A week ago, a new photo exhibition on the Quebec student movement, Carré Rouge: droit de parole, opened at the Maison de la culture in Côte-des-Neiges. Droit de parole exhibits a series of portraits and scenes of protest violence, taken by a team of two non-student photographers, Darren Ell and Philippe Montbazet. The exhibition covers the span of the entire movement from the first roaring days of protest in February 2012, to its dwindling last September.
The intimate and unpretentious gallery of the Maison de la culture (one of many such government-supported neighbourhood cultural spaces in Montreal) presents what might otherwise be purely journalistic images in an artistic light. Indeed, this is not the first time the movement has been portrayed outside of newspapers in the realm of artistic photography. Last year, Jacques Nadeau, a famed photographer for Le Devoir, hosted an exhibition in which his red square-themed photos were presented alongside his other work. Montbazet and Ell’s work has been featured as part of other exhibitions, including the 2012 World Press Photo competition, but this was the first show devoted exclusively to their photographs of the student movement. The new exhibit effectively emphasizes the individual within the mass movement context – a perspective largely absent from media coverage – presenting this angle to the public in works of topically relevant art.
Of course, many of the first images I saw were quite similar to what has been run in newspapers over the past year, featuring violent standoffs between cops and students. These photographs prioritize shock value and transmit an overall sense of chaos. Although we’ve seen such scenes before, the quality of the photos saves them from merely depicting a worn-out trope. Interspersed with these are the photos of individuals from a variety of CEGEPs and universities, francophone and anglophone, to whom the cause was worthy of a strike. Many are accompanied by a story, testimonial, or quote by the individual justifying their involvement, their personal sacrifice for the cause, their frustration, and their hope for the movement’s success. The photographers were themselves participants in the events, lending their documentation a sympathetic approach, rather than that of a neutral bystander. “The photos take on a historical dimension when viewed by the visitor,’’ Montbazet explained, “a more intimate vision of the movement that was not shown in the press.’’ A select few portraits are of Concordia and McGill students who fought for the right to strike and protest amidst hostile administrations and student bodies that refused to be involved.
Indeed, many of the testimonies may sound redundant to a student whose academic, social, and media environments throughout the past year were shaped by the movement. However, when reminded of the thousands of other students who remained uninvolved, along with the millions of others of all demographics and social strata in the city who may never have seen a demonstration or who have heard of them only through the media, the stories and perspectives evoked in the exhibition are of great value. The art seeks to generate sympathy among these visitors toward a large part of the student body that has felt misunderstood and patronized by the government and the press over the past year. By ignoring, at least sometimes, the plurality and mass participation of the movement, the photographers bring the audience to face the array of individuals, one by one, who protested – and continue to protest – for accessible post-secondary education.
La Maison de la Culture Côte-des-Neiges is located just outside Côte-des-Neiges metro at 5290 Côte-des-Neiges. The exhibition runs until April 14. The complete photo essay can be viewed at the photographers’ websites, www.darrenell.com and www.philippemontbazet.com.