Iraq Invasion To 'Occupy Wall Street': Documenting A Decade Of Street Protests

Jun 18, 2020

Kevin Bubriski is an award-winning documentary photographer who lives in Shaftsbury, Vermont. His work is part of permanent collections in numerous museums and the International Center of Photography. He has a new book out called Our Voices, Our Streets: American Protests 2001-2011 that collects some of his work chronicling more than a decade of demonstrations.

VPR's Mitch Wertlieb spoke to Bubriski about the book and his photographs. Their interview is below. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Kevin Bubriski: It's a chronological book starting at the inauguration of George W. Bush. I was in Washington off and on throughout that decade, and also in New York City quite a bit, covering the various memorials and anniversaries of the 9/11 tragedy.

I was up in Rutland ⁠— protesters on Route 7 protesting the Iraq War ⁠— and then up at the field house at UVM in Burlington, covering the sendoff of Vermont National Guard troops during the Obama administration.

So I've covered a variety of situations, always with the medium format film camera, called the Hasselblad. These are not smartphone iPhone images, but with a medium format camera.

Mitch Wertlieb: What made you want to cover these kind of events?

These are moments in history. And so I'm politically engaged as an observer, and then as a photographer, I'm interested in making images that have a resonance. So I was thinking composition. No matter what I'm looking at, if it's a Vietnam War vet who's supporting Bush, or if I'm looking at a protester against the war, I bring the same lens, the same mindset, the same sense of composition to both.

You are an observer, you just said. So that is part of your role. Are you also a journalist? Are you in some ways a participant in these demonstrations, or do you try to maintain objectivity?

Objectivity is absolutely essential. I remember an event, I think it was the fifth anniversary of the war, and I went down to Washington, D.C., but I was photographing supporters of the war around the Lincoln Memorial.

A lot of Vietnam vets in leather jackets with their emblems and patches. And then there were the protesters against the war. And I was photographing both sides. And when I crossed the police line, I got to a collection of Vietnam vets all in their leather jackets. I happened to be wearing a leather jacket, too. And they said, "Are you on our side?" And I said, "Yes, I'm on your side, because I was on their side of the police barricade at that moment in time."

Well when you said that, did they understand that you meant that literally and not figuratively?

I didn't get into that conversation, because it's about the photographs, and I try to approach everyone with respect. And then later, when we look at the photographs, we see that there's a lot of nuance and difficulty in reading who someone is from an image.

More from NPR: As Black Photographers Document Protests, They Tell Their 'Own History In Real Time'

I want to follow up on something you just said there, Kevin, because I find photographs like this so fascinating. But there are problems with photos, too, aren't there? In what we interpret when we see them, because you're literally capturing an instant in time.

There's a photograph in this book that I just can't stop looking at. I think it was taken from March 22nd of 2003, an anti-war march. The photograph is of what looks like a policeman who seems to be handcuffing a young woman, and she's wearing a knitted cap.

In this photograph by Kevin Bubriski, Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette arrests a young protester.
Credit Kevin Bubriski, Courtesy

He's got his face right near her ear. It's almost like he's whispering something. And in that moment, you can't really read his face. He could be angry with her. He could be saying also, "I'm not here to hurt you, but I have to take you into custody because you've done something wrong."

I wonder if you can convey the confusion that I have in looking at that and interpreting that photograph.

Right. I'm looking at it now. I think it's the photograph on page 77, it's actually from Bennington, Vermont, March 20th, 2003.

This was the morning after the beginning of the Iraq war. Several dozen Bennington County residents came to the Four Corners, where Routes 9 and 7 intersect, committing the act of civil disobedience. And so the Bennington Police Department came in and arrested those who were in the street obstructing traffic.

The picture that you mentioned is actually of chief of police, officer Paul Doucette. And I don't know who the young woman is, but this is a photograph that's attracted a lot of attention. I know Paul Doucette. We've been sharing the same community for decades. There are so many questions that arise when looking at this photo.

It's like the tip of the iceberg of an event, and then it's up to our imaginations to fill in the extra data.

I'm wondering if you look at the situation with all the protests happening around the country right now. How do you view that?

I think so many things are quite different now. In the run up to the Iraq war, there were protests in American cities of hundreds of thousands of people. And if you include international, there were millions of people.

The numbers overall, I think, were even larger in the protests against the Iraq war. But what's different now is we have an extremely frightful and dangerous pandemic engulfing the entire world. We also have a president who has not been a good communicator.

And then we have the killing of George Floyd, Eric Garner and so many others. And those have been captured by live iPhone streaming video. Apparently, it was a [17]-year old young girl who captured the killing of George Floyd, and she held the camera on that event for nine minutes.

The immediacy of the capture through social media and through handheld phones changes the dynamic incredibly, and gives much more immediacy to the event. I'd like to think that we're at a very critical turning point in America with more justice and better equity, that we're on the threshold of that. But we just have to see.

Are you taking photographs of any of the current demonstrations, whether here in Vermont or elsewhere?

I went down to North Adams, Mass. And I took some pictures two weekends ago of the Black Lives Matter rally. But I realize that there are so many other people, people half my age and younger, who are on the streets, who are posting on Instagram, Twitter, elsewhere, Facebook.

And I'll take my pictures. But I'm not a photojournalist.