Photos & Projects

Documenting the #BlackLivesMatter Protests – Some Thoughts and Images – By Dan Shapiro

June 13, 2020

I’ll preface this article by stating that street/documentary photography is neither a preferred genre of photography for me, nor is it one that I consider myself particularly talented at. I’ve always treated photography as more of a calming, meditative activity and my preference for urban landscapes, architecture, and more fine art-related work have left me at odds with the more reportage-focused aspects of photography, which demands you to be extremely vigilant, fast on your feet, and potentially putting yourself in harm’s way. Recently, though, that changed following the death of George Floyd and the widespread protests that gripped my country and my city.

A (Very) Abridged Primer on the Black Lives Matter Protests

I’d like to begin this section by saying that I am a white man living in the United States and so my perspective here is inherently limited. However, if you’re not living within the United States (or you do and just live under a rock) it’s hard to understate how important this moment is. For decades we’ve both knowingly and unknowingly supported a system of politicians, economic policies, and police departments that have systematically discriminated against, uprooted, and outright destroyed black communities and other communities of color.

the mortgage policies of the early 20th century (see red-lining), the urban renewal projects of the 60s and 70s, and the increasingly militaristic police practices that we see today have marginalized African Americans in ways too hard to explain in one article. But this moment and these protests are the culmination of decades of injustice. This moment feels different because this is the face of a country at its breaking point.

Documenting A Critical Moment In History

I’ve never made a dime off of my photography, I’m not an accredited photojournalist, and I’ve never submitted my work to newspapers or other publications. However, one of the real joys of photography – especially in this modern digital age – is that if you’re in the right place, at the right time, and have your camera with you, you can document history. Last Saturday I was riding my bicycle back from a photo walk that a friend and I had done in one of the industrial areas of San Francisco’s Hunter’s Point neighborhood. As we crossed into the South of Market (SOMA) neighborhood we happened upon a blockade of protestors, face-to-face with the officers of the San Francisco Police Department. Almost immediately, I grabbed my camera, joined the crowd, and started snapping photos. Over the next hour or so I marched down the street with the protestors, dodging and weaving in order to get the shot.

I’ve heard other photographer friends of mine tell me about how they would accidentally happen upon something noteworthy or historic and how lucky they were to have their camera on them; how exhilarating it was to capture history even if only you and a few friends/family members would ever see your photographs. However, this was foreign to me until this moment. It’s hard to say this without sounding selfish and as if I made these protests about myself and my photography, but being there and capturing these moments felt…significant.

For the past week, as our city and our country faces this reckoning, I’ve tried to document as much of it as possible. Many of the protests around San Francisco start at 4pm and I’ve found myself ending my afternoon meetings by slamming my laptop shut, grabbing my camera from the kitchen table, hopping on my bike, and speeding to wherever in the city the protest is taking place. I’ve even made sure to have a fully packed bag to reduce the time necessary to get from my home to the scene I’m photographing.

Democratizing Documentary Photography

We oftentimes malign the internet age of photography for its seeming shallowness and focus on upvotes and well-worn tropes. However, the flip side is that it’s never been easier to contribute your photographs to the public domain. I want to add that it’s important to consider your motivations before posting images of protestors or other vulnerable populations online, but you should never feel hesitation about using these platforms to inform others through your images.

A friend of mine was recently telling me about how the beauty of Instagram, specifically, is that “back in the day” if you wanted to document a protest or a newsworthy event you’d either have to submit your work through official channels like a photo agency or newspaper or else you’d only really be able to show the photograph to a few friends and family members. However, with tools like Flickr, Instagram, and dare I say even Reddit, you can – as an independent and amateur photographer – contribute to the public archives of an important moment in history.

Some Photographs

With all that in mind I’d like to share some of the photographs that I’ve taken during these protests, which you can find below. I hope they help shed some light on what is currently going on in our country and have an effect on you, whatever that may be.

All photos were taken on a Leica Q:

A woman shouts from the top of her car behind a Police barricade

Facing the Police Barricade in front of San Francisco City Hall

A woman kneels in front of SFPD officers in a symbolic display

A closeup of the SFPD Barricade

A group of protestors confronts a group of SFPD officers

A mass of protestors, donning masks, marches through San Francisco’s Mission District

Black Cowboys have become a common and galvanizing presence at protests across California and the American West

A group of protestors in San Francisco’s Mission District

A young woman covers her face during a protest in San Francisco’s Mission District

A celebration of Pride Month and Black Lives Matter

Protestors and Police face off in front of San Francisco City Hall

A wheelchair-bound man bangs a drum to the beat of “black lives matter” in front of San Francisco City Hall

Protestors taking a knee in solidarity in front of San Francisco City Hall

A group of protestors listens attentively

10,000+ protestors converge on Dolores Park in San Francisco’s Mission District

A man and his dog at a protest in San Francisco’s Mission District

If you’d like to see more of my photos, both film and digital, check out my Instagram page!

