Three young people clasping arms, their faces covered with black bandanas. A police officer with his badge taped over, gripping a baton like a baseball bat. A middle-aged woman holding a sign that asks, How Many More Must Die?
These aren’t scenes from the ongoing wave of Black Lives Matter protests. They’re from Washington, D.C., New York City, and Rutland, Vermont, in 2001, 2003, and 2006, respectively. They are just three images from Our Voices, Our Streets: American Protests 2001-2011, a recent book of photos by Kevin Bubriski.
As the title suggests, Our Voices, Our Streets captures politics in public as it unfolded over the first decade of the 21st century in the United States. With crisp black-and-white, medium format photographs, Bubriski manages to masterfully compose quiet, dignified portraits amid otherwise wildly kinetic events, such as demonstrations against George W. Bush’s inauguration, marches opposing the War in Iraq, and Occupy Wall Street. Less in line with the title, the book also depicts Veterans Day parades, September 11 anniversary ceremonies, and campaign rallies—arguably forms of politics in public, but hardly “protests.”
It is in the implicit attempt to reconcile such disparate political forces that Our Voices, Our Streets feels like a record of a world further away than time suggests. For example, a police officer in full riot gear is pictured beside anarchist youth, suggesting that they are not only set for a fair fight, but for equally fair reasons. Bubriski’s impulse in trying to connect these opposing sides through their common humanity, as he describes it, seems not only impossible but un-attemptable in the midst of the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests. Even if protesters and police were interested in reconciliation, chances are that the sheer amount of violence dispensed by the state would prevent Bubriski’s careful compositions.
Because of this, Our Voices, Our Streets serves as a greater testament to how far politics in the United States has come since the start of the 21st century. In content, the book captures the evolution of protest aesthetics, tactics, and causes, while also hinting at a genealogy between movements then and now. But in form as well, Our Voices, Our Streets is a relic of bygone politics—of a centrist, “both sides” perspective, which attempts to empathize equally with police officers and protesters. That too is a form of political progress, albeit one that Bubriski captures in the negative.
I recently spoke with Bubriski about Our Voices, Our Streets, the evolution of U.S. street movements since 2001, and the responsibility of the photographer. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
The photographs in Our Voices, Our Streets were taken from 2001 to 2011, from Washington, D.C. to Rutland, Vermont. Were the photos originally parts of other assignments or projects? Was it always your intention to create a long-term study?
The photographs were all taken as a self-assigned project, which for many years I called “The American Street.” My inspiration for the long-term project started with my deep sense of disappointment over the Supreme Court decision to grant George W. Bush the presidency. I felt compelled as a documentary photographer to make photographs of the protests at the 2001 inauguration. I felt the same compulsion to make the extensive collection of street portraiture around the World Trade Center site after the 9/11 attacks, which became my book Pilgrimage: Looking at Ground Zero.
None of this work was assigned but came from my own intention to make a long-term study. I continued over the decade, 2000 to 2011, to get to as many New York City and Washington, D.C. protests as I could. The Occupy movement felt like an appropriate endpoint for the long-term study. I also had taken a full-time teaching position in 2010, so my free time was diminished.
Over the decade that Our Voices, Our Streets covers, do you think there's an escalation in conflict that you capture, with an isolated protest against George W. Bush's inauguration at the start and nationwide occupations at the end?
I don’t recall a sense of escalation in conflict on the street that I witnessed or captured. I was always working with a medium-format Hasselblad film camera, often with two cameras around my neck. These cameras are not made for quick, decisive moments of a handheld 35mm Leica or small digital camera, so the camera format determined the formality and quietness of many of the images. I found it hard to work with those cameras when situations got tense and erupted into violence. I also wanted to avoid violence because of my fear of being arrested or injured and film and cameras confiscated. I also wanted to photograph the variety of people on the street, so intentionally kept a neutral position with everyone around me.
There has definitely been an escalation of conflict and violence over the years, especially because of the brutal killings by police, the presence of phone cameras, and the proliferation on social media of images and videos, which capture more dynamic action and in turn elicits response on the street.
Are there any trends that you saw develop from George W. Bush's inauguration protests to Occupy, either in terms of aesthetics, dynamics, or otherwise?
Protests at the Bush inauguration and protests about the Iraq War were not heavily social-media-driven events, other than website postings for the next protest event. Occupy was then in some ways a turning away from the forcefulness of mass media. The encampment at Zuccotti Park was about close proximity, human-to-human connection, and non-electronically amplified voices of a younger generation. In the years after the Iraq War began, there appeared to be a loss of energy and a feeling of powerlessness among protesters until the Obama campaign re-energized people toward the end of the Bush years.
You mention wanting to keep "a neutral position" while attending these events. Do you feel that your work also attempts to present a neutral, or "objective," perspective? Is neutrality or objectivity even possible when composing inherently political work?
I think what I mean by a "neutral position" is that when I was making the photographs, I did not shout slogans, carry a sign, or express outward, overt support for or against those people that I photographed. I needed access to both sides of a demonstration or political action and did not outwardly identify with anyone. The photographs of the Bennington police making arrests on March 19, 2003, would not have been possible if I was viewed as taking a side and committing civil disobedience. I was in the street and felt my priority was to make the images. I have also never had press credentials. I was just an individual witness, a documentary art photographer, without any special press privilege.
My work does not really attempt to present a neutral or objective perspective. I make a number of choices about what to photograph at a given event, determined by the light, the individuals or groups encountered, and my eye’s desire to make a successful or interesting photographic composition. All of these considerations take away objectivity, as perhaps could be recorded by a stationary, locked-off surveillance camera. I witness an event by moving through it and deciding who will be in the picture, what is around them that I want to include in the frame, where to place critical focus and other considerations. Then there is the further editing of the event by choosing which photographs stand out for their photographic qualities or storytelling qualities that I want to share. All these facts go against presenting a neutral or objective perspective.
