WRITERS PRIZE: 25 / JAN / 2021
MAKING SPACE TO SPEAK FROM
by Mads Holm
Riot police surround the entire group of protestors. Anonymous black shapes appear like shadows on the walls of the red brick houses on both sides of the street. Their gloved hands clutch the truncheons. I look to both sides. Like plucking flowers from a bouquet of black roses the riot police begin pulling out protestors from the crowd. One after another grabbed, forced to the ground, handcuffed and dragged down the side streets. Fleeting moments of crisscross eye contact spread an anxious energy. Heartbeats felt in finger tips.
I begin to push my way through the crowd and onto the sidewalk where a group of photographers have surrounded three police officers fighting with a protestor. The police struggle to keep the young man to the ground. One of the officers systematically beats the protestor’s legs with the truncheon. The hits fall harder and harder. Another officer puts a knee on the protestor’s temple as the third moves a pepper spray canister close to his eyes and sprays. The protestor lets out one long strident scream before his body goes limp. The photographers have crawled on top of each other and the lenses of their cameras point straight ahead like a stack of Cyclopes. I photograph too and I am not sure why. As I move slowly back and forth to find the right position I am overcome with doubt. Will this image ever convey the actual fear and violence of the situation? What is my responsibility as someone who now owns a photograph of the scene? Am I secretly fetishising the drama of it?
I know I am at the protest because I feel powerless as a photographer. A frustrating sense of political insufficiency as an artist has started to haunt me. My desperate longing for a different world is wearing on my belief in photography’s potential for changing it. It is as if the inherent ambiguity of photographs, which I have always believed in, has begun to demoralise me. It was out of a need to fully embrace an open meaning structure of photography that I abandoned the field of photojournalism many years ago. Now, however, photographs’ multiple interpretations seem to conflict with addressing urgent societal matters.
When I exhibit and sell my photographs as framed fine art pieces in established art institutions and commercial galleries I always hear Allan Sekula whisper in the back of my mind: "As a privileged commodity fetish, as an object of connoisseurship, the photograph achieves its ultimate semantic poverty."
Once this photograph is placed behind museum glass and put on the price list will it ever matter what happened to the protestor?
I duck a glass bottle drifting through the frozen air and decide to turn off my camera and pack it in my bag. My thoughts meander and a good friend’s words suddenly come to mind:
"You think that when photographs are not contextualised according to the facts of the reality which they seek to address they are not able to move us to think and act differently in the world? In my opinion you completely undermine the power of aesthetics, affect and free association. What dedicated photographers can do today is to create art works full of contradictions that stimulate an awareness of how our world is changing. Art can and should not offer solutions and you can not measure or predict the impact of your work. However, instead of displacing the photographs behind gallery walls you can give them a life which corresponds to the life from where they came."
The following day dozens of protestors are awakened early by police officers arresting them in their beds. Investigations have taken place overnight on Facebook comparing personal profiles of the attendees on the social medium with the police footage of the protest. I am in my studio, also looking at images. I try to wrap my head around the paradox: the technology that is provided as a service to help you find and attend an event is the same one that gets you arrested the day after.
With power increasingly operating through images how do we, image makers, invent new spaces from where we can speak back?
Mads Holm is a photographer based in Copenhagen and The Hague. Source published his work About Common Ground in Issue 89 - Spring 2017. Images taken from the HRTLND street exhibition and bike tour by Mads Holm and Dario Pianesi, The Hague, NL, 2020.