I’d been trolling the internet for weeks, indignantly calling for better photographs of what had been described to me over and over again as a transcendent movement. Based upon the pictures, Occupy Wall Street did not look transcendent. It looked like every other damn left-wing protest photographed in America going back at least 15 years. “This one is different,” people kept saying, but I wasn’t seeing it. I’ve photographed protests in DC, Denver, and St. Paul and I’ve hoofed it alongside old ladies, veterans, everyday people and anarchists looking to express their myriad grievances as they marched peacefully or with flames in their eyes. I’ve managed to not get arrested or pepper sprayed when protesters and colleagues around me had no such luck. I have a keen sense of situation awareness when it comes to police and crowd-control devices. I’ve interviewed geniuses and lunatics who gleefully join the fray. I’ve been shouted down and threatened by young idiot anarchist assholes who idolize Heath Ledger’s Joker and believe in nothing but mayhem and entropy. This is all to say that I’ve shot a lot of protests. The prospect used to get my blood pumping, but after enough of the same shit over and over again, the thought of shooting another one makes my blood run cold.
But people kept saying this one was different. I kept putting out the call for compelling images. I said “no portrait series”- it’s first refuge of the lazy photographer, and I already know what these people look like. I wanted to see moments and intimacy and something to indicate to me that this really was different. People shot back “well why don’t you shoot it, hot shot?” and my blood ran cold.
I found myself in New York City at the end of October with one camera and one lens. I thought maybe I’d pop down to Zuccotti Park to see for myself. But the days went by and the excuses piled up. I was too hungover, it was snowing outside, I didn’t feel like it. I went down to the financial district to visit my agency, Redux Pictures, and I found myself a few blocks away from the encampment. I still didn’t want to go. By the time I finished my business at Redux, it was starting to get dark. Curiosity finally got the better of me and I went.
I walked the perimeter first, keeping my camera in my bag. I studied the scene. I saw news crews and photographers, some with assistants holding lights. I saw a small sea of blue tents and weary occupiers juxtaposed with highrise buildings, retail stores and police. I heard the drum circle and when I went into the camp, I smelled unwashed bodies and pot. I walked through the camp and took my camera out, shooting details mostly. It was different. All the other protests I’d shot had been mobile, but this was an encampment with a food area, comfort stations, media tent, power generators and more. I’ve always loved camping and I found myself a little charmed by these resourceful urban outdoorsmen. I decided it was time to start engaging, so I struck up some conversations. I started every one of them with “Is it alright if I take a picture of this/you?” Now, I almost NEVER ask permission to take a picture. It can kill a moment, or worse, someone can decline your request. Always better to ask forgiveness than permission, I find. Something told me to change it up with this crowd. Sure enough, the responses were entirely positive, with almost everybody actually thanking me for asking. The first time I was thanked, I asked why. A man explained to me that while they know they’re living in the Zuccotti Park fishbowl and the media has a right to record whatever they want, it’s non-stop from the moment they unzip their tents in the morning. Film crews throwing light, camera shutters snapping, reporters asking questions- it’s exhausting and irritating. In asking, I showed them a basic courtesy they were frequently denied. It led to immediate warmth and access that might have taken far longer to achieve otherwise.
I talked to some interesting and kind people, but also met a few profoundly mentally ill individuals. Given the ratio, it made me wonder who was filling the ranks of Occupy. I personally believe the shrinking middle class is a lethal threat to American democracy and that political and financial reforms in this country are beyond necessary, so I applaud the general sentiments expressed by the Occupy movement, but lack of leadership and a cohesive message and a plan is nothing to be proud of. It’s easy for middle America to dismiss the movement outright when Occupy lets itself be represented by its most fringe elements. I asked one curiously dressed boy why they didn’t consider occupying the Brooks Brothers across the street and getting some suits so as to send a strong visual message that they are to be taken seriously. He said “Wow, I never thought of that. I’m going to mention it at the General Assembly tonight!” Of course, nothing ever came of it.
I don’t want Occupy to fail because things will only get worse and history is pretty clear about what happens when we reach a true breaking point. I’d rather shoot a bunch of idealists in a park any day than an actual armed revolution.
The pictures? They’re alright for two hours wandering around a park at dusk, but certainly not transcendent. I’ve since seen some pretty stellar work from other photographers. My takeaway from the visit was more philosophical.