OWS – Robert Dunn

Simply entitled OWS, this photobook explores the ongoing fallout from the continuing economic crisis that dominates everyday life and politics throughout the world. A small, softcover book of photographs without text published by Coral Press Arts, OWS is a personal reaction to the 2011 Occupy Movement in New York. (For other publications and my thoughts on the Occupy Movement have a look at this previous post.)  Responding to contemporary political issues can be a tricky business for photographers, particularly in the case of popular demonstrations, as it’s very easy to fall into the trap of solely concentrating on drama (after all that is what we see in the media.) Dramatic confrontations with authority are the bread and butter of much media coverage of protest because they seem to condense the entire event into a single image which the average news ‘consumer’ can easily understand. (Such images also have the effect of presenting protest as an ‘abnormal’ activity carried out by people who may be a potential threat to the ‘normal’ middle-class individual whose vote holds the balance of political power. This makes it easier to dismiss the issues and concerns raised as being inconsequential.) Of course, this is not to say that dramatic things never happen in protests (they often do) but they tend to be overrepresented within media coverage. There is an inclination to reduce everything into a decisive moment that provides a short hand depiction of what are, in reality, multilayered and nuanced events. But this media formula works because it’s easy, fits the pre-packaged news-event formula, suits short-term rolling news cycles and the audience has, to a large extent, already been conditioned to expect such imagery whenever an event is discussed.

Unlike other photographers responding to the various Occupy encampments, (such as Mathieu Asselin and Ben Roberts) Dunn adopts the classic street photography aesthetic in his depiction of the people congregating in New York’s Zuccotti Park.  The fact that Dunn experienced the student protests in Berkley during the 1960s, undoubtedly a formative experience for many of that generation, informs how he responds to the presence of the first serious mass public protest movement in America since then. Of course student protest in the US since then has been blunted thanks to the restructuring of universities and degrees, turning them into courses that usually avoid critical thinking and impose massive debts upon students, which makes them fearful of upsetting the status quo.  The education system results in a conveyor belt of indebted young people entering the corporate workplace who will do what they’re told, when they’re told, and can be relied upon not to rock the boat.

Dunn’s images are quietly observed slices of time of everyday life within the protest camp; a man sweeping the street, somebody writing a placard, details such as tents and tarpaulins with protestors huddled within them, as well as images of other people sitting and sleeping within the park (the main occupations of a sedentary protest). While a few images show drums being banged and banners and flags being held aloft the usual visual signifiers of protest are muted and subsumed into a broader narrative of long-term, determined calls for change. This was after all not a simple street protest but a long term occupation. One image in particular, a bearded man, arms outstretched, with a Bank of America sign behind him, is an icon of non-violent political action in the face of power.  Another recurring theme is the presence of that American icon, the Stars and Stripes, which is represented through the predominance of red, white and blue within many of the images (as well as the flag itself) that serves to assign the values and ideals of the American dream to the protestors.  They are the hope for the future in contrast to the corruption and ineptitude of the financial-corporate-political clique that has hijacked the dream and twisted it into a nightmare for so many.

OWS is not a dispassionate portrayal of the Occupy Movement; Dunn sees it as a signifier of the rekindling of ideals and values that had been subsumed beneath the tawdry trappings of consumerism and greed for decades. His images clearly respond to this empathy he feels for the protestors cause and this has resulted in a small book that has a resonance with the past whilst engaging with current events. For many decades the idea that greed was good (to borrow a line from Wall Street) went largely unchallenged; now that the foundations upon which we organise our society have been shaken to the core, a (brief) opportunity arises for alternatives to the status quo to be explored. While the Occupy Movement failed to bring about change, it did lay down a marker to the great and good that their policies are under scrutiny like never before. What will be the lasting legacy of the Occupy Movement?  Nobody knows at present. We shall see.

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