It would be impossible to ignore the graphic symbolism evident in the image created by photographer Dai Sugano during the George Floyd demonstrations in San Jose. It’s immediacy is undeniable; the confrontation between a masked, African American woman and the riot ready police is an image so familiar to us as photographers that it could almost be described as a cliché, a construct.
Any professional photographer working the streets during a situation of confrontation will be either consciously or sub-consciously aware of the iconic image created by Marc Riboud in Washington DC, in 1967 of the seventeen year old Jan Rose Kasmir offering a flower to the bayoneted rifleman just feet in front of her www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/nov/07/jan-rose-kasmir-anti-vietnam-rally-pentagon. It is an image of defiance but also of peace. Not just in a sense of her offering but also in her countenance. There is no sense of confrontation in her face, her gesture or stance. Her aesthetic is of the time, her hair is simply cut, her watch functional and her dress nondescript, yet made of a patterned fabric that suggests a softness in contrast with the soldiers helmets and formal uniforms.
The aesthetic contrast between uniform and a protester’s dress is also evident in Jonathan Bachman’s 2016 image Taking a Stand in Baton Rouge https://widerimage.reuters.com/story/taking-a-stand-in-baton-rouge . Again the immediate impact of confrontation comes from the inappropriate nature of the police’s attire in combatting that of the single protestor. Whilst the police approach the calm central figure of the image, their bodies hampered by their black heavy duty combat protection, with full face masks, the protestor – Ieshia Evans, a nurse from Pennsylvania – stands back-straight and calm.
Dressed in a summer dress, with matching summer pumps, her watching hanging from her wrist as she clasps her cellphone. Her earrings and glasses a direct contradiction to the need for visors and plastic strip hand-cuffs that the approaching police feel appropriate for the situation. Just as Jan Rose demonstrates no sense of confrontation to authority, Ieshia similarly shows no aggression in her interaction with a uniformed aggressor. Her stance is of defiance but not aggression.
These two images have obvious echoes in Sugano’s image. However, there are I believe important differences.
Riboud’s image has a sense of the moment true to the photo-journalist code of non-invasive documentation. This is also the case in Bachman’s image as the images created both before and after the iconic image chosen demonstrate.
As in both Riboud’s and Bachman’s images the stark contrast between the heavily armed and protected police line with the female figure presents a powerful statement of defiance. Of the power of belief over the power of force. Riboud’s image was created at a protest about America’s involvement in Vietnam, whereas both Bachman’s and Sugano’s were created at protests concerning internal American politics involving African American deaths at the hands of the police. As such the inclusion of African American women as the central figures of defiance presents an important political stance that goes to the root of American history.
Both woman are young and present themselves with strength, their gazes directly focused on the combatants they face. However, Sugano’s image is filled with cultural reference points that may lead some to feel that it is more of a construct than a captured moment. The Covid mask is of course a signifier of the times in which the image was created, but so are her white vest, skater Vans, and super-slim Levis with her cell phone clearly visible in her back pocket. The generic style uniform of The Gap’s version of America.
Her stance is almost yogic in its physical precision as she ‘takes the knee’, a stance in itself filled with political relevance in the United States.
In the background between the kneeling figure and the aligned police we can clearly see another photographer capturing the same moment from an alternate perspective as the figures kneeling behind her raise their arms to the air as a sign of non-aggression. An exaltation that could perhaps be seen as an act of prayer. The composition of this image is faultless. The police batons and rifle barrels leading the viewers eye to the kneeling figure and framing the image with a sense of dark foreboding.
Does such perfection indicate construction? Does it suggest that the photographer has been involved in the action taking place? Does it matter if they were?
I have no answer to the first two questions and I only suggest them as they are questions so often asked of the photographers role in the creation of what time shows to be iconic and important images since the beginning of the medium. Just think Robert Capa and his 1936 Falling Soldier. Do I think it is important?
Well, that is a more difficult question to answer that raises so many issues of morals and ethics, and the role of the photographer as storyteller, but what I do know is that images such as Riboud’s, Bachman’s and Sugano’s take on a cultural importance far outside of photography’s internal theoretical dialogue.
What is important about all of these images is that they seek to speak truth to power and in doing so they confirm the importance and power of the photographic image.
© Grant Scott 2020
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019.