As the Arab Spring showed us just this last year, communication has become, for all practical purposes, instantaneous. Sharing images, thoughts and words with a global population has become as simple as running a Twitter account, and because of it the world of photography is meeting a new class of citizen photojournalist. Still, despite a middling economy, there’s plenty of room for traditional photojournalism in the digital age. As a new project from conceptual photographer August Bradley proves, efforts can be maximized to produce images that are seen throughout the world in only a few short days.
August Bradley is known for portraiture that’s incredibly detailed and highly stylized, with deep literary references and complex, psychological motifs. He refers to his intensely cerebral approach to portrait and commercial photography as "conceptual," but for a more recent project, Bradley decided to do something that was a little less complex, at least in execution. Bradley was on a trip in October 2011 to do a presentation at Shoot-NYC, an event sponsored by Hasselblad and Broncolor. While there, he chose to use a bit of his limited free time to take a look through his lens at the controversial Occupy Wall Street protest movement. Titled the "99 Faces of Occupy Wall Street," Bradley shot a series of simply lit, straightforward portraiture that centered on the people of the largely faceless movement.
Bradley, who comes from a marketing background, says that his initial impulse to document Occupy Wall Street (OWS) came from two principle sources: a desire to move more significantly into portrait work, and a personal curiosity and lack of understanding about the movement in general. "The entire movement seemed like this big mystery," he explains about his preconceptions. "There are no front people, there are no personalities widely identified with it. It’s as if the entire movement was behind a Guy Fawkes mask, making the mask an appropriate symbol…the mystery of it was intriguing to me."
Once live as a dedicated website portal (www.99facesofoccupywallst.org) that he kept separate from his own, attention to the project was almost instantaneous. "The site went live late on a Wednesday," says Bradley, "at which time I posted it to my blog, Facebook and Twitter account (@augustbradley). That Thursday and Friday, most of the OWS blogs, Twitter accounts and digital publications were posting it including a home page post on Adbusters, the media publication that inspired the occupy movement in the first place. That sent a big spike in traffic and hundreds of Twitter tweets and Facebook posts."
"On Monday," he continues, "I sent emails cold (not knowing anyone there) to the New York Times, Washington Post and Huffington Post inquiring about their interest in the series. The Washington Post and New York Times both responded quickly, expressing interest in working it into their online publication schedules. Then the next morning (Tuesday) the police raided and evicted the OWS camp, and the story hit a new level of urgency and interest. The Washington Post ran it on their Arts & Culture blog immediately, pulling comments from my project description and from my blog post into their article. The New York Times Lens Blog (one of the most influential and widely followed photography blogs) called, asking for images resized to their specs within three hours, and did a 20-minute interview for their article, which ran the next morning. This led to discussions about the series in Slate, The New Yorker (on their websites, posted by editors) and many others. The Huffington Post contacted me a few days later about doing a story. With this media attention, traffic to the site skyrocketed, Facebook had over 2,500 ‘shares’ (i.e., people who posted it on their walls), and tweets were well into the thousands… I knew it would get some attention. It was a headline with growing momentum. But I had no idea it would go this far in just a week. I’m still getting requests from publications all over the world."
Bradley notes that despite a few Internet trolls and a bit of paranoia about FBI and police profiling from the Occupiers at Zuccotti Park, the feedback and attention was overwhelmingly positive. When asked about the longevity of the project, and why he thinks that this particular series struck a chord, characteristically Bradley is both realistic and optimistic about the long-term possibilities. "The project is certainly riding the news-cycle momentum of the larger Occupy Movement story, he says, "but within that collection of competing headlines, I think this project really gave a personal touch to something that seems impersonal. The idea of a large movement, especially one without any personalities at the forefront, does not resonate as well as the story of an individual looking at you right in the eye."
Bradley is fascinated with faces, and he says that telling the story through the faces behind the movement was exciting to him. NYC was chosen as the location for the shoot, because it was the origin of the movement and it was most interesting to him as the spiritual hub of the national Occupy efforts. For subjects, he decided in advance that he wanted an unbiased cross-section of the Occupiers. Rather than concentrating his imagery on the myriad demands and messages of the movement, Bradley chose to engage the audience with simple portraits that gave a human face to the ideologies.
"I am sympathetic to the OWS movement, though the purpose was not to advocate it," he says. "The purpose was to give a platform for those involved to communicate to a national audience what they are doing at Zuccotti Park, to address the curiosities I knew many people across the country had. And as you see from the results, those motives vary quite a bit from person to person… I expressed no viewpoint at all to the subjects, we merely said, ‘We’re doing a portrait series on OWS, can we include you?’ If they said yes, we handed them a clipboard with one question: ‘Why are you here (at Occupy Wall Street)?’ The form also had a short release and asked for their first name. If anyone said no, we just moved on."
