Shows of strength and defiance aren’t in short supply at your average protest – demonstrating, by its nature, requires a level of commitment that weeds out the bystanders, the unimpressively apathetic. But what is it that makes the money shot? The protest photo that goes viral? Well, for one, women. Or, more accurately, one woman. Often a striking, beautiful-looking woman. But mostly, a woman who looks like a badass without seeming to do anything much that is dramatic at all.
For anyone trying to work out the Venn diagram of iconic protest imagery, three tropes will immediately jump to the fore: the quiet dignity of said woman; the battle-hungry paraphernalia of male authority (your shields and batons and chunky uniforms); and the dramatic flip of power that clash presents.
No matter how many times history serves us mirrors of the same image, there is something irresistible about seeing a perfectly framed shot in which brute aggressive force is upturned and subverted by a simple and graceful gesture: a young protester casually using a policeman’s shield as a mirror to apply her lipstick; an elderly woman sitting cross-legged and smiling in front of a wall of soldiers; another eye-to-eye with lines of policemen and simply holding her hand out. In moments of fierce heat and aggression, these are audacious, determined moves. There was nothing accidental about Saffiyah Khan’s easy nonchalance, grinning through the spitting rage of Ian Crossland at the EDL rally in Birmingham city centre at the weekend; Ieshia Evans knew there was more power in calm when she approached the police in Baton Rouge last summer.
These images capture us, the viewers, because, yes, they expose and ridicule authority – this is the visual language of the underdog, fighting the power in the most deliberately banal way possible. Of course, they are not always “truthful” representations of that particular moment on that particular day but for the most lasting images, it almost becomes irrelevant; these shots aren’t grounded in the dirty, messy reality of a demo, they more accurately reflect our optimism as an audience.
We want to believe in these absurd moments and sentimentalise the spirit they contain because it gives us hope that protest can work, and that there is strength in simple acts of humanity.
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