Documentary, Interviews, Photojournalism

Creating the new symbols of protest imagery

All images © Natalie Keyssar/INSTITUTE

Newly signed by INSTITUTE Artists, Natalie Keyssar tells us about the shared texture between photography and activism

Protest imagery has taken on a refreshed sense of vibrancy in recent years, thanks to the rise of smartphone photography, social media and a new generation of young, politically engaged activists. But while smartphones have allowed for a wider range of representation, the rising tide of documentation has also raised all boats, including photojournalists like Natalie Keyssar who’d perhaps still be photographers in any other era. The collective appetite for dynamic photography that helps portray the raw edges of global issues has never been greater, and this sense of drama is present in Keyssar’s work, which has been seen in publications like Bloomberg Businessweek, California Sunday, The Fader and The New York Times.

Newly signed by international photo agency INSTITUTE, on her website she describes herself as “primarily [focusing] on youth culture, activism, and class”, and in recent months Keyssar has focused her lens on scenes of activism and protest around the world. We caught up with her over email to ask what compels her to cover these issues.

March 6th, 2014. Caracas, Venezuela. A National Police officer behind a riot shield is pushed backwards by a crush of demonstrators during the March of the Empty Pots, which coincided with International Women's Day.

March 6th, 2014. Caracas, Venezuela. A National Police officer behind a riot shield is pushed backwards by a crush of demonstrators during the March of the Empty Pots, which coincided with International Women’s Day.

 

February 22, 2013. Best friends Sarah and Chevelle, who go by Cookie and Velvet, perform a trick together during a party at a Dancehall Club in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. The two are both members of the same Dancehall Team (Zero Nation) and often dance together as a pair.

February 22, 2013. Best friends Sarah and Chevelle, who go by Cookie and Velvet, perform a trick together during a party at a Dancehall Club in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. The two are both members of the same Dancehall Team (Zero Nation) and often dance together as a pair.

 

Your recent work has focused on the texture of protest, specifically relating to post-Chavez Venezuela and the Black Lives Matter movement. What does protest mean to you? What about it appeals to you as a photographer?

For me, protest is all about symbols. We live in a society where the structure of power can often seem intransigent – economically, legally, in terms of civil rights, etc. Protest is a symbolic interaction between the people and the state. That doesn’t mean there aren’t real consequences or real violence – in the case of Venezuela for instance, there were over 43 deaths in the 2014 protests. People are caught up in our daily routines and political protest is this phenomenon of hitting pause and challenging the status quo. In a world of social norms and social media, protest is a very real, very human interaction, where someone decides that an injustice is worth yelling about, worth standing out in the cold, maybe worth getting tear gassed – [even] worth dying for. 

March 16, 2014. Caracas, Venezuela. Protesters stand in a cloud of tear gas as they clash with the National Guard in Altamira, a wealthy enclave of Caracas.

March 16, 2014. Caracas, Venezuela. Protesters stand in a cloud of tear gas as they clash with the National Guard in Altamira, a wealthy enclave of Caracas.

 

February 2015. Caracas, Venezuela. A poster at Lola, an upscale eatery in Altamira.

February 2015. Caracas, Venezuela. A poster at Lola, an upscale eatery in Altamira.

 

21st August, 2013. Flatbush, Brooklyn. Sarah's niece and her friends strike poses on the stoop of Sarah's home on a summer afternoon. Two months later, Sarah will be shot in the foot just a few feet from this stoop.

21st August, 2013. Flatbush, Brooklyn. Sarah’s niece and her friends strike poses on the stoop of Sarah’s home on a summer afternoon. Two months later, Sarah will be shot in the foot just a few feet from this stoop.

 

19th August, 2014. Ferguson, MO. Children dance to music playing from a truck with the words "no shoot, no loot" written on it and parked in a lot on West Florissant Ave. during a protest on 19th August 2014, in Ferguson. Moments later riot police insisted that the protesters keep marching in circles around the designated protest area and not stop to dance.

19th August, 2014. Ferguson, MO. Children dance to music playing from a truck with the words “no shoot, no loot” written on it and parked in a lot on West Florissant Ave. during a protest on 19th August 2014, in Ferguson. Moments later riot police insisted that the protesters keep marching in circles around the designated protest area and not stop to dance.

As a photographer I find protest to be an interesting landscape to explore issues, social change, and human rights. There are many tropes in protest photography. I’ve heard editors say “the wires have this covered” dozens of times, as though there’s only one type of image to make in a protest, pure documentation and thats it.

But the moments when activists are clashing with representatives of the state are incredibly rich and multifaceted to me. I start with the protests as the epicentre of an important issue, and began to track the issues back to their routes in various forms – trying to collect and integrate the human stories that lead to these moments where everything goes crazy – so you can put the issues in context visually.  I find the ritualised interactions between police, protesters and the media really fascinating. Covering many protests makes me think about the ways they are all the same, and the ways they are each unique. 

30th November, 2014. Ferguson, MO. Bishop Derrick Robinson, who has become a notable leader among the Ferguson, MO, protesters, was arrested by riot police while protesting in a public park after a non-violent march.

30th November, 2014. Ferguson, MO. Bishop Derrick Robinson, who has become a notable leader among the Ferguson, MO, protesters, was arrested by riot police while protesting in a public park after a non-violent march.

 

22nd March, 2013. East Flatbush, Brooklyn. The Flavor Essence dance team moves through its choreography in unison as smoke clouds the air in a nightclub around 3am on a Thursday night.

22nd March, 2013. East Flatbush, Brooklyn. The Flavor Essence dance team moves through its choreography in unison as smoke clouds the air in a nightclub around 3am on a Thursday night.

 

Protesters can sometimes be wary of journalists and photographers – how do you gain the trust of your subjects?

In order to gain peoples trust, you have to give them yours. That means being clear about your intentions and being willing to put in the time with your subjects to reach an understanding. I think nearly everyone, especially activists, have something to say that they want heard, so giving them an outlet for that is a pretty quick way to build a relationship. A lot of protesters value commitment and are wary of journalists that come and go quickly, but more welcoming to those that they see again and again. There’s no question that sometimes the tides can turn quickly against the media in protests for a variety of reasons (often some journalists behaving disrespectfully can really poison the well for everyone) and you have to be aware of that possibility, but I find that if i put my trust in the people then they usually return it. 

August 19th, 2014 Ferguson, MO. Left: 20-year-old Marcus Mopkins wipes the sweat from his brow before posing for a portrait on West Florissant Ave. Right- Police lights illuminate a tree off of West Florissant Road.

August 19th, 2014 Ferguson, MO. Left: 20-year-old Marcus Mopkins wipes the sweat from his brow before posing for a portrait on West Florissant Ave.
Right- Police lights illuminate a tree off of West Florissant Road.

 

What was the biggest risk you took to get the shot?

Anyone doing this type of work is taking some risks, but I’m essentially dipping my pinky toe into the day-to-day experience of someone else. I’ve definitely had a couple of scrapes, but I have lots of colleagues whose work is far more hazardous. I choose to cover some risky situations because I’m deeply interested, I don’t have to, I’m not a protester, or a cop.  I don’t live in a dangerous neighbourhood. I’m just choosing to go there for a period of time because I’m interested. So some of these situations I work in are high-risk, but I don’t think about it like that because the risks to my subjects are almost always so much higher. Being a photographer often means you need to run towards trouble and not away, but I try to keep my head very clear and calm and always be aware of the worst case scenario in my decision making.

Find more of Natalie’s work here. She is represented by INSTITUTE Artists.

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