the clichés (the placards, the crowd) but am also pleased that I have taken a few less obvious images, particularly the portraits of individuals.

Sources

http://eitherand.org/protest-politics-community/dead-end-streets-photography-protest-and-social-co/ (accessed 09/08/2016)

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