On September 17th 2011, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protest began in New York’s Zuccotti Park. Lasting for over two months, the anti-consumerist, pro-environment movement sparked a series of global protests that sought to address social and economic inequality, greed, corruption and the unfair influence of corporations on Government policy.
Shooting from within the midst of the action was US-based photo-documentarian and subject of the this week’s Lovesourced; Tracie Williams. Having spent over a year documenting the OWS movement, Tracie has compiled her images into a new book entitled ‘Love and Rage’ which she is currently seeking funding for via Kickstarter.
We caught up with Tracie during her travels to find out more.
Firstly, can you tell us about your background as an image maker / photographer?
I’ve always loved photos. It wasn’t until I was in college that I had the opportunity to take a photography class and it was all over. Photography became a part of my essence, and making images a necessity to my soul.
My passion lies both within documenting quirky, unexpected moments in addition to emotionally charged, intense situations. As a street photographer I appreciate the beautiful and weird observations that are captured in a fraction of a second. As a social documentarian, my intent is to shape emotive, provocative essays that create awareness outside of one’s self. Sometimes social justice fuels my motives, but ultimately the objective is for the viewer to slow down, take a moment, and simply think.
Prior to braving the streets of NYC, I was volunteering and freelancing for humanitarian NGO’s in Laos. During the two years I lived there, I also worked on an extensive personal project – Broken Bodies. Broken Hearts. (Which began in 2007) – documenting the impact of the CIA led Secret War waged on Laos. Despite the war ending over 30 years ago, the unexploded bombs that litter the landscape still continue to kill and maim approximately 300 people annually.
Who are your photography heroes and how would you describe your own style?
My admiration extends to many photography legends, but for the sake of this interview I will name just a couple. Robert Frank was definitely – as with many documentary photographers – quintessential not only to my development as a photographer, but in my greater understanding of how images have an incredible power to awaken people’s consciousness. I was deeply touched by the way Frank managed to unveil the American illusion of the American dream, and I hope someday my images are able to provide the same level of insight.
As for street photography, Alex Webb is tops in my books. The complexity of his images; his outstanding ability to balance shadows, light, shape and form is uncompromising. Whenever in need of inspiration, I simply stroll through the mind of Mr. Webb.
It’s extremely difficult to comment on one’s own style. I’m not particularly decisive as to whether I have one, but I’m certain people would say otherwise. My emotive and physical assessment of any given situation usually dictates whether I follow the rules – of which I say loosely, because I’m not entirely certain what they all are – or shoot more unconventionally. While shooting Love and Rage, I primarily used a fixed 35mm lens (although it behaved like a 50mm because I didn’t have full sensor body) which required me to get up close and personal. Stylistically, there is an element of intimacy that can be found throughout this body of work.
What was the motivation behind ‘Love & Rage’ and what excited you most about it?
About three months prior to Occupy Wall Street’s inception, I moved back to the states – San Francisco – after living overseas for 10 years. All seemed a bit bleak. Photo work was not to be found and finding a place to live was nearly impossible. The only thing I had going for me was an internship with Magnum Photographer, Jim Goldberg AND of course being accepted to attend a workshop hosted by the one-and-only David Alan Harvey at his infamous loft in Brooklyn. The timing of the workshop perfectly coincided with the first week of the Occupation.
I had heard about OWS and was extremely interested in discovering more of what this protest was all about. I was energized to hear that people were coming together to unite against this unjust, corrupt system. A system that for the most part most Americans can agree – to an extent – is broken.
The first time I stepped into Zucotti Park I realized this was far beyond your ordinary demonstration. The encampment offered a new form of protest by emulating an idealistic community based on mutual aid; fully equipped with a kitchen, a library, a medic tent, and a media outpost – to name a few. The idea was to create a non-hierarchal, transparent, accountable community that made decisions utilizing the tools of direct democracy. People who had never previously engaged in activism found themselves holding signs on their lunch breaks, participating in General Assemblies and carrying out civil political discourse with those on the opposite side of the political spectrum.
Over the course of the week I produced a series of portraits, with the final day of the workshop ending with infamous Brooklyn Bridge arrests where over 700 protestors were taken into custody.
After my initial time in NYC, I went to see my father in Florida with the intention to return to San Francisco following my visit. Instead, I changed my flights and returned to Occupy Wall Street, with the belief that I would “get it out of my system.” After returning to SF, I felt compelled like a moth to flame to return to New York; that was where my heart was.
I was faced with one of the most extremely difficult professional decisions in my life to date; either to stay in San Francisco, learn from the great Jim Goldberg and honour my word to him, or move to a park around the corner from Wall Street and document this defining moment in US history. Although I will always harbour a horrible feeling for not having fulfilled my obligations to Jim, I can honestly say over the past year I have been on a journey of a lifetime; both photographically and personally. These experiences can never be replicated, and I’m grateful I was able to play an integral role in this unique period of time.
Were the Occupy protesters willing subjects, or did you have to build a rapport before they would allow you to work so intimately?
One underlying theme that can be found within my documentary work whether it be protests, bomb survivors, or beauty pageants, is that there is personal connection to each of these stories. To photograph someone intimately there has to be both mutual respect and consent. These elements build trust in your relationships and allow moments such as these to unfold and be documented. I tend to fall in love with the people I photograph; their mannerisms, their features, their style and that respect is always there. It’s all about how you approach those you photograph, your adaptability to your environment, and essentially being comfortable in your skin.
Were you sympathetic with Occupy’s cause? Do you think this had an effect on the way your images were created?
I believe strongly in social and economic justice, here and abroad. I have had the opportunity of living in both developed and developing nations overseas which has provided with the perspective of the outsider looking in. We are currently living in a profit driven society where corruption is too common the tale. I believe as Americans we need to restore the power to the people and create a society that enhances our individual attributes, strengthens our communities, and allows us to grow as a nation both intellectually and spiritually. There are no predetermined answers, but there is a common belief that by the process of conversation and collaborative action a future – where everyone can live prosperously in a society that is not contaminated by greed – can be achieved.
Do you think there is a visual language for ‘protest’? A same set of rules that all the images can fit into?
I think there is a general assumption of what the visual language of a protest “should” look like: people screaming, signs, police, arrests… It’s important to take these photos, but it is equally important – and more interesting – to capture the quiet and more personal moments.
Pick your favourite photos from the collection and explain why you chose them
I have chosen to show you the essay – The Night The Raid Came – as it was one of the most definitive moments for me as a photographer, and I think for the movement as a whole. When news spread of the imminent raid, supporters found themselves unable to reach the park and it’s perimeters due to bridge, road and public transportation closures. Journalists – including NYPD press credential media – were forcibly removed from the park and those on the outskirts denied access. I however remained in the park almost until the very end, and managed to evade arrest. This was the first time I witnessed the heavy hand of the NYPD; peaceful protestors at the receiving end of police batons. Every item in the park was tossed into sanitation trucks including medical supplies and 5,000 library books. After observing multiple violations of our civil liberties, excessive force by the state, and complete disregard for humanity within that 24 hour timeframe, it became clear to me what documenting this movement as an embedded photographer would require of me personally, physically and emotionally.
It took the NYPD and NY Department of Sanitation crews approximately 3 hours to clear the park from its borders to the epicentre, where 80 Occupiers put their bodies on the line. These images capture the surreal, intense moments before the NYPD descended on those who remained to defend both the physical and ideological representation of the encampment which served as a headquarters, home and constant presence against the corruption of Wall Street.
What equipment did you use?
Body: Nikon d300s Lenses: 35mm (primarily), 17mm-35mm, 10.55mm, Flash: sb800 & sb600
What’s next for Love and Rage?
First things first, I’d love to see Love and Rage published! The book itself will be an object of art, and I can’t wait to add unique details that will make it something special. I’m fascinated with redefining the idea of how images are presented, removing photographs from their conventional glass frames and the confines of white gallery walls. I like the idea of transforming space, and would love to see Love and Rage displayed in the streets in an alternate form
To pledge your own support…
You can find out more about Tracie and her other projects via her website.
Click here for more information about the Occupy Wall Street Movement.
Follow the link below to Tracie’s “Love and Rage” Kickstarter project profile to pledge your own support.