Protest Photography in the Fight for Black Rights: From Gordon Parks to Marc Clennon

Isaac Castella McDonald 1 December 2020
Image Credit: Flickr: Gordon Parks at a protest in Washington D.C., 1963.

I find it difficult to look at these photographs without flinching from the memories and from the anger they invoke. But I must look. I must remember, as you must. For this was history in the making. Like it or not, you cannot hide from the camera’s eye. -’ Myrlie Evers-Williams  

2020 is a time for protest. So much needs to be changed about the world we live in today. Climate inaction, institutional racism, routinely practiced tax evasion, the violation of trans rights, the UK’s extreme regional inequality – the list of issues is dizzying, and it’s felt like, in this year more than the years before, we have finally seen some of these issues grow more and more in the public consciousness.

Photography has, since the invention of the camera, grown to become an indispensable component of protest – using the ability we all have in our smartphones to show solidarity, hold power to account, and share the truth with others has never been more possible and important. This was true with this year’s Black Lives Matter protests and the blatant police brutality they were met with, and in Belarus today, where, according to a resident of Minsk TCS recently interviewed, last Sunday 700 people were abducted from a peaceful protest by Lukashenko’s brutalised police-force.

Photography has, since the invention of the camera, grown to become an indispensable component of protest

Can a photo be angry? Well, yes, but it’s strange that an image of the world, as it is at a time and place, can inculcate emotion. This, beyond still life and the intricacies of lighting and composition, is the art of photography.

Protest photography is some of the most powerfully emotional photography out there. The context of the photo is implicit in the image, and the act of protest can be present in both the photo’s subject and the existence of the photo. The photographer can participate enduringly in the protest by recording the moment.

Both the subjects and the photographer are united in an attempt to reveal the truth in the face of orthodoxy, to reveal the outrage they want to resolve. In this way, the photo’s existence as an image can be consistent in intent and emotion with its subject – art critics talk about the congruence of form and substance, and protest photography can approach this in an interesting way.

That is not to say that protest photography is always beneficial to the cause, or reliable evidence. Veteran protest photographer David Hoffman writes:

‘Public protest is so potent a force that the state puts massive resources into subverting and undermining it. Undercover cops act as agent provocateurs as well as spies. Riot trained police provoke protesters so that the intelligence gathering teams can film and photograph them to add to the police databases. Police tactics are often designed to smear the causes rather than to keep the peace.’

But when the photo is an act of protest, it is incredibly powerful. When a photo has this union of photographer and subject, is undesigned by authority and emotionally charged, these images can, after the time and place of their capture, continue resonating in the world with their own life.

These images can, after the time and place of their capture, continue resonating in the world with their own life.

One example of this is a photo by the black photographer, musician, writer and director, Gordon Parks, who documented the Civil Rights movement in 1960s New York [1].

The composition of this photo articulates the power dynamics of the protest it records. It is synecdochic – the black protesters stand in a line, made into a united entity by the imperatives of protest on their signs. The line they form advances on the camera, with a trajectory that transgresses the centre of the photo; together, they overwhelm the image.

But, to the left, we can see the face of white authority. The power invested in this white figure by his badge, despite his blurred and marginal position, shows us the power the iconography of authority has in 20th and 21st century policed society. It’s specific insignia is irrelevant; the reality of the power that is in the hands of the whites is that, apart from the clearly demarcated difference of allocation with regard to race, it’s application is general, with the power this general application has to disregard the details of legitimacy and individuality; It’s outline is sufficient to reflect its function as a noumenal reality, without the need for the intricacies of legitimacy a specific insignia would represent.

The dynamic between the black protestor, standing in the foreground’s sharp focus, and this white figure, slightly cut off by the photo, is one which symbolises the dynamics of racial protest in a powerfully allegorical way. Although the image of the moment is dominated by the black protestors and their demands and humanity, the power of white America on the margins still has control.

This image is a vector; it continues beyond the material facts of its origin with it’s own life – even to 2020, when the tradition of black protest photography, that Gordon Park’s was a progenitor of, was the actual spark of protest, as well as a documentation of it. Here and now is where the trajectory of these protestors, in their united line, has led. But the badge still shines, inevitably and determinately recognisable on the borders.

The second photo was taken this year [2].

‘Trump tower’, superfluously twice in the image, holds an American flag behind golden bars. The man in the centre is strong, in focus, posing a definite opposition to the enormity of the faceless infrastructure of wealth, privilege, and white supremacy that Trump Tower is such an immediately recognisable symbol of. The authority figure in Park’s photo has retreated into the walls, and the foreground has a white arm, out of focus, mirroring and supporting the arm of the central figure, in a solidarity we do not see in Park’s image of the 1960s. The shine of the badge in Park’s image is like the shine of the gold of Trump Tower. This decadence, that does not even make an attempt to legitimise itself, echoes the badge of power now, and it stands in metallic contrast to the skin and emotion of the protestors. The photographer truncates ‘trump’ to ‘rump’ at the top of the image, in what you could see as a sly act of ridicule – we, the people, will decide how you are known. It is an amazing image, and one that truly is about more than just the specific individuals and the building, than the specific day and time on which it was taken. It’s about America in 2020, and the conflict it continues to be riven by. About the faceless power Trump is a figurehead and symbol of, and human desire. About solidarity, and about anger.

Protest photography is some of the most powerful and necessary photography out there. These images still sadly resonate with our world, but hopefully one day they will be little more than artefacts. It’s interesting to think that this kind of photography longs to become irrelevant, it hopes for its end. But I guess that’s also the nature of protest; it cries out to cry out no more.