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Seeing Protest Up Close and At A Distance


Protest 2

Photographs of protests from around the globe abound.   But whether taken in Hong Kong, the Ukraine, Greece, or almost anywhere else—including the United States—it is often difficult to discern little more than an opposition between police clad in riot gear, wielding shields, batons, and tear gas or pepper spray squaring off against scantily clad dissenters seeking to maintain their presence in a public space. Some protestors prove to be violent, to be sure, though the cause of provocation is never all that clear. But the point is that at least in recent times there appears to be little that distinguishes the unrest that is unraveling state authority almost everywhere. Or to put it differently, it seems like the legitimacy of state power is increasingly pushed to the furthest limits of authority and required to use force to sustain its primacy. Isaac Asimov has one of the main characters in his Foundation trilogy note that “violence is the last resort of the incompetent,” and the point is doubly significant when it is directed at those entrusted with the maintenance of governmental authority.

The photograph above is of a “lego” display that appeared outside of the government headquarters in Hong Kong this past week and the yellow umbrellas clearly mark it as signaling the pro-democracy protests that have dominated news coming out of China for the past month. But apart from the umbrellas that signal the protests in Hong Kong, this could be a conflict anywhere in the world, positioning a faceless state authority against a diverse population of individuals (comparatively diverse, that is, but then there are limits to what one can accomplish with lego figurines). And notice the attitude of the opposition, with the military forces cast in the darkest of tones, carefully arranged in preparation for a military style assault and “the people” dressed in brightly arrayed, ordinary clothing with no particular order to their arrangement, rather as one might expect to find a democratic populace, each moving in its own direction without actually getting in the way of the other.  What is most pronounced, however, is the barely visible fence that divides one side from the other and leaves no room for negotiation or compromise.   The opposition between state and citizens is stark, and Order must be regimented and maintained at any cost, even at the risk of destroying the society that the state presumably represents and is consigned to protect.

That the meme represented by this lego display (and a scene reproduced in photograph after photograph from conflicts all over the world) is so easily recognizable—even for someone who has paid no attention to the protests in Hong Kong—should alert us to the possibility that there is something larger going on here than a local battle. Of course every particular conflict is rooted in local concerns and animated by very specific objections and complaints that need to be considered, but the larger point is that increasingly the opposition between state authority and the voice of a democratic polity seems to reveal few opportunities for accommodation. And it might leave some wondering if there is room for democratic dissent anymore.  It is hard not to be pessimistic.

Occasionally, however, one encounters photographs that offer a more optimistic possibility, and this overhead view of demonstrators gathered in Hong Kong’s Admiralty district might be a case in point. Like with the lego display the vantage point is

Protest 1

from above, though the protest site is now at a greater distance from the viewer. And what we see is both more and less. The immediate sense of opposition is neutralized (or veiled?) by the fact that we see the protest framed by the larger cityscape. The markers of difference between state and citizenry are impossible to discern or distinguish, as one would hope to be the case in a properly democratic order. All are equally cast in a natural darkness, though all are equally illuminated by streetlights and buildings (and perhaps a bit of moonlight), and so the opposition of lightness and darkness loses much of its normative force, and more it is clear that the darkness will soon return all to the light of day, if only for a bit. More important, perhaps, is that the scene marks a high modern society that blends both skyscrapers (and notice the cranes, which indicate continued construction and development) and multitudes of people who appear to be in some measure of harmony with both the city and one another. Indeed, the protest notwithstanding, there is a degree of everyday orderliness to the display, with tents and shelters dispersed through the scene and people milling about as if at a street fair. Order here does not have to concede to rigid regimentation and oppositional dissent does not necessarily have to reduce to drawing a line in the sand.

