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The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 19-JAN 20

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DEC 19-JAN 20 Issue
Field Notes

Mic Check

Photo by the author.
Photo by the author.

I had just stepped out of the subway station when my cell phone rang. It was my father. “I saw on the news that there are protesters gathering in Manhattan. Be careful getting home.” “OK, Dad. Thanks for letting me know. I’ll be careful.” I put my phone back in my pocket, reached for my cameras and felt the weight of them on my neck as I slipped their straps over my head. I adjusted my camera bag on my hip, turned the collar up on my old green army jacket, and took a deep breath as I faced the mass of protesters in front of me who had gathered in the chilly night air at Union Square.

In late November of 2014 protesters began gathering in New York City over the exoneration of white police officer Darren Wilson who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Shortly afterward, a second Grand Jury considering the death of Eric Garner at the hands of Daniel Pantaleo on Staten Island led to the same outcome. Protesters continued to take to the streets, over and over, for a long litany of names: Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Jamar Clark, Philando Castile, Terence Crutcher, Botham Jean, Stephon Clark, and Eric Logan, among many others. The protests also included events to remember those from earlier incidents, such as Eleanor Bumpurs, Trayvon Martin, and Amadou Diallo.

There were weeks when all I could do was try to keep track of where groups of protesters were gathering and figure out the best way to get there. I had always carried a camera with me around New York, but with the seemingly nightly protests I began to carry a fuller set of gear: two or three camera bodies, lenses of various focal lengths, and so much film that I thought I was personally responsible for keeping the film company in business.

New York City never saw scenes like those that played out in Ferguson or Baltimore. The police never used tear gas, heavily armored police vehicles never rolled through the streets, and people were not confronted by police with weapons drawn who looked more like soldiers than cops. But there were masses of protestors. There were times traffic was blocked on major streets and bridges. Insults and profanities were hurled back and forth. There were arrests. There were signs. There were chants of every kind. There were a few punches thrown. And there were cops. Lots of them. It was wild and crazy and sometimes overwhelming. I had to keep my head on a swivel to keep track of everything around me, and make sure I knew what was going on behind me as much as in front. Looking back on it all, some nights are just one big blur, and not from the beers I would have afterwards to settle myself down from what I had just seen and experienced.

Now five years have passed since the events that drew me to the streets to photograph. Five anniversaries of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner have come and gone. After an exceedingly long wait, Daniel Pantaleo was finally fired by the New York City Police Department this past summer. But while the Garner family may have at least received this as a token of closure, Pantaleo is now suing to get his job back, backed by an outraged police union. These events give me pause to look at what the movement has accomplished, and where my photographs stand.

After five years in the streets, what have the protests accomplished? Almost all the cops who faced accusations have gone free. Police officers still arrest and shoot African Americans at an alarming rate. Police departments have made changes to their training regimes and added body cameras, but the effects of these changes on policing appear minimal at best. The incidents of police violence around the country do draw more scrutiny in the press and are quicker to show up on the news. This in turn does shine a brighter light through the thin blue line into the shadows of police abuse of power.

So what have my photographs accomplished? Have they driven people to action? Have they increased the public dialogue? Have they influenced politicians to change government policy? So far, they haven’t done any of that.

My work has always been a matter of long-term looks into stories on the edge of journalism, documentary, and art. This way of working has always put me in an odd space with my work: too journalistic for the art world, and a bit too arty for the journalists. I have an MFA degree, not a degree in journalism, but my adherence to journalistic standards reinforces the dichotomous nature of my work. The fact that I still work exclusively with black and white film and do my own darkroom printing just adds to the mixed reaction. As a result, while my work has been published, it is more likely to be seen on the gallery walls of colleges and universities, where I mean it to educate both art students and students in general about photography and about current events.

I use my work to try to start conversations about the subjects I cover, whether they are pieces about the Karen people, an ethnic minority who live along the Thailand/Burma border in Southeast Asia; the lives of Muslim American communities around the United States; daily life in Pakistan; the working poor in New York City; or the duality between rich and poor in Hong Kong. I know that just seeing my photographs is not going to change a viewer’s mind. Very few photographs have that power. It is not an epiphany I am trying to create, but a way to get people thinking and talking. And to me that is what good journalism is: not telling people what to think but giving them the facts and information to think on their own.

But I am also playing the long game of history with these photographs. I am well aware that my photographs are lost in the shuffle of all that is going on in the world at the moment. Between the impeachment inquiry, the fight over climate change, election meddling by foreign powers, ICE detention centers along the border, and a host of other issues, there is a lot for anyone to pay attention to. But the arc of history is a long one, and when things are viewed with more distance through the passage of time, the truly important events and movements stand out. And the Black Lives Matter movement, as a new chapter in the greater Civil Rights Movement, already is a part of history. This will not be the final chapter in the struggle for equal rights, but it will be an important part. And one that will be remembered. The Civil Rights movement will continue to ebb and flow, but it never goes away completely, and each new iteration builds upon the ones before it.

So as the protests march into their sixth year, I will continue to show up to document what happens. And as the movement morphs into whatever is coming next, I will be there with my cameras to document that as well. The full story of the Black Lives Matter movement hasn’t yet been written, and I don’t know when or where the story will end for me. But I will keep photographing to try to get at least the first draft of the story from where I stand and what I see. This work is about creating a record of what happens now so that in the future there will be something for those to come after to reference.

As for my father, he doesn’t call me anymore to tell me when he hears about protests in New York. I’m pretty sure he just assumes I’m there at this point, and figures that after five years I know what I’m doing to not get into too much trouble. But I’m betting he still worries; he just doesn’t mention it to me.

I’ve been a photographer for over 20 years now, so a full quarter of my career has been invested in this work. And the more I follow this story, the more I also relate to my father’s warning. Parents never want to see their children get hurt no matter what they are doing. I feel that way about my own kids. But until everyone’s kids are safe in their own neighborhoods from deadly interactions with those who are supposed to protect them, no one’s kids are safe. So I will keep working on this series, warnings be damned. And if all that comes of my photographs in the end is that my kids know more about what is happening in the world around them, then at least there are three more people paying attention.

Photo by the author.
Photo by the author.

Photo by the author.
Photo by the author.

Photo by the author.
Photo by the author.

Photo by the author.
Photo by the author.

Photo by the author.
Photo by the author.

Contributor

Rob Gerhardt

Rob Gerhardt is a social documentary photographer based in Brooklyn. His work has been in numerous solo and group exhibitions in North America, Europe and Asia, and is in a number of public and private collections.  His work has also been published both nationally and internationally, including in The Guardian, The New York Times, The Diplomat and the Hong Kong Free Press. He is a member of the National Press Photographers' Association and the Foreign Correspondent's Club, Hong Kong.

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The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 19-JAN 20

All Issues