Don't you hate it when you go to a riot and a friendly rally breaks out? What a bummer! I was alerted to the fact that there was going to be an Occupy The Courts protest event here in Denver on Friday and thought "Well, yeah!". I don't cover hard news much any more and that's cool with me. I've been a feature story/essay kinda guy since I realized that not only is there no real carrier in it the chance of getting hurt, arrested by mistake or maybe even accidentally shot, just really wasn't my idea of a good time. I spent some time in my formative years working with the Detroit police covering their night operations and while it was both exciting and was a great learning experience I quickly saw how it just a matter of time until something unpleasant would happen to me.
Since then I've covered protests and a few riots and while I am equipped with a proper military gas mask and all the padding and gear necessary to protect me from possible harm in those situations they tend to not happen in my neck-o the woods for one big reason: people here are nice. Gah! Nice people don't often make dramatic photos very easy to make. Here is an exercise for ya: imagine take a general news picture. Ok? Not that interesting but if done well isn't that bad to look at. Now add to the scene four police officers wrestling a dude to the ground while he's kicking and screaming. Hmm, that's a more interesting image now isn't it? If said officers decide to reenact the famous "Rodney King" tape, now we are talking not only an image that you can't help look at, albeit maybe in horror, but some kind of award is likely to come of your image making efforts. That is the kind of thing that is worth getting out of bed early for. Right?
Well it was a lovely day in Denver: sunny, warm and our typically deep blue skies. I brought my friend Daniel, the all seeing architectural dude, along for a few reasons, 1) because if things were to get out of hand you always want someone there who can hopefully come to your rescue, 2) if you get arrested your buddy can work with the police or whomever to get you released quicker, 3) it's often fun to have someone with you if the event is not so, uh, interesting.
Around the state capital were about a hundred or so people with their signs grumping about the state of affairs and how the Citizens United ruling has messed things up royally. But mostly they were just milling about. Frankly it could have been a cocktail hour minus the booze. It was unfortunately obviously going to be a snooze but we figured what the heck? … and stayed around to make photos. Dan had never really shot something like this so he took it as a learning opportunity and I just decided to make it an exercise in making something out of very little.
I learned way back when that when you are covering these kind of events, or frankly any kind of public gathering, that simplicity is best. During the drive I was explaining to Dan that it's important to go into any kind of shoot with if you will a visual mission statement in your head. What you encounter is never what you expect so rather than try to decide a head of time what you are going to shoot instead decide how you are going to approach the subject matter itself. Kind of a "what is my motivation?" or "with what voice am I going to speak?". To me whenever people gather together it's a personal expression of themselves or else they would be doing something else, like maybe walking the dog or doing laundry. I always want to make the viewer of my images feel that they are "there" with me and as a result I stick to using normal to moderately wide lenses shot wide open to produce that effect. I don't bother with anything longer than 85mm. Therefore my entire kit for the shoot was a Nikon D700 body, my trusty AF-S 28-70mm f/2.8 and a notebook for caption info. No second body or lens, no flash, nothing to get in the way of me floating around and seeing.
Back to the actual shoot. It was boring. Boring because let's face it people standing around holding signs, be they inscribed with political truisms or cookie recipes, is about as visually un-dynamic as it gets. So you make it into some kind of framing excercise.
At one point the protestors were encouraged to go into the capital building, find their representatives office and let said official know how they felt about the over reach of the courts.
But again the protestors were typically Denver nice and the law makers were open and gracious. What? Come one! Get upset folks. Scream a bit. Maybe throw something and cause enough of a fuss so that they call security to have you removed? Please? No? Oh bother …
There was the obligatory march through the streets, yawn!, to the federal court house where there was even more standing around. Well it was a nice day for a walk but the pictures just weren't "happening". No Pulitzers here. But Dan and I did a few portraits of this cool and kooky artist/protester gal who calls her alter ego Mufti.
That was fun but then it was over and we headed home. The happily grumpy people dispersed and it was as if nothing happened. Curses! Oh well, you can't always have pandemonium break out just for your benefit. But you can still hope.