The wave of recent Black Lives Matter protests has been marked by police violence against bystanders, including photographers. Did you experience anything like that while shooting Our Voices, Our Streets?
I did experience violence on the streets a number of times. At the first George W. Bush inauguration, I was caught between the police and energetic protesters fighting around the U.S. Navy Memorial. And then the Saturday after the Iraq War started, I was caught again between police and demonstrators in Washington Square Park. On the third anniversary of the war, while walking ahead of the energized young protesters from the Pentagon over the Potomac Bridge to the National Mall, I could see a wide phalanx of more than a dozen police cars driving over the lawns and roads approaching the bridge. I actually backtracked on the bridge to warn the young protesters, who were wearing black bandanas and antagonizing the motorists on the bridge. The protesters dispersed before the police could make a mass arrest. That was the only time I actually took part to help avert violence. In our present time, the young protesters might not have dispersed.
You mention that you only once took part in averting violence at an event you were documenting for the book, which alludes to the longstanding debate of the photographer as observer versus the photographer as participant. Do you feel strongly about remaining neutral? Has that position changed over time?
I do feel strongly about remaining neutral to make the photographs. But I also believe in putting down the camera if there is an emergency that demands my attention beyond making photographs. The incident on the Memorial Bridge in D.C. was after the permitted protest had finished and most protesters remained in the parking lots around the Pentagon. I felt it was helpful to alert the young, energized protesters of the large numbers of police and vehicles heading their way. It appeared to me that there would have been unnecessary widespread arrests.
What distinctions do you see between the current wave of protests and the previous ones you've documented? Are there any particular lessons that you think should be passed down?
The distinctions are that we are living in a much more polarized America now than after the 9/11 tragedy. There is also a different way of representing and documenting the protests. Now, with the ubiquitous presence of cell phones, there is dissemination of very explicit video and still imagery of the most violent moments, and these video and still images get the most attention, with the polarized sides of the conflicts picking and choosing particular coverage to suit their agenda.
Much of the protests two decades ago, and now, are not as violent as certain coverage leads us to believe. Often tens of thousands of protesters have marched through the streets with little press or social media attention because these are peaceful protesters and not as visually compelling as those in conflict. It is also hard to engage and impress the public viewers with how large some of the protests were and now are. Aerial images give a sense of crowd size overall but lack the specificity and identification and empathetic connection that street-view, close-up images of specific individuals can present.
Has the proliferation of cell phone cameras displaced the documentary photographer at street protests? Or are such photographers bringing something unique to the table?
Cell phones democratize the meaning of documentary photographer or photographic storyteller. For a long time, the photojournalist or documentary photographer had a position of privilege—the upper hand in the power relationship of who is representing whom. This meant that the documentary photographer had the extra responsibility of being a small minority who brought the story to a large audience. Now, with cell phones and small, high-quality digital cameras, there is a democracy of image-makers and storytellers. This multiplicity of voices, images, and stories enriches us all, but leads to more individual responsibility on the viewers and receivers of the stories.
When I pick up my Hasselblad camera, my high-resolution digital camera, or my cell phone, I always think of light and composition, along with the capturing of a moment, event, or scene. These aesthetic considerations are my own default way of visualizing the world around me and are with me regardless of the format I use. My own personal artistic choices and decisions take precedence over the immediacy and urgency we see in the coverage of current events and breaking news by other photographers. Some of the quiet power of the street portraiture in my book, a decade or two after the events documented, arises from the formality of the framing and composition.
Our Voices, Our Streets repeatedly positions conflicting forces on equal footing, such as the side-by-side portraits of riot cops and protesters. If you had the opportunity to lay out the book again today, in light of the recent protests, would you do it the same?
I like the side-by-side portraits of the riot police and protesters and feel the juxtaposition is important. As mentioned in the book’s text, it is the common denominator of the Hasselblad lens that gives equal presence to each individual portrayed. I tried to see the full humanity of everyone before me. In the faces of the police and security personnel that I have photographed, I often see their ambivalence, uncertainty, and disconnect between their body armor and helmets and their personal vulnerability. Working as a documentary photographer, I often work over the long term on a project and want to give respect along the way to everyone. Now we live in a more partisan and more intolerant time. It is important to bring back mutual respect for each other across the racial, economic, and social divides that have grown immensely in recent years.
When you talk about trying to "see the full humanity of everyone before me," I can't help but think of President Donald Trump claiming that there were "good people on both sides" after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Is that really what you're trying to say with this book?
When I mention seeing the full humanity of everyone before me, I’m thinking of the helmeted police and how I tried to express a hint of the emotional complexity I saw in them—especially officers of color. I’m also thinking of the construction workers and others seen in the September 11, 2002, photos, the Vermont National Guard portraits, and others. While I don’t know their specific politics and did not converse with them, I wanted to present their humanity.
I look back to the remarkable photography of August Sander a century ago and his extensive collection of portraits of the German people, which became a major and important body of work, People of the 20th Century. It included portraits of farmers, Jewish professionals, Nazi officers, artists, disabled individuals, blind children, people of color, circus performers, and others. I value the work Sander did and was inspired by it with my own portraiture on the American streets.
Our American streets have now been extremely polarized, militarized, and made dangerous and volatile during the Trump presidency. I strongly disagree with President Trump claiming that there were "good people on both sides" after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. I also wonder if my medium-format, black-and-white film photography is the way to understand the urgency and immediacy of our present moment. Our Voices, Our Streets has quickly become a look back at a vintage version of what our streets looked like when there was more trust, more connection, more tolerance, and more of a sense of shared American experience. This has sadly been deeply fractured during the Trump presidency.