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