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16 Comments

  • Reply
    Ed
    June 13, 2020 at 4:16 pm

    Fantastic photography documenting a devastating moment in US history. It is unfortunate that acknowledging black lives matter too, as opposed to the political movement, BLM has become conflated with a political movement devoted to Marxist redistributionist economics, and a ‘foreign policy’ which includes some of the nastiest, offensive racialist, anti-Israel and anti-Jewish bigotries. A glance at their founding manifesto (available online) makes them less-than-savory actors, sorry to say. Don’t ‘glorify’ them as paragons. It is sad in this climate that dissenting or questioning speech can no longer be freely or safely expressed, so I do fully expect this comment to disappear.

    • Reply
      Max Hernandez-Webster
      June 18, 2020 at 5:15 pm

      You’re complaining about questioning and dissenting speech being censored but also are complaining about the group’s questioning and dissenting speech. If you’re more focused on a faction of the BLM group’s anti-Zionist sentiment than you are on 400 years of racism coming to a head, you’re part of the problem.

    • Reply
      Dan Shapiro
      June 18, 2020 at 6:06 pm

      At the risk of making this too political, I do want to mention that nowhere on the BLM “what we believe” page is anything about Israel mentioned, so let’s not take this discussion somewhere that it doesn’t need to go. That said, I myself am Jewish and see no issue with an organization like Black Lives Matter supporting the cause of other oppressed peoples, which is a group of which the Palestinian community is a part.

  • Reply
    Stephen Procter
    June 13, 2020 at 4:35 pm

    Dan, with these photos and the above post you have been a great witness. Sadly other countries share your problems, including Britain, where you are twice as likely to die in police custody if you are black. When will change happen? If we all keep quiet, never.

    • Reply
      Dan Shapiro
      June 14, 2020 at 5:13 pm

      Thank you Stephen! I agree that it’s devastating how much of a worldwide and widespread issue this is but it has been inspiring to see people across the world showing solidarity with the protests happening here int he US. We’re starting to see changes in how cities fund police departments, but time will tell.

  • Reply
    michele
    June 13, 2020 at 4:38 pm

    Hi Dan

    I don’t normally comment, but loved your piece and great journalistic photos.

    Well done

    • Reply
      Dan Shapiro
      June 14, 2020 at 5:14 pm

      Hey, Michele I appreciate your comment and I’m glad you enjoyed them!

  • Reply
    Malcolm Myers
    June 13, 2020 at 6:29 pm

    Thank you for a very powerful piece on what it is clearly a very emotive topic. It’s interesting to see how the black and white add so much more power to the images. I too feel that we are always living through history and should document it when we can. Having said that, in my lifetime there has not been a more globally historic year than 2020, and we still have quite a way to go. I think the world will be a different place in 2021, for lots of reasons.

    • Reply
      Dan Shapiro
      June 14, 2020 at 5:16 pm

      Hey Malcolm, I agree both on the point of black & white adding additional weight to the images as well as 2020 being a landmark year. It’s unfortunate that so much of what makes 2020 historic is negative, but we’re already starting to see some changes in a positive direction here in the US (namely, some cities like San Francisco and Minneapolis have already diverted money away from Police and towards other essential social services). If I have kids someday this will definitely be a year that I talk about.

  • Reply
    Our Analog Adventures
    June 13, 2020 at 8:23 pm

    Fantastic…

  • Reply
    D Evan Bedford
    June 13, 2020 at 11:54 pm

    Just read a statistic today in the Globe and Mail. Any person (black or white) is about 5 times more likely to die at the hands of police in the U.S. compared to Canada.

  • Reply
    brian nicholls
    June 14, 2020 at 7:16 am

    Dan, this is a fantastic body of work. Both the images and the narrative are of professional standard but, you really deserve to be recognised and paid for quality, unbiased stuff like this. I am a correspondent for a weekly UK newspaper and also a musician. During the 1950s/1960s (I was there in the sixties!) musicians did a great job as change agents in America by peacefully boycotting venues that blatantly operated racism through segregation of audiences. Photography is powerful stuff. I cringe when I see the images of those days.

    • Reply
      Dan Shapiro
      June 14, 2020 at 5:21 pm

      Brian, thank you so much for the comment. It’s extremely validating to receive feedback like this from someone whose career is in the news/media. I’ve been considering selling some prints, but I imagine I’d end up donating any proceeds I make to various Black Lives Matter charities. To your point about boycotting openly racist venues in the 50s and 60s we’re starting to see something like that now with people abandoning brands that have been mired in race-related controversies. Hopefully, this is a much needed turning point.

      • Reply
        brian nicholls
        June 14, 2020 at 8:06 pm

        Dan, whatever you do with your earnings is your choice but, never ever surrender the copyright of your art to the media just to become a published author. Good luck my friend.

  • Reply
    Bruno Chalifour
    June 14, 2020 at 8:59 pm

    Great images. I find the black and white ones superior in impact and esthetics to the color ones. They are also easier to read. Bravo!

  • Reply
    Alex Vye
    June 18, 2020 at 8:23 pm

    Gorgeous photos. My favourite is 9th from top with the young woman in the middle. Really seems to capture a moment in time.

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