A woman in a red dress sprayed with what appears to be pepper spray in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. The image vividly illustrates the popular uprising in Turkey: a young and vibrant youth movement suppressed by the state. The power of the image partially relates to three distinct elements within the frame. The first element in the very centre of the image depicts a policeman who is, backed by his colleagues in the background, spraying the chemical on the woman. The gas masks protects him, the dark colours of his clothing signifies the security apparatus of the state, while a row of helmet-clad colleagues secures the border into supposed lawlessness. The second element underlines the danger of the chemical and indeed this very confrontation as members of the press and onlookers seeks to escape from the spraying policemen. One woman can be seen covering her mouth and nose as she already feels the sting of the chemical.
Yet the most important element depicts the young woman in the red dress. Unlike the policemen, she is not protected by the usual apparel: she wears no goggles, no face mask, no helmet. Most remarkably however, her vulnerability in this tense context is further underlined by her body language: she simply just stands there as she is being sprayed with chemicals. Her arms are not raised, she does not cover her face. In a sense, her dress and body language make her look completely out of context. Her shoes, her necklace and the tote bag further signify a casualness that actually stands in complete contrast to the image as a whole. Her out-of-context appearance is finally emphasized by a small yet also distinct parameter of space around her.
The photograph bears an obvious resemblance with the infamous pepper spray incident at the University of California, Davis. A group of peaceful protesters refused to clear the way to the entrance of the university and the local police force took the dramatic decision to spray them at close range. The police officer in the centre of the image lost his job over the incident which also became an extremely Internet meme. Marc Riboud’s iconic photograph of the first major Anti-Vietnam War protest relates to Istanbul’s woman in the red dress in the way that it sets up a visual binary between agression vs. peacefulness, the state vs. the individual, and in this particular context, male vs. female.
Yet the woman of Gezi park most vividly stands out because of her red dress. The colour red could signify a whole number of things: the colour of the Turkish flag, the purity and beauty of a secular state propagated by Turkey’s first President Atatürk, or even an allegiance with socialism in an age of austerity. The colour red as a visual contrast against an oblique background can also be observed in Albert Lamorisse’s classic short-film ‘The Red Balloon’ (which was arguably used as a visual source for the the red dress scene in Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust epic ‘Schindler’s List’). Understanding that it could easily burst or fly away, the viewer increasingly empathizes with the red balloon hovering over a little boy. Similar to this, the woman in the red dress catches the viewer’s gaze. She stands innocently without defending herself in a chaotic and repressive environment. Her dream for a free, democratic and secular country shall not burst.