Which side are you on? Protest Imagery from Goya to #occupy

For a movement whose call to action came from the visual culture-jamming magazine/group ‘Adbusters’, until the past week there have been surprisingly few images that have captured the public attention. Yes, there are signs in all the occupy camps, and some clever slogans (“Twenty years ago we had Steve Jobs/Bob Hope/Johnny Cash, now we have No Jobs, No Hope, No Cash”). I was in San Francisco the other week, and the ‘sign making station’ seemed to be a grocery cart filled with pieces of cardboard. Some artists have designed posters and made them available for free to print, but until this weekend it seemed that there were not any images that have captured the general public’s attention. Images can very powerfully solidify ideas or a movement, becoming icons for wider ideas (just think of the use of icons in Christianity, for example).

Randy L. Rasmussen‘s (AP/Guardian) photo (above) has caught public attention. We discussed Goya’s painting “The Third of May 1808” in a first year course I teach last week, and it struck me that these images utilize similar formulae to make their impact. Both are protest images: Goya’s against the slaughter of Spaniards by Napoleon’s men, the recent photo against power imbalance and the strained relationship of capitalism and democracy.

Dennis Sporre writes this description of the Goya piece the text I am using for my course called “The Creative Impulse”. The description aptly describes both images. “soldiers, not even human types, have their faces hidden, and their rigid, repeated forms strike a line of subhuman automatons. The murky quality of the background strengthens the value contrasts in the painting and this charges the emotional drama of the scene….Goya has no sympathy for French soldiers as human beings here. His subjectivity fills the painting, as emotional as the irrational behavior he wished to condemn”.
Students often think that photographers just ‘capture reality’ while painters make reality, but of course very deliberate decisions are made by photographers as to just how ‘reality’ is presented. In this case – whether the photographer was aware of it or not – what worked for Goya worked for him.
For another view on images, see yesterday’s article in The Atlantic on ‘The Moral Power of an Image’
More images that have garnered attention in the past few days, from UC Davis, New York, and Seattle.

 video of this incident here

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