"We had a lot of images to do in one day, and we were grabbing everyone and anyone involved as we moved through the park… Some people had more alternative looks and others were very mainstream. What makes this protest movement different from the ones we have seen on a regular basis is both the size and the significant active involvement of people who mainstream suburban America would identify with—people who could be their next-door neighbors. While this part of the group is no more important than any other in my view, it does make the movement harder to marginalize by its opposition.
"We were not editing in terms of selection as we went. We had so many to shoot in one day that we were trying to get everyone in our path as we moved through the cramped walkway inside the encampment," Bradley continued. "At one point, we realized we were getting so few women that we wanted to include more. But there were far fewer women there. And more women than men turned down
our request, though only about 5% of those we approached declined to participate. Some viewers have asked if we were looking for more worn-down faces, which we were not—these are the faces as we found them. Remember that most of these people had been camping in a concrete park for over two months straight."
His own reaction to the subjects varied widely from person to person, some of whom he agreed with and some of whom he did not. "That was not the point," he admits, "and I left my views out if it—both in sharing what I captured and in selecting whom to approach for the project. The overwhelming majority were incredibly sincere in their motives and dedication to the cause. I also wanted to include some police, but they were not willing. The police were a big presence there. The periphery was lined with them. There were also a ton of photographers there, though not one of the photographers or videographers was lighting their subjects, my team was unusual in that sense."
Accompanying each image was a short quote from each subject explaining their principal motivation for being there. "The personal statements certainly add a lot to the photos," Bradley says, "just as the photos do to the personal statements. Together they bring a greater depth and a better glimpse of the person. They are sometimes in contrast to each other—some of the more radical looks have some of the most thoughtful statements, while some of the more conservative faces have more aggressive and angry comments. Together they reveal the complexity of people more than either component individually."
The approach to both the photography and the design of the website was minimal for both practical and aesthetic reasons. The need to get the images up as quickly as possible was paramount, so the website layout was designed to do three things; to emphasize the images while giving an introductory overview to Bradley’s "sea of faces," and enabling viewers to further explore the issue as they saw fit. "A head shot is by its nature simple in composition," Bradley notes in regard to the homogenous approach to composition, "yet good ones capture the complexity of the person, revealing an emotional depth. There is some variety to these images, but in the end I saw it as a series that needed to fit together."
Bradley’s original intention was to use a clean backdrop, but he scouted the site the preceding day and found that there would not be enough room to place one within the crowded camp. "We would have to move from subject to subject," he explains, "so we had to be completely portable." He brought two assistants who carried a Broncolor Mobil A2L power pack and a MobilLED light. Bradley explains that they would have needed permits to set a light stand down so they needed a walking light source. "Without a backdrop, I massively blurred the background into an abstract tapestry," he says, "which ended up adding more richness and flavor than a backdrop. It also blurred the sides of each subject’s head as it fell away, directing attention right to the eyes."
He says that the textures of the full-resolution images from the Hasselblad H3D that he was using are "so vivid you feel you can reach out and touch it." Precise positioning of Bron strobes with small softboxes and grids produced the hard edged, gritty look that he was going for. Bradley describes the look as a type of lighting that reads soft while actually being fairly hard. "The sharpness reflects the real, factual nature of the subject matter," he continues, "in contrast to polished entertainment or fashion images we often see. The blue-green tones are on the opposite end of the color wheel from skin tones (from essentially all skin tones), opposite tones are pleasing together and create a more stark contrast so it further separated the faces from the environment. I also have different tones in the highlights and shadows, enhancing depth and contrast. I wanted to communicate the mood, which was heavy and dramatic."
While it hadn’t occurred to him that there would be any negative reaction from clients in regards to working on an Occupy Wall Street project, the overall result from the project is that a self-started initiative satisfied his yearnings as an artist, challenged him as a photographer, rounded out his portraiture portfolio and also brought him a great deal of attention online. Bradley laughs that he’s not sure how long that attention will last, but he says that this is just the beginning for him, one of many that he will continue to engage in between paying projects. "I hope it will enable more portrait work," he says, "particularly in instances where access is not as easy to obtain—it’s nice to have a showcase that was well received when pitching new ideas. But regardless, I will certainly be pursuing more personal projects like this on a wide range of unrelated subjects. I had already been planning several others before this one occurred to me."