08 Nov Jonathan Cartu Writes: Working the Scene from Four Different Perspectives: Protest
Expressions of civil unrest have provided many opportunities for photographers to capture the energetic, emotional scenes which are the byproduct of demonstrations, protests, riots, and other manifestations. Crowds offer such a dynamic set of possibilities that I’ve even heard some describe protests as being “cheating,” or “too easy – fish in a barrel.”
While it’s certainly easier to find something close and interesting to frame it is not easier to produce actually meaningful work by any standard – if it were then every protest would be accompanied by dozens of powerful, iconic documents. Instead, like any other genre, it requires a huge investment of time and care to produce something that can escape the genre – a true artifact.
We live in interesting times, and those times have offered many such opportunities, involving masses of citizens seeking resolution and outlets for their agenda. Over the last few years our documentary co-operative has spent hundreds of hours in these spaces; walking, talking, learning, and photographing, with the intent of producing a record of testimony. We have not looked at straightforward reportage, but rather a closer investigation into the way these protest spaces operate.
Where many find themselves amplifying the agenda contained within their photographs we worked towards a more sociological goal of humanitarian observation. Many photographs within a protest space document the physicality of signs, gestures, or performances, but in our opinion lack nuance. We did our best to identify based on our own values what was worth documenting on a case by case basis, moment to moment – a photographer’s documentary vision, not necessarily a surface level analysis.
Here, we present some of those values, along with some of our decisions in terms of the gear and methodologies we used while documenting protest spaces over recent months.
I am lazy when it comes to equipment. Early in the summer I remember carrying my Leica M4-P, with my Nikon SLR and 200mm over my arm, and realising that one of them just wasn’t making sense to me anymore. M rangefinders are my comfort zone. They work exactly how and when I need them to, no thought required. The SLR and 200mm was necessary for the more “press” approach I was trialing, but did not work in my favour either at a distance or up close.
The size and weight, combined with the way my subjects perceive it and me (in my often dark grey/black outfits) was intimidating, and it offered more trouble than it did benefit in the added reach. The 200mm “look” can often seem a little voyeuristic, even when in crowds, and I would prefer to have as little space both psychologically and physically between myself and my subjects when possible.
Since that moment I’ve been working as light as possible, even shedding my bag. As a musician I’ve hung heavy instruments around my shoulder and neck for years, so being able to free myself from any straps, even light-weight ones, is immensely freeing. Nothing gets in my way now, and importantly I feel free when I slip through a crowd, or situations where looking like anything “official” could cause tension. I remain impartial, able to deflect interrogation from agitated and angry protesters and police alike. I don’t look like mainstream media with a small camera and no bag, so all that’s left to manage is my attitude and their ego.
For any protests that I felt were likely to incur conflict I would pair down further still, one M body and one standard lens, usually 35/50mm, with as much film in my pockets as I could manage. This is pretty much my proven way of working best – absolute minimum, absolute restriction, no worry or frustration or compromises: just shoot, and occasionally run.
50mm will always win out if I’m unsure what to have with me. I’ve shot with it almost exclusively this year – a Zeiss Planar f/2, which seems the best balance of size and performance. I wouldn’t want faster, as I can always push HP5+, and the weight and size quickly makes it a hindrance compared to the payoff of any “look” I’d be achieving. This work isn’t about the look, it’s about the content: I can fit that content into a 50mm frame, and that’s what matters.
For a while I tried working with two bodies, my M4-P with 50mm, and my M3 with a 90, but decided that for regular use this was overkill. I really could do what I needed to on 50mm, I just needed to learn to trust myself and get on with it. In thick crowds a 35mm can be useful, but not essential, so when I carry two M’s now it’ll be with 35 and 50. This also gives me the option to switch between bodies when I find my film exhausted unexpectedly – it’s always best practice to keep an eye on the frame counter, and to use any luls in action to capture some context and still life to finish any rolls which have passed frame 30.
We decided early on as a group that in protest environments it was the most sensible thing to work in pairs. This had a safety aspect, as photographers…