I need to preface this with a quick note. While I do sincerely respect and understand “The 99%”, I am at odds with some of their messaging. On one hand, many of the truths they stand for are supposed to be the unalienable rights granted to citizens of this great nation. Equally, the many of the crimes perpetrated against the citizens of this nation by major financial institutions and corporations are tantamount to crimes against humanity. All this under the watch of a government who’s responsibility is to protect and defend its people. On the other hand, I do not feel connected to The 99% in a truly meaningful way. This is especially true after perusing the Occupy Movement Tumblr page and reading some of the signs/notes contained on those pages. “The 1%”, “Wall St.”, “The Fed”, whatever, has seemingly become an excuse for people’s own bad decision making. Wall St. didn’t make you have a 3rd kid when you can’t even afford to support one (If you are aware of my stance on overpopulation then you know why this is especially infuriating to me. Story for another time). This dichotomy, this split between progressives looking for meaningful change and bottom feeders looking to not take responsibility for their own lives, is what I fear will kill the OWS movement faster than anything else. It will never be taken seriously from the outside until it is made up solely of people who take it seriously from the inside.
So yesterday I went down to Zuccotti Park, here in New York City (I’ve been here for a week now, thanks to the weather/power situation in Boston) to photograph the Occupy Wall St. movement. I returned to the states right as the movement started and I’ve been travelling all over the country recently, so the Occupy presence has been pretty constant. There was no way I could be in the origination city (and a city I’m so familiar with) and not go down to see what was going on.
What I discovered though, after being there for about an hour, was that it just wasn’t all that interesting. It’s certainly smaller than I expected. The people are, of course, great, the level of self sustainability is impressive, and the general peacefulness of the whole thing is pretty amazing… but it’s nothing we all haven’t seen before (through “non-traditional” media, of course). It became quickly obvious to me that the story isn’t in the park. I’m not sure it ever even was. I made the decision that for the day, I’d stay within the barriers that surround the park and instead photograph the people walking past on the outside, specifically the people who stopped to take photos of the “inside”. It was kind of amazing how immediately self-conscious everyday people got when they found themselves on the other end of a camera lens. I wasn’t hiding either, I made it very obvious that I was photographing them (not that it’s really easy to hide with my DSLR, a 24-70mm lens, and my event backpack), that they were equally as on display.
Side Note: It’s interesting, as a photographer, to be aware of things like light. The park literally sits in the shadow of the MRF Securities building. It’s pretty ominous.
It didn’t take long before people inside the park noticed what I was doing. Nearly everyone who spoke to me about it thought it was hilarious. I would just remark that I was photographing the 99%, and I started saying that “Unlike Wall St., photography is a two way street.” This made me pretty popular, especially on the west side of the park. Typically I would just smile after taking a photo. Most people just smiled back and nodded. There were, of course, people who shot me dirty looks, yelled at/asked me to stop, quickly darted off, etc. Just to be clear, I didn’t raise my camera until someone else had raised theirs. My goal was to photograph people photographing. A lot of people noticed me through their own viewfinders, which was pretty entertaining. I wonder how many photos of me photographing are out there.
Then I started talking with the people I was actually photographing. It was interesting, the vast majority of people I talked to, probably about 500 or so over the course of the day, supported the OWS movement, but would never consider actually becoming a standing part of it. Many people identified themselves as part of The 99%, or agreed with the messages of OWS, wanted things to change, etc, but would never consider stepping across that barrier and join the folks in the park. There were reasons and excuses across the board, and that’s fine. People have lives, it’s completely understandable. I am, for the most part, one of those people myself. I was not there to judge anyone, just take pictures and maybe listen to some stories. One thing I did end up doing though, the message I ended up delivering, was asking people that if they really, sincerely, did support the OWS movement, to not treat it like a tourist attraction. To use their cameras to show what is going on with respect to what OWS is standing for. To bring those photos and videos and messages back with them to wherever they lived and share them. That they could support OWS and the fights against injustice without having to be in the park just by sharing what they had seen. What they believed.
When people on the “outside” asked me why I was photographing them photographing the occupiers, I would either reply “I’m just photographing the 99%.” (if they were nice about it) or “Because your camera is facing the wrong direction, the real spectacle is not in here, it’s all around us, out there.” (if they weren’t particularly nice about it).
It’s was an interesting experience. I would most definitely recommend everyone take at least a day to go and hang out with their local Occupy movement, if they have one. There is a lot more going on that just people sitting in drum circles and waving signs in the air. If you really believe in any of the messages The 99% stand for, even if you don’t immediately identify with it on a personal level, it will be worth your while. It’s a different perspective from the inside looking out, everyone should see it from that angle at least once. I’ll be headed back today or tomorrow to put in another round at the generator charging station. I’m a pretty decent endurance rider and I know the importance of a good outlet.
Below you’ll find my two Flickr galleries for this story. The first is shots of the Occupiers and the park. The second is all the aforementioned shots of people photographing from the outside in. There are lots more coming. In the spirit of Occupy Wall Street, I am licensing them for use via Creative Commons, so feel free to share (per the rules of the license!)
Travel: New York City – Occupy Wall St.
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Project: Occupy Wall St. – The Looking Glass
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