My thanks to writer New York Times Lens Blog for pointing out the exhibition ‘Whose Streets? Our Streets!‘ currently taking place at the Bronx Documentary Center until March 14, 2014, but more importantly for most of us, on-line. Curated by photo editor Meg Handler and historian Tamar, it features work by 38 photographrers, including a few familiar names.on the
But as Handler says in the Lens feature, few of the pictures were widely seen when they were taken; “It used to be, you’d show your contact sheets to a couple of your friends and that was it,” she said. “They’d rarely get seen.”
Handler goes on to say that the freedom of movement for photographers ended in 2002, but she continued by saying that any demonstrator with a phone can now project images to the world almost as the events are happening.
I’m not sure how different things are in New York to here in London, but here there is certainly no shortage of photographers covering protests, and while it’s obviously true that protesters with smart phones now tweet and post images as events take place, this is a rather more recent phenomenon. When I first got a mobile phone, a little after 2002, like most at the time it didn’t have a camera, and it was only at the end of that decade that phones with cameras began to be widespread.
Things did change around 2002. Photographers got digital cameras – like the Nikon D100 I bought towards the end of the year. A few professionals had used them earlier, but mainly in more lucrative areas than photographing protests. For a few years after most of the photographers at demonstrations here were still using film – and I continued to use both film and digital for several years.
Back then, unless you had something that was startling news, you took your pictures, came home, developed film, looked at the contacts, maybe made a few prints and took them to the agency a day or week or more later. If you though you had something special, you would phone a paper and if they were interested take them the film to rush through for the next day. Staffers would of course take in their films – and most of the protest pictures published were from photographers on the staff of the major agencies and papers. They only bothered to attend major events, and seldom stayed for more than a quick photo-op.
Photographers who really covered protests were a different breed – and it shows in the pictures in the Bronx show. Here – as there – some worked for the left-wing magazines and small circulation newspapers – such as Mike Cohen who gave me advice at times when we covered protests and whose work appeared regularly in the Morning Star, Socialist Worker and Searchlight, which also regularly featured pictures by David Hoffman, a photographer who some on the extreme right confuse me with and I get a share of his abuse along with that really intended for me.
The other thing that has changed and encouraged more photographers to cover events is the growth of online photo agencies that have little or no bar to submissions. Sites like Demotix (bought out and closed down a year ago by the Chinese to end its competition with Getty) encouraged people to put much unfocussed (often literally as well as metaphorically) photography online – with many more people becoming photographers, and a few of them producing work at least as good as that of the professionals who disparaged such sites. And of course there are professionals around the world who now contribute to such on-line agencies.
“The freedom of movement all ended in 2002,” states Handler, but here protesters have often managed to avoid being penned by police, and except for those on the extreme right and some anarchists, protesters have largely remained on good terms with most photographers.
So we have more photographers than ever taking pictures at protests, although no more pictures are being used. Many that do appear are pretty poor because what matters most is not quality but getting the images in first, with many photographers rushing into a corner before a protest has even started to file some pictures. It’s a race I refuse to take part in, but then I’m in no danger of going hungry or getting evicted if my pictures don’t make the news. Like those photographers in the Bronx show I’m more interested in telling the stories – but at least now I can get them out on Facebook and My London Diary even if the newspapers don’t pick them up.
Another big change is of course the move to colour that came with the move to digital. There are rather more colour pictures in the Bronx show than I would expect from any similar UK show of the same era, but it is still black and white that dominates. Now using black and white is largely only an affectation practised by a few largely younger photographers hwo have never really learnt how to use it, other than clicking on a button in Lightroom or other software.