After months of loosely composed images of tent encampments, bad pictures of clever signs and flat portraits of rag-tag protestors, some of the first iconic images have come out of the Occupy Wall Street movement by way of recent pepper spray photos. 84-year-old Dorli Rainey photographed in Seattle by Joshua Trujillo. Elizabeth Nichols in Portland by Randy L. Rasmussen. And the line of UC Davis protestors by Louise Macabitas.
These call to mind an atmosphere similar to Charlie Moore’s Life magazine photo of young African American protestors getting sprayed with high-pressure water hoses back in 1963 during the Civil Rights movement. The protesters, who were demanding an end to segregation of Birmingham’s public facilities, turn their backs as they are pounded into a nearby brick wall.
“The best still images, they just nail you, you remember them,” said Life photographer Bill Eppridge in a recent Raw File interview. These new photos have that effect.
Iconic is not a word I use lightly. But in both Moore’s photo and the pepper spray photos there’s something striking about protestors who are willing to put their bodies on the line for what they believe in. (To be fair, we should also recall the images of the Iraq vet Scott Olsen being carried away after a shot to the head with a tear gas canister and the young man in a wheelchair trying to escape a cloud of tear gas — both from the Occupy Oakland protests.)
Moore’s Birmingham photo has become so powerful because it acts as a reminder, a trigger, to help us recall what it took to overcome. And now the Occupy protestors are suddenly not a bunch of dirty hippies, or hipster college students, but people who are serious enough about economic reform that they’re willing to get their asses kicked. Willing to go to the hospital. Not willing to run away.
I’m not suggesting the Occupy encampments are the new Civil Rights movement. Just that images like these help to solidify an anger that millions of people around the country are feeling but only a relative few are sacrificing their bodies for.
The pepper spray photographs, many of which went viral, are out there creating discussions, prompting debates and undoubtedly effecting the outcome of the Occupy protests — the same way Moore’s photo played a role in the outcome of the Civil Rights movement.
I’m not completely convinced we’ll come across them when we flip through retrospectives 50 years from now. I am certain, however, that millions of people who have witnessed or taken part in the protests will always recall these photos when they think back and the reaction they prompted. And to me, that’s what makes a photo iconic.
Disagree with my choices? Let us know what images from Occupy have been iconic for you in the comments.