Underwater Protest

Demonstration photography is boring. At least if you go by the photos in most newspapers. Aside from being relevant, to, say, an article about a protest march, more often than not, the images are interchangeable. Earnest people holding up signs. Long lines of young people, following one another in pursuit of some noble cause.

How could you get excited, if the events appear so frequently interchangeable? The only thing that might be even remotely unique is the quality of the photograph. Is it clear? Do the expressions on protestors’ faces say something you hadn’t felt, or thought of, before? That’s what I always look for.

Europe under water. Brussels, December 19th.
Drenched. Brussels, December 19th.

These are the sorts of reasons I get anxious about covering demos. Why make the effort if everything looks the same? I don’t mean to sound cynical. Certainly, more people get inspired by a good protest than not, and leftists tend to like shots of demonstrations. It’s about democracy. They’re signs of community and dissent. They should be recorded.

But most published footage captures moments that are familiar, that make us feel like we’ve seen it all before. As an editor, I often find myself craving imagery that’s more challenging, that’s not just a collection of bodies marching against an idea, or a policy. I want to be pushed to connect with what I’m seeing on a deeper level than appreciating a good costume, or placard.

All of this said, I tend to photograph more demonstrations than not. Working a block from the European Commission in Brussels, there’s always something to shoot, whether it be for work, or personal interest. You just have to force yourself to go out and look for moments that depart from the norm, which make you feel like you’re seeing something new.

The photos in this article are a good case in point. Taken the day before heading home to Berlin for Christmas vacation, I stumbled onto a demonstration against the controversial TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Partnership) agreement, which would, if passed, create the world’s largest free trade treaty, between the US, and Europe.

Out of the fog. Brussels, December 19th.
When the smoke cleared.

Blocking the Piazza Schuman area, where the main buildings of the Commission are located, with huge tractors, protestors faced off against police in the early hours of the morning, marching and chanting slogans, under thick sheets of rain. Smoke was everywhere. A French punk band was playing in the distance. It was equal parts street party, and civil war.

What made the crucial difference, for photography, was the ambiance. The early morning light, in particular, and the moisture, made me feel like I was under water. Not entirely submerged, but on the edge of drowning, in the mix of everything. The anger on people’s faces, the desperation in their eyes, did little to dispel the intensely anxious,¬†dionysian vibe.

These aren’t my favorite pics, but they do express, on some level, what I tend to feel absent in the news photography I often read, and publish, on demonstrations. Though I was unprepared, I had a pocket camera – a Ricoh GR – in my bag. Ironically, I slipped on a sewer lid, and fell, breaking it at the end of the protest. It was a fitting denouement, I guess, considering the circumstances.

-Joel Schalit

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