A History of Protest Photography That Plays It Too Safe

LOS ANGELES — In Focus: Protest, a one-room exhibition at the Getty Center, focuses on palatable images of protest. There are no disturbing images of the police’s violent attacks on protesters during the June 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, for example, or of self-immolations protesting the Vietnam War. On the one hand, we don’t need to see violence to understand injustice. But this subject deserves a much deeper and broader show to explore the important power dynamics of protest — and of documenting it — than the Getty’s somewhat muddled march through the lowlights of American history.

The show opens with Dorothea Lange’s 1942 photo of a Japanese American girl and her classmates saying the Pledge of Allegiance; an accompanying placard explains how she and many of the children around her spent the rest of World War II interned in camps. The image of innocent patriotism is itself an implicit protest against the racist hypocrisy of Order 9066 — unlike most of the images in the show, which take protesters and rallies as their subject. Taken as part of Lange’s government assignment to document the roundup of citizens, the photo raises important questions about who is doing the documenting, and what perspectives the photographer and audience might bring to the framing of a protest. Those questions are left to linger as we shuffle on through images of flags, marches, graffiti, and statues.

Dorothea Lange, “Pledge of Allegiance, Raphael Weill Elementary School, San Francisco” (negative April 20, 1942, print about 1960s), gelatin silver print, 13 3/8 × 10 1/16 inches (the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles)

Though protest is about collective effort, individuals allow the collective to succeed. Concordantly, the strongest images in the show are those that focus on individual faces and stories, from the soulful, tight-cropped portrait of Fannie Lou Hamer that conveys a sense of being face to face with the civil rights activist to Mattie Howard’s determined stance as she is pulled away by police in “Birmingham, Alabama.” The visual impact of crowds is impressive, but at times their images are harder to connect with. One wall of the exhibit is dedicated to Glenn Ligon’s grainy silkscreen of the 1995 Million Man March. Its size seems intended to pull the viewer into the crowd, but here, surrounded by small, focused photographs, the effect is blurred. The show’s emotional pull is most powerful in the images that are focused sharply on specific faces, symbolic of many.

But depicting individuals carries new risks now. Contemporary protest photographers have to navigate the dangers of photo recognition technology for their subjects — notably, Kris Graves’s 2020 photo depicts a luminous memorial to George Floyd projected and graffitied onto a Confederate statue, rather than an image of identifiable marchers. At the very least, the issue deserves mention in the wall text to contextualize current photography amid this threat to human rights and the tricky role photographers have to navigate while recording and participating in protests. Documenting can be a form of protest, but it can be used against its subjects, too. The exhibition text, however, tends to swerve away from engaging with the complexities of history, mentioning the passage of the 19th Amendment and Voting Rights Act 1965 without referencing the continued struggles to ensure voting access in marginalized communities. It does provide images of counter-protest during the Vietnam War and women’s liberation movement of the 1970s, but these only sharpen the desire for a better understanding of the ebb and flow of human rights efforts into the present.

Anthony Friedkin, “These Are the Thoughts that Set Fire to Your City” (1993), gelatin silver print, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Gift of Sue and Albert Dorskind (© Anthony Friedkin, 2002.44.16)

Next to Graves’s image of a statue-turned-protest canvas, An-My Lê’s photo depicts similar statues in a Homeland Security storage unit, where they were moved in 2017 to protect them from the same kind of opposition. Like Lange’s, Lê’s photo reveals the values of a government that would still expend more effort protecting old bronze sculptures than living, vulnerable bodies.

All of these images prove that protest and its documentation deserve our perpetual attention. But the show could have used more space to both critique and contextualize the photographs, so that viewers could better understand what influences each frame. A protest, after all, is an opposition to power. To do justice to the subject, the Getty would have had to provide a full, honest framing of these oppositions — not just a palatable one.

An-My Lê, “Fragment VI: General Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard Monuments, Homeland Security Storage, New Orleans, Louisiana” (2017), inkjet print, 56 × 39 1/2 inches (Pier 24 Photography, San Francisco © An-My Lê, courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery)

In Focus: Protest continues at the Getty Center (1200 Getty Center Drive, Brentwood, Los Angeles) through October 10.

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