My mother said I needed to get a hobby to fill the yearning abyss that was my free time. So one fall day in 2012, I grabbed her old Canon DSLR, popped in some earbuds, and went for a stroll. The first one or two thousand photos I ever took were quantitatively shambolic. But I was having a great time and eventually started to get better. These days, I might even bestow upon myself the honour of calling my photos just above passable.
Like any photographer trying to improve their work, I looked to the genre’s titans for artistic and technical inspiration. William Eggleston and Cindy Sherman affected me most deeply. When I interact with their photography, the medium’s power becomes clear to me as it did in my first encounters. Sherman’s arresting portraits and Eggleston’s spine-tingling urban landscapes showed how photography has the power to change perspectives and rewrite histories. It could make someone a hero, while relegating their neighbour to abject villainy.
It quickly became apparent to me that the photographic medium could bridge art and politics. Photography is an artistic tool that is inherently political, constantly dictating how individuals and communities perceive and understand the world around them. This ability to restructure, silence, empower, and prioritize certain narratives over others is how the medium discursively creates heroes, villains, and those who don’t quite fit in anywhere. But, what happens when you introduce the camera to atrocity, social movements, and protest?
Photography documents, curates, and reproduces resistance on the ground. Julia Skelly, a course lecturer in art history at McGill, told me that photography played a crucial role in how Americans understood the Vietnam War and their state’s violence against Vietnamese civilians.
“Certain photos taken during the Vietnam War, for instance, led increasing numbers of people to protest the war,” Skelly said. “Perhaps the most famous example is Nick Ut’s 1972 photograph of children fleeing a napalm attack, including nine-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc, who is naked and screaming in the photograph.”
South Vietnamese forces follow after children, including 9-year-old Kim Phuc, center,
after an aerial napalm attack on suspected Viet Cong hiding places, on June 8, 1972. (Nick Ut/AP)
Following the same dichotomous protagonist vs antagonist form, protest photography holds two intertwined, yet discrete methods: Coming close and zooming out. Portraiture, for instance, can represent a connection between photographer and subject in a moment of intimacy that, when done correctly, brings the viewer toward the subject, revealing a sliver of their soul. This is the coming close. Photos showing the protest at the level of the crowd is the zooming out. The photographer reveals the size, context, nuance, and community of the protest to the viewer.
Protest photography’s precise execution of these two impulses can profoundly shape how viewers may characterize the individual actors within a social movement and how they relate to the movement as a whole. The camera’s shutter freezes a moment in time. Yet, that frame can transcend the fixed snapshot and activate new conceptions of social action and collective demands for justice.
Protest photography that zooms out connects people to the issues and politics concerning their fellow citizens. Being critically informed on the issues outside of one’s own community takes time and energy. Not everybody might have enough free time to read a long-form article, but they perhaps will be more inclined to linger on the photograph that’s attached to it.
“If I have 300 pages of readings to do a week for class, am I really stopping to read an entire newspaper article? Probably not,” said Méshama Eyob-Austin, project manager for the Black Students’ Network in an interview with The McGill Tribune. For McGill students who work part-time, have children, or struggle to balance school and mental health, the time to engage becomes severely limited.
Protest photography that focuses on capturing a demonstration’s collective atmosphere informs individuals about community issues at a glance. Seeing your peers assemble around an issue is a window into the complex, and often inaccessible, world of politics and power. This window can spark or reinforce allyship and solidarity, building an internal sense of how one wishes to relate to the injustices faced by others. Viewers might notice existing allies already present in the protest who came to support the movement from different intersections of oppression and diverse ethnic, political, and personal backgrounds, demonstrating to them the nuance of opinions and perspectives invested in the movement, and inter-community solidarity.
As project manager for the BSN, Méshama played a pivotal role in organizing the protest on Feb. 10 in response to the murder of 21-year-old Nicous D’Andre Spring by Bordeaux Prison guards.
“It is such a beautiful representation of community coming together in times of need, and working together to advocate and push for change,” Méshama said.
We can’t understate photography’s ability to platform this moment of collective reckoning against the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal and other carceral forces. By capturing a community assembled in solidarity for a common cause, protest photography provokes and inspires further activism, especially amongst students. Whether the viewer absolutely agrees with a movement, seeing others gather reassures a student body that you have a voice to push back, to move McGill, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, or the world.
Yet, protest photography can’t only focus on the macro. In any protest, there are unique feelings, thoughts, and emotions between different individuals and at different moments. Protestors can experience self-fulfillment and purpose from the common expression of anger, sadness, or happiness that occurs in demonstration. It is a space and time for union and solidarity with peers and strangers alike, coalescing around a shared vision of and desire for a future that is radically different from the current reality. The photographer needs to get up close to bring the viewer into the varied emotional milieu that distanced shots may flatten.
This affective agglomeration is deeply linked to McGill student life. For example, according to Celeste Trianon, a trans activist and organizer of January’s protest against a TERF guest speaker hosted by the Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism (CHRLP), community members and participants shared a wide spectrum of emotions.
“Many folks are angry and disappointed that they have to protest in the first place,” Trianon said. “They are disappointed that their right to exist is even a question up for debate. Lots of folks are feeling unsafe, disappointed, and otherwise saddened by McGill and the CHRLP's actions.”