Of course, the multitudes could become outraged by continued efforts to deny their voice or the state could choose to wield force to have its way, and tragic, bloody violence could easily end up being the order of the day. The point here is not a call for a Pollyanna sensibility about the possibilities for peaceful protest and democratic governance. Rather, it is to suggest that the photographic conventions that too easily pit the state against the people in simplistic terms (as demonstrated by the meme represented by the lego display) are not the only possibility (however “real” they might be in some register), and that taking a longer view (and at some distance) sometimes allows us to imagine other ways of imagining the possibilities available to us.

Credit: Tyrone Siu/Reuters; Philippe Lopez/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

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What If They Held a Protest and No Photographers Showed Up?

Democracy relies upon dissent. Not just the theoretical possibility of protest implied by the First Amendment, but the very thing itself—flesh and blood individuals speaking truth to power and thus embodying  the possibility of popular sovereignty in contexts that demonstrate both the risk and safety of political opposition.  Of course, in a mass society of over 300 million people, “speaking” truth to power has less to do with words per se—although sound bytes, posters, placards, graffiti, and 140 character tweets do play a role—and more to do with visibility.  Put differently, political protest is as at its root a matter of public spectacle, and its success or failure is generally a measure of who controls what is seen and by whom.  Of course, governments and political operatives have known this for quite some time, and each seeks to manage the dialectic between seeing and being seen to strategic benefit.  Photographers know it as well, and they too use it to strategic effects.

The NATO protests in Chicago this past weekend are an interesting case in point, as both protestors and police have jockeyed to control the public eye, each enacting what have come to be fairly conventional poses.  The protestors, of course, want to be seen en masse as a way of giving a sense of solidarity and magnitude to their popular presence, but they also want to make it clear that they “see” what is going on behind the closed doors of governments and corporations.  Theirs is, we might say, an attempt to embody a democratic gaze—the people seeing and being seen.  Governments, on the other hand, also want to be seen, but they get caught between official political/diplomatic roles played by recognizable leaders (think of all of those photo ops you’ve seen of the heads of State shaking hands with one another, or relaxing together while watching a soccer match on the television) and the maintenance of public order, (hence lots of pictures of anonymous, paramilitary forces whose task is to “uphold the peace”).  Theirs is a statist gaze or what we might call “seeing like a state.”  Corporations, it seems, are generally content to remain largely invisible—their recently achieved status as individuals to the contrary notwithstanding—in a manner that implies an apolitical neutrality.

Photographers tend to capture all of this in a manner that reinforces the status quo, which is to say it underscores the sense in which our government remains democratic (dissent is allowed), even as government officials perform their tasks (leaders meet, negotiate, do their business), and the police maintain the peace (they “watch over” the scene” and “clash” with those who pose risks to public safety).  Sometimes, of course, the police become over zealous and have to be reigned in (one more sign that the status quo is working) but in general they are professionals doing their job under difficult circumstances.

It is easy to be cynical of such an account, but there is a different point to be made.  For such images also remind us of the importance of political spectacles as a potentially important medium of public engagement that are not entirely controlled by any one agent or set of agents, whether protestors, governments, or the media—or for that matter, the audiences that consume the images. The caption to the image above notes that the police officer shown “watches demonstrators protest”  in Chicago during the first day of the NATO summit.   And the point is that he wants to be seen watching—notice his stance and how he holds his baton as a visual threat to anyone who would challenge his territory or charge; indeed, the point is precisely that he needs to be seen watching in order to enact any sort of agency.  But in this regard he is no different than the protestors who also need to be seen watching.  Both are actors in a political spectacle.

In an important sense, democracy in particular relies on such spectacles as a way of giving presence to its effectiveness and legitimacy.  And that is not an inherently bad thing, for spectacles rely upon the active involvement of a viewing audience to authenticate the experience on the ground even if its members are not directly involved in it.  That said, political spectacles always come with the risk that seeing and being seen can be manipulated as absolute and hierarchical technologies of domination and control.  In the photograph above, are we looking at the legitimate defender of a democratic regime or big brother?  There is no final answer to that question, of course, but it is one that we need regularly and vigilantly to entertain.

Photo Credit: Joshua Lott/Getty Images North America

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