Thousands Protest Walker…And Other Thoughts

Over the weekend while people were still reeling from Governor Walker’s proposed budget cuts, some media outlets announced maybe a few hundred UW students, faculty members and residents were planning on protesting on the steps of the capitol. As the weekend went on and Monday approached, numerous Facebook events planning the protest grew to the thousands. Media outlets then estimated around 2,000 people were set to protest on Tuesday.
What actually happened? Well, an estimated 10,000 people showed up outside and 3,000 flooded the capitol rotunda in protest of Walker’s budget. Although, it doesn’t appear as though that will persuade Republicans to vote it down…
Another protest is set for tomorrow. Not sure if the turnout will be similar, but the media coverage will probably be a lot less.

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Anyways, moving away from the politics/news angle of this whole thing, I’ll focus on the photojournalism aspect — I mean, that’s the point of this blog anyways right? Right.

Funny thing about living in Madison is that protests happen all the time. I’d say roughly once a week some group of 10 or 20 or 100 people will walk from Library Mall, down State Street and up the capitol steps with megaphones and signs and a boombox playing AC/DC or maybe even Dee Snyder belting out, “We’re not gonna take it!” The group will then rally around a singular speaker, yelling how so-and-so is like Hitler and blah-blah-blah.

When I first started working for the student newspaper, I found these protests fascinating. Actually, considering my love for street photography (especially apparent 2-3 years ago), I thought they were the greatest thing to photograph in Madison. Not only were these people eccentric in their own way, but they would bring their kids to hold signs or strap a sign to their baby in the baby stroller. It was like shooting fish in a barrel and I got some great images out of it.

However, as time went on and I photographed dozens of different protests ranging from Medical Marijuana to Gay Pride to Tea Partyers, I became jaded. No matter who was behind the protest, they all started and ended the same. The same type of people were involved. Even the same chants were used — always some form of “Hell no, we won’t go,” “Hey-hey, ho-ho, blah-blah-blah has got to go,” “Yes we can!” “What do we want? BLAH-BLAH-BLAH! When do we want it? NOW!”

So, what does this have to do with today? Well, obviously this protest is on a bigger scale and fighting for something vital to Madison itself as well as the rest of the state. But, the protest was more or less the same. People chanted. People yelled. People had vaguely offensive and/or plain ignorant signs that made no sense (comparing Walker to Mubarek and Madison’s struggle against the budget bill to that of Egypt was just ridiculous…I mean, really, Madison?) Don’t get me wrong, I was pumped to shoot this because I knew thousands of people were going to show up. And, for the most part, it was exciting.

But after covering this and the Tea Party protest last year that was just as large, it gets me thinking about what these photos — without timely context — mean. If all these protests look more or less the same, how do I photograph them differently? How do I make this protest look any more important than those 15 wackos walking down State Street last week? How do I make the audience more interested in these photos than the protest I shot last week?

Trying to approach these protests without an overwhelming feeling of jadedness is difficult…and I’ve only been covering them for 3 years. It’s hard not to just focus in on the craziest person in the crowd with the craziest sign and snap away. Similarly it’s hard to avoid taking the obligatory wide angle shot of everyone yelling at each other. I certainly tried to avoid those two pitfalls, but, as you can see in the pictures I posted, I still included them in my final edit.

Granted this problem of trying to make the same subject appear new and fresh during a regular news cycle is nothing new. Every student photographer figures this out in the first month of coverage. But I think the problem goes beyond aesthetics of the image — making an image differently or capturing different aspects of an event is important to maintain audience interest…to tell the audience, “Hey, this is important.”
Did I do that with these images? Not really. The best image I think is of the woman with the green sign. To me, it captures the labor aspect of the protest, but also the quiet determination of many of the protesters. People yelling is great, but those get old. Instead I tried to zero in on a few of the details I thought other photographers would pass up…the signs, the helmet, etc. Also, I didn’t want to clutter my background just for the sake of saying to the viewer, “Ya, a lot of people are here.” I wished I could have done a few things differently and made a few more portraits. However, the majority of the people there were extremely attentive to cameras and either smiled, offered the peace sign or just looked away.

Perhaps I’m too cynical on all of this, but this was more or less me thinking out loud.

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