SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 177 April 2014

Shot in Seattle

Waiting for Tear Gas

Allan Sekula slideshow

Tate Modern (free admission)

Reviewed by Suzanne Beishon

He calls it a form of ‘anti-photojournalism’. The general rules are: no flash, no telephoto lens, no autofocus, no gas mask, no press pass and no searching for the ‘one’ image that defines the event singularly. These are the principles Allan Sekula used to produce Waiting for Tear Gas.

This exhibition currently at Tate Modern takes the form of an 81 image slideshow covering the protests against the World Trade Organisation (WTO), in Seattle, 1999. The demos of tens of thousands of people helped spark a new wave of anti-capitalist protest across the globe that brought new layers of working-class and young people to the fight against corporate capitalism.

Sekula captures the events with the aim of "being the memory of this moment of eruption" and "keeping the moment of dissent and protest alive". Moving with the flow of protest, using the methods of ‘anti-photojournalism’, and working from dawn until 3am has given a real honesty to the photos. Unlike much protest photography, which aims to shock and capture the most dramatic and controversial moments, Sekula documents the entirety of the movement. Violent confrontations with police, calm and solemn moments, and the carnival atmosphere are all given equal billing.

Presenting clearly defined individual photos in 10-15 second-long slides gives the effect of telling a story. There are no fancy transitions to make it more film like, although the slideshow opens with a white globe and closes with a black globe to aid the narration.

In an interview, Sekula (who died last year) talked about it documenting the ‘new face of protest’, working-class responses to globalisation, and the varied alliances that formed on the streets of Seattle. He shows how the most combative trade unions, the West Coast Longshore Union and local Teamsters, came onto the streets with the youthful protesters and direct action groups: Teamsters alongside protesters dressed as turtles, just one example.

The Seattle protests were met by heavy-handed policing – more and more a feature of modern day protests as governments look to quell any dissent and strike fear into campaigners. In Seattle the police and troops used rubber bullets, pepper spray and tear gas to disperse crowds as they tried to regain control of the streets.

Sekula documents high-school students sitting in lines across streets, at night, with little or no protection, holding hands. He shows makeshift gas masks, from bandanas to water bottles held at the mouth, and bare-chested women with ‘No BGH’ (bovine growth hormones) written on their bodies as they face riot police.

Despite their overwhelming presence, the police were caught off guard. The protesters were able to stop delegates from reaching the WTO event and it could not go ahead. Despite the obvious inequality of the resources available to the police and the protesters, Sekula’s images portray a confidence and enthusiasm in the faces of the protesters and workers. They are testing and feeling their power against the might of the state.

While the organised working class featured in the movement in Seattle it did not play a central organising role. If it had, and had put forward a clear socialist message, not just an anti-capitalist one, the movement may have been able to take the victory in Seattle and build on its success.

It is interesting to look at this exhibition and the anti-capitalist movement in the light of the more recent Occupy camps and protests. Both faced some similar successes, but were limited by their lack of a focus on the role of the organised working class. However, they showed a reinvigoration of the ideas of anti-capitalism and placed the idea of an alternative firmly on the agenda.

The methods of ‘anti-photojournalism’ remove the ‘critical distance’ of the photographer from his subject. This causes complications: it is hard to photograph blinded by tear gas. But, instead of a distant documenting of events, you get an emotionally driven response to what is taking place. It is clear what side the photographer is on. Waiting for Tear Gas is a short (16 mins) but detailed coverage of the Seattle protests, refreshingly not made to sell to the press but to document events from the eyes of the protesters.

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