Unassuming yet nimble, sometimes emphatic, and always searching: Allan Sekula’s photographs seem to emerge from the offing, summoned by history’s recurrent tides. In decades of documentary work, he brought this sensibility to investigations of labor practices effected by globalized capitalism, from maritime workers at Southern California’s container ports (Fish Story, 1989–95) to the disenfranchised employees contemplating a strike at a pizzeria in China (This Ain’t China: A Photonovel, 1974). Sekula composed critical texts to accompany his images, essays that interrogate both the perennial histories of capitalism’s perils and the means in which they are represented. For better or worse, his images are evergreen. Though the artist died in 2013, parsing his work now, I’m troubled by how little it has aged.
Uncertainty pulsed in the streets of Seattle on November 30, 1999, the second of five days that would mark the most significant antiglobalization protests to date. That week, the World Trade Organization convened with the intention to discuss reducing of trade barriers—a decision favoring the interests of corporations at the expense of worker protections and environmental concerns, among other injustices. The estimated 50,000 protesters led by international NGOs and an array of labor organizations effectively shut down both the city and the convention that day—before the police retaliated against the largely peaceful demonstrations with rubber bullets and tear gas. Now remembered as the “Battle in Seattle,” this violent response established a standard for policing protests; 20 years later, protestors still contend with unjust and brutal confrontations by the militarized police.
Sekula joined the crowd that day, capturing a series of photographs of the many distinct faces of protesters present in the streets. The photographs, which the artist later arranged in a collection of 81 slides titled Waiting for Tear Gas [white globe to black] (1999–2000), depict a motley gathering of environmentalists and Indigenous groups standing alongside teamsters and university students. He