Photography that zooms out and focuses on group shoots can never capture this emotional vortex. Instead, we must zoom in, walk towards, and get close to subjects. Masterful protest portraits can make you feel like you’re having a silent conversation with a protester—no words need to be exchanged for the viewer to have an affective understanding of what it meant and felt like to be in that moment.
Alessandra Sanguinetti’s portrait of Shaionna Ziegler, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, demonstrates this powerfully. Ziegler stands with their fist in the air, solemnly looking to the ground as they protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. The sadness and frustration strewn across their face, combined with the strength in their pose and poise communicates a palpable emotional gravitas.
Good portraiture places you at the subject’s shoulder. Capturing the emotional experiences of a protest reveals how power structures map onto individuals. There’s a reason why many of the most famous and disseminated historical protest photographs depict an individual facing a barricade of police or state authorities. Their pain, anger, despair, and determination become embodied and reified. Without this quality, photography is no better
than a fact sheet.
Protest photography that focuses on the micro can also prevent the sloganization of protest movements. Group pictures of protests frequently capture activists’ signs and the slogans written on them: “Eat the Rich,” “#MeToo,” and “Silence = Death.” In one sense, this is a benefit to this style of photo: The powerful words on posters that succinctly demand change can demonstrate the commitment of individuals to the cause. Viewers can glean insight into the protesters’ outrage immediately with each slogan and poster.
Crowd shots that capture slogans rather than individuals, however, can backfire and harm the protest movement. By allowing slogans to become a core aspect of the protest’s aesthetic character, photography elevates the word over the complex power of the image, obscuring the movement’s intellectual and emotional nuance.
The Defund the Police movement is the most recent example of this phenomenon. Due to the overemphasis on that slogan, Defund the Police’s campaign was depicted by media conglomerates and right-wing thinkers as advocating for a world where low-income communities are left to fend for themselves and the world is fundamentally a less safe place. The slogan has become the defining feature of the movement in public discourse.
But the ideas transcend the limits of just defunding police institutions. The movement pushes for reinvestment of tax dollars into community-level solutions and a renewed understanding of the ways we relate to the state and its monopoly on violence. The nuanced ideas of community-centric support, reinvestment in alternative services, and new conceptions of human socialization and flourishing grounded in non-violence and care are hidden behind the sloganization of the movement.
Facts and arguments can be ignored or twisted, but emotion is as close as humans get to a universal connection.
Up-close protest photography helps us avoid this reductionist approach to social justice movements. Intellectual nuance will always be easily ignored by those who wish to do so, regardless of the photo’s style, and especially in a digital age where algorithms favour attention-grabbing rather than accurate narratives. But protest portraiture confronts the viewer with human faces etched with pain, sadness, conviction, or anger. Facts and arguments can be ignored or twisted, but emotion is as close as humans get to a universal connection. Intimate, up-close and personal protest photography can move us from fact and argument to emotion and transformation.
Intimate protest portraiture is not without its flaws. Focusing on one individual can make for effective emotional transmission to the viewer, but it also risks depicting the broader movement inaccurately and magnifying the individual to recognition by violent and repressive forces. The extremes of human emotion attract our portraiture: The saddest, angriest, or happiest people make for the most compelling portraits. However, this tendency of protest photography can produce harmful effects. Focusing on the angriest person in the crowd will communicate the sentiments of righteous ire to the viewer, but can also be used by uncritical or oppositional audiences as a tool to paint the entire movement in the same light.
When we only engage portraiture briefly, viewers might fail to explicitly distinguish between the emotions of a protester and the core values of the protest. There is no single hegemonic emotion that governs the entire collective. A myopic focus on the most extreme emotion ignores the inherent complexity of any social movement and associated moment of protest.
Depicting the protest as emotionally one-sided risks doing a disservice to the broader movement. For example, photography of student protesters for climate change will sometimes focus on the angriest-looking individuals in the crowd. Detractors of climate movements have used these photos as visual rhetoric to prove that student climate activists are angry radicals with no connection to realistic solutions. Instead of compassionate souls fighting for justice and a better world, student protesters become transformed into rage-fueled brutes seeking to scare the rational opposition into submission.
This isn’t to say that climate protesters aren’t angry, but rather that anger is only one of many emotions that could be used to characterize these protesters. Showing the diversity of voices and perspectives within a protest is the power and importance of photography that captures the totality of a protest moment.
However, protest photography will fail without an equal balance between intimacy and collectivity. Truly successful protest photography will both come close and zoom out. Focus too broadly on capturing the diversity of opinions and values within the movement, and the resulting images will fail to bring the viewer into the emotional space of the protester. But if the photographer prioritizes bringing the viewer into the individual’s affective atmosphere, they risk advancing illusory depictions of the movement.
Balancing portraiture and group-centric photos when documenting protests ensures that photographers do not do a disservice to the social movement being captured. It is up to the photographer to choose who to show and what to portray. The same movement or march can be shot in countless ways, harmful, horrifying, empowering, or liberating. Peter Magubane, a South African photographer who worked tirelessly to capture Apartheid, said that “[A] struggle without documentation is no struggle.” How a photographer represents a protest will go a long way to determining how it is understood and its likelihood of success.
Photographers are not simple onlookers. We are active participants in the success or failure of a movement. Anyone with their finger on the shutter button must remember this fact—indelible, ingrained, photographic.
Illustrations by Drea Garcia, Design Editor