Protest and Identification

Guillaume Bertrand/Reuters, official caption in the New York Times reads “scuffles were reported between rock-throwing students and riot police firing tear-gas in the outlying neighborhoods of Nanterre and Mantes-la-Jolie.” 19th of Coctober, 2010.

It’s October 2010 and the protests against the pension reforms in France are turning violent. The visual representation of these manifestations, or manif in short, makes for rich material. In above photograph, the viewer (the person looking at the photograph) is situated behind the police cordon. This perspective is greatly affecting the reading of the image. The ideological implication here is that the police, or what Louis Althusser has called the Repressive State Apparatus, is protecting you, the viewer, from the ‘rock-throwing students’. The telephoto lens chosen by the news agency photographer is further signifying that the trouble makers should be kept at a distance and that the only buffer between you and them is the state apparatus. The focus, quite literally, is on the youths who are the source of violence and rioting. The rock one of the students is throwing can actually be seen flying through the air. It is a photograph that makes a clear distinction between two sides: the rioting youths on one side, the viewer on the other side, and the police in between.

Susan Meiselas, Muchachos await the counterattack by the National Guard, Matagalpa, Nicaragua, 1978-79.

Another aspect is quite striking in this photograph: all the subjects in the distance are masked. An immediate association might be with the masked faced of a guerrilla fighter, such as in Susan Meiselas’ iconic photographic series ‘Nicaragua’. The masked face of the students in the distance has important implications: as the identity of the students is unknown, their struggle too, is further disassociated from the viewer him or herself. The face mask, bandanna or the hoodie also further exoticises the students’ struggle. The viewer does not know who these people are and what they protest against. Is it really the pension reform? Particularly the hoodie evokes strong connotations of the banlieue and the ‘ethnic riots’ in France in 2008. The caption specifically refers to the Parisian suburbs Nanterre and Mantes-la-Jolie – suburbs that have large ethnic minorities and not coincidentally on the very periphery of the city. Again, the subject matter is located at a distance in relation to the viewer.

A typical representation of British ‘hoodies’ appearing in The Sun newspaper.

But the ‘hoodie’ is not a phenomenon specific to the Parisian suburbs or France in general. In the United Kingdom, the hoodie emerged in parallel to an unprecedented rise in surveillance technologies after the murder or James Bulger in 1993. The CCTV camera has become an omnipresent part of public (and sometimes private) life in Britain. The ‘hoodie’ simply preempts his surveillance by covering his face. The ‘hoodie’ is quite simply the logical consequence of a Big Brother society. As France is following Britain’s lead in terms of surveillance capabilities, the emergence of the ‘hoodie’ in the French suburbs came as a natural progression. Rather than signifying the violent struggle associated with guerrilla warfare, the face masks of the ‘rock-throwing students’ signifies the evolution of surveillance technologies in France.

Students hurl projectiles during May 1968 student protest in Paris.

As French students go on the barricades in October 2010, the inevitable comparison to the May 1968 protests will be made. There are a great number of similarities in how these events are photographically represented: the stone throwing student, the overturned and burning cars, the graffiti and banners contextualizing the desires of a generation. But the above photograph also greatly differs from the representation of students in 2010. Most importantly with regards to the emergence of a surveillance society, none of the students seek to cover their identity. Also, the vantage point of the camera is far more empathetic to the students hurling projectiles at the police, who are not even part of the photograph itself. I am of course using this comparison in order to exemplify a point here: that the representation of protest does give clues as to what type of a society this protest is occurring in. The black and white photograph taken in May 1968 is one of the most iconic representations of that event. I hesitate to guess that if a single iconic image will emerge from the ongoing protests in France, it will depict a masked man shot with a telephoto lens.

For more on this topic, please read Susie Linfield’s book The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.

Like this Article? Subscribe to Our Feed!

2 thoughts on “Protest and Identification

  1. I’m not sure that one could take a photograph of the young rioters in Nanterre without hoodie, scarves over their faces, runners or casual sportswear. There’s a reason beyond mere surveillance. The lack of individuality is a practical means to evade judicial prosecution, something every kid in the banlieue knows about.

    And, while the photograph is face on, one cannot forget that the majority of the photograph is blocked by an anonymous, uniformed bloc of people who’s identity is further masked. The reading of the photograph could also indicate the facelessness of the state.

    One could also argue that the NYTimes has a very American bias in highlighting the looting during the strikes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *