When Photos Lead a Protest

A protester walks in tear gas fired by riot policemen outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong, Sept. 28, 2014. Reuters

Protests are often remembered at their most iconic: A flower in a gun barrel opposing war in Vietnam, a Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics, a Tank Man in Tiananmen Square. But though an image can define a protest, the reverse is often true—especially in an age of live coverage and social media, where the world is constantly watching.

Recent protests, like the "Occupy Central" protests in Hong Kong and the battle for racial justice in Ferguson, have yielded symbols breathtaking for their visual contrasts: Raised arms before military-grade vehicles, umbrellas dispelling thick streams of pepper spray fired at waves of protesters.

For reporters and photojournalists especially, these moments are irresistible; they trigger the news gathering reflex to capture the extraordinary, the emblems of misuses of power that threaten civilian populations around the world. And in an era where social networking can fuel protest, where hashtag activism can unite communities around the world, the universality of such symbols is tempting to highlight.

The question must be asked however: How much of their meaning is organic to those who protest, and how does it change after going through the filter of the media and public consumption?

"Protests understand the power of visuals—that's not a cynical idea," says David Campbell, a professor in the Peace and Conflict Studies Program at Colgate University. "Protests are public performances. They're designed to be visual, they're designed to be recorded."

Campbell, who was appointed a secretary for the 2014 World Press Photo contest jury, discussed images from the protests in Ferguson among other topics during a panel discussion at Photoville, a photo exhibition in New York in September. One image in particular, shot by Getty Images photographer Scott Olson, stood out:

Gabrielle Walker, 5, protests the killing of teenager Michael Brown, Aug. 17, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri. Scott Olson/Getty Images

The "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" pose became synonymous with Ferguson during those weeks of protest, but in looking at the image of the young girl in the orange dress, her eyes fixed on the photographer and her hands raised over her head in the familiar pose, many wondered about the girl's motivation.

It's impossible to know for sure whether the five-year-old in the above photo fully understood its significance and consciously displayed the gesture, or if she was mimicking the two males on either side of her, who were likely posing similarly outside of the frame. But the concept spurred a discussion on the role of photojournalists in these situations—several photojournalists on the panel noticed that all it took was swinging a camera lens in the direction of a portrait subject to yield the "don't shoot" gesture.

"You're part of it, [but] that's not to say you're causing it," Campbell says. "That's not a problem, but it's just a sign of savvy citizens—an image is about to be made."

As Robert Hariman, a professor of communication studies at Northwestern University, points out, the display of a recognizable image to the press is one of necessity.

"When we go to try and communicate with others, we look for a common language, and when we try to communicate with media like the press and others, we look for a shorthand," says Hariman. "You don't have a captive audience."

Having absorbed the symbolism and meaning of "hands up, don't shoot!" the association was immediate as the press began to cover unrest in Hong Kong. Photos of protesters displaying the gesture garnered quick comparison, with some suggestions the Hong Kong protesters had been inspired by Ferguson.

A demonstrator gestures opposite policemen during a pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong, Sept. 28, 2014. Xaume Olleros/AFP

"I don't think so," a 22-year-old Hong Kong Polytechnic University student told Quartz when asked about the gesture's links to Ferguson, "We have our hands up for showing both the police and media that we have no weapons in our hands."

She went on to say she hadn't heard of the protests in Ferguson, instead displaying the gesture after being advised to do so by protest leaders in self-defense.

Though many observers, both members of the media and readers of it, made the link as the images rolled in, the gesture was more practical than performative, as it was in Ferguson originally.

"We do search for icons, there's no question," Campbell says. During the Vietnam War this was clearly evident, as powerful and raw images of soldiers at war dispelled the mythical romanticism of war and challenged American support of the war effort.

But Campbell says our desire to simplify and unite our understanding of disparate events is premature—claiming a defining image only a few days into a protest ignores the test of time that gives them their legendary status.

"In effect, by discussing them, we make certain images into icons," Campbell says. "[It] takes a long time for that to happen."

Once reporting dispelled the link between Ferguson and Hong Kong, another ubiquitous action came to define the protests. The "Umbrella Revolution," so named for the objects the protesters carried with them for protection from pepper spray, began outnumbering the "hands up" displays. Their appearance was as visually novel as their defensive use was ingenious, if imperfect.

This displacement isn't rare, says Hariman, who is also a co-author of No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy.

"There's a competition of sorts, and various actors, activists, government, press agencies—everyone tries to push particular images or particular phrases and most of them don't make it." Hariman says, adding that as soon as a gesture is seen to be contrived by an outside organization, the public tends to lose interest.

The umbrellas seemed spontaneous, and thus the public and media rallied behind them.

Though useful for self-defense, the symbol also had more basic origins—the summer heat in Hong Kong often warrants them to tame the oppressive sun, and as Vox.com points out, are particularly useful in late summer, the tail end of Hong Kong's rainiest season. In fact, umbrellas made an appearance en masse during a protest in early July as well.

Thousands of pro-democracy protesters gather in Hong Kong, July 1, 2014. Tyrone Siu/Reuters

As the protests in Hong Kong have progressed, the umbrella's significance has expanded beyond its self-defensive qualities. Though they remain useful for dispelling pepper spray and for shelter while sleeping, protesters have recognized their symbolic potential to observers, both domestic and foreign.

Free umbrellas, made regularly available as they hang off of metal police barricades when not in use, are gathered to create displays of protest rather than protection. A mass installation of them adorns a state building, and free-standing sculptures made of umbrellas have been erected as well. The umbrellas, once symbols that spoke for themselves, have been used as billboards adorned with hand-written messages of their own, as the movement and its messages are translated worldwide.

The shadows of protesters of the Occupy Central movement are seen next to umbrellas during a rally on a main road in Hong Kong's Mong Kok shopping district, Oct. 6, 2014. Tyrone Siu/Reuters

But their original appeal also lay in their striking contrasts, outstretched arms against military-grade vehicles, and umbrellas against pepper spray.

"Here, we're saying the police are there to restore law and order—but then you see a tank. Well, tanks are very blunt instruments for restoring law and order," Hariman says. "So you get a dissonance."

The fact that the visuals are clear does not mean that their meanings are equally clear—Ferguson's "hands up" as both a symbol of self-defense and defiance is one of many historical examples.

These gestures gain their power by tapping into a common language that observers can understand, and photographers can distill into gripping imagery. Though the differences between of Ferguson and Hong Kong's Umbrella Revolution are complex, a look at the images offers a powerful, and direct, appeal to our interest as observers.

"So much of what we hear about events is abstract or statistical. And then an image will come along, and then you actually have people suffering real effects of real government policies, and it looks different," Hariman says. "Our moral response is different, our conscience is more likely to be engaged."