Features | Not a media event

Photographing the feeling we call community

When the media event happened, I was trying to forge my way across the street. It was my first year of university, and the Maple Spring was coming into full swing.
The immediate reaction I had was to photograph the demonstrations – or should I say #manifencours – that were passing by. Living across from Loto-Québec at the time allowed a trigger-happy young photojournalist like myself to capture much of the police violence enacted upon protesters – mostly made up of youth (presumably students).

The student strikes, known affectionately as the Maple Spring, created a spectacle that many media-makers exploited. This was the time for student photographers, journalists, and editors to demonstrate just how well they could report, tweet, and break news on a topic that hit so close to home. For many of them, the strike became a great opportunity to showcase their work, to ‘make it’ into mainstream media outlets and to network with fellow reporters. In fact, many student reporters and leaders made careers out of the strike, from which they continue to harvest. As a contributor to student media, and the photo editor of The Daily at the time – my term began in May 2012 but I was photographing before that – I, as well as many others, occupied the liminal space between would-be militant and budding reporter.

The Daily released a cover on March 12, 2012 – before my editorship – that said in boldface font: “Vote to Strike.” The white text was set on a bright red square. In the coming year – during my editorship – the 20 members of the editorial board continued to write editorials in support of the student movement and covered nightly demonstrations that we felt were inaccurately portrayed by mainstream media. In a sense, I felt that by photographing, I was contributing to the movement.

Being published in The Daily was a way to amplify my point of view, my experience, and my vision of the events. To document police brutality became, in my view, a means of incriminating them, to expose the force that swept away protesters with tear gas and pepper spray: human bodies acting as push factors wearing army-grade gear. But I was not only photographing the police. I have photographs of demonstrators enacting violence on capital and property, breaking bank windows, and spray-painting the city red – acts many mainstream outlets later used and continue to use to demonize demonstrators.
Seeing that defenders of the use of police force were also deciding what was considered ‘criminal,’ I started to question whether my role as a photojournalist was contributing to incrimination of these protesters.

* * *

A lot of my closest friends, I met in the street. They are people I never would have rubbed shoulders with in the university setting. The nights came alive with a new type of community, a collective that swelled to the thousands. One such friend of mine is Thien Vo, a self-described documentary or snapshot photographer, though he still hesitates to describe his work as such.

Thien’s photographs have a way of showing intimacy, something that I have not yet been able to accomplish to my satisfaction in my own work. “I was able to do what I wanted because no one expected me to do it,” Thien said, recalling the beginning of his photo blog. It was his archive, a visual record of red square-wearing folks that did not come from the major newspapers. “If people wanted to remember the event, I didn’t want them to only have the news,” he said.
In my understanding of photojournalism at the time, I was expected to be able to capture the big moment – spectacular beyond belief – where the protesters and the police clashed. It is all very violent. There may be bloodshed and large black, armed horses. The angle of the shot is lined up so the ground doesn’t quite line up to the frame horizontally. In the heat of the moment with all the adrenaline, even you, the photographer, are falling.

The big moment makes the photograph in a newspaper. We were sent there for this media moment, and had to judge when exactly was the time to run toward rubber bullet shots fired and tear gas canisters ejected. The photographs I was taking were for student press. But outside of that, why was I taking these photos? Who could I claim my photography represented, other than my own individual experience?

For Thien, his photographs were “a way of proving [he] was there, a way of proving [his] participation.” As an independent photographer, the experiences you seek in a photograph become yours instead of being dictated by a media mandate. Thien sought to show the existent power dynamic between the demonstrators and the powers that be at the time. “I [was] a demonstrator before being a photographer during that time,” he said.

Alternatively, when looking at the photographs published in mainstream media, I was always disappointed. It was hard to find a protester expressing emotional outcry. You only see them donning Guy Fawkes masks and balaclavas. (Please note that no one ever smiles at a community-organized march, ever.) The photographs were taken from the outside, the sidewalk, where the photojournalist was protected from the people and the police. Some shots I saw were even taken from behind police blockades.

At the time, student media was exploring the possibility of community-building through established media sources. But I was still photographing according to a media mandate, based on representations of demonstrations by famed Leica-carrying photojournalists from the past. That first wave of photojournalists had invaded the popular imagination before colour film was a thing, from iconic photographs of a demonstrator in front of an army tank in Tiananmen Square, to Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother.” The power of these photographs to provide a new framework for thinking attracted me. The power of my eye to create those frameworks for monumental movements inspired me.

* * *

I never questioned my right to interpretation; the right to put my framework on other people’s experiences. Sometimes the photographic ability to capture may be exactly that – a capture of your experience of your subject, your appropriation of their experience. Thien told me, “You have to be honest with yourself, where you stand, your politics, and that will show through your photography.”

The negotiation of my role as a photojournalist continues, albeit with advice from friends I met in the streets. The perpetuation of physical violence in photography is a delicate balance between an attempt to keep the powers that be in check and creating another violent image for readers to consume or editors to use out of context.
Photographing is an inherently nostalgic exercise. Once the moment is captured, it is over. The photographer’s power in creating collective memory is immense, but it will always be a collective memory at a distance. For me, to have the privilege to visually represent the experiences of others in the public sphere comes with a weighted responsibility. Creating a connection with the subjects I photograph, and working through different methods of consent in photographing are things that I am still working on.

After the photograph is distributed, the power reverts back to the people who see it. The way of seeing and interpretation in the future will contextualize what Thien, I, and so many other photographers have captured as the Maple Spring. The archival memory machine marches on through other demonstrations and media events. My hope in photographic media lies in changing where subjectivity lays in my images. This is my experience, not someone else’s. This photograph does not represent the movement. This violence may not indict that police officer. And no, do not just consume it. Let me pass you the salt first.


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