The ongoing struggle for racial justice. The future for immigrant families. The health and wellbeing of all Americans. The fate of our fragile planet. The United States faces a crossroads in this year’s election. Finding the stories that fly under the national radar The nation and Magnum Foundation are partners on What is at stake, a series of photo essays from across the country through the lenses of independent picture makers. Follow the whole series here. This installment was made with the support of Economic hardship reporting project.
Portland, Ore., Has uncomfortably moved into the national spotlight for the past few months. After the assassination of George Floyd, protests broke out here and across the country. Thousands of people flooded the streets demanding police accountability and racial justice. When federal police began clearing the streets around a downtown federal court in July, making arrests, and shooting down wave after wave of tear gas canisters, Portland became an epicenter in a battle for freedom of protest and freedom with the attention of the country Government turned to its streets.
I started photographing the protests on May 29th and I was not alone: In addition to the professional news media, the protests were documented by amateur photographers, YouTubers, indie filmmakers and activists with smartphones with homemade “PRESS” badges. Sometimes it feels like half of the people at a particular event wear cameras that are constantly streaming or documenting for their audience.
The arrival of the federal police only added to this: the population of photographers ballooned, and their nightmarish images of agents in camouflage targeting unarmed protesters were shared on social media and the internet. For security reasons, the news teams were often unable to get close enough to the action. Hence, much of the footage we saw from the summer street battles was that of citizens, activist streamers, or local freelancers – a tangle of masked watchers made it difficult to determine who was who. A home industry of semi-professional streamer crews by the likes of Concrete Reporting and AssfaultPirates sprang up along with paranoia when it became known that the government was using livestreams to identify protesters. Filmmakers who were considered conservative by the demonstrators or suspected of being police informants were routinely employed in and excluded from demonstrations. Representatives of the press tried to reconcile the data protection concerns of the test subjects with the requirements for reporting the latest news. The visual nature of the protests combined with the sheer number of cameras added to an overlay effect, as if each picture was now an image of how pictures were taken.
One night in late July, I found myself on the other side of the lens after being knocked to the ground by an overzealous US Marshal. There was an Associated Press photographer and his playwright photo My hunched body rising from a cloud of tear gas appeared in newspapers and magazines around the world. By August, Portland was an unlikely epicenter of the national talk about racial justice, and images were part of the reason. The images showed vigorous opposition to police aggression, but they also recorded far darker moments. When Patriot Prayer supporter Aaron J. Danielson was shot dead in late August, shooter Michael Reinoehl was arrested in the act. I had seen Reinoehl at earlier protests and had photographed him several times. Reinoehl was eventually tracked down and killed by U.S. marshals after giving an interview Vice News.
The historian Daniel J. Boorstin coined the term “Pseudo-event“To describe how politicians and the media used the spectacle to offset shrinking consumer attention spans. People didn’t want to wait for news anymore – they wanted them to be ready when they sat down with the morning paper and got regular updates on the radio while they drove to work. Boorstin noticed these “extravagant expectations” and lamented the way the culture had reacted with a fog of news and information that was less meant to inform than to fill the space. Media events – those compiled for easy visual presentation and quick promotion – were the ones that blurred the lines between performance and truth.
Sixty years later, everyone knows that images are being tampered with, and technology continues to offer new and easier means of delivering them. While the immediate nature of independent journalism and the immediacy of the live stream aim to provide information that traditional media gatekeepers do not filter, the type of information that reaches us is increasingly shaped by algorithms that are beyond our control. While Boorstin competed with post-war corporate media and advertising designs, today’s multi-layered “thicket of unreality” is far more difficult to analyze. Social feeds have broken the news up into infinite versions of itself, each tailored and customizable for individual viewers. There are modern political demonstrations to some extent to provide content for the online parallel battle, and everyone – from left to right and even the police – uses images to support their side of the story. Live streams, tweeters, and others of their kind are viewed by their followers as intrepid reporters who take on the cloak of truth to bring back images that the mainstream doesn’t show. In Boorstin’s forward-looking words, “The story of how our illusions came about -” the news behind the news “- has become some of the most attractive news items in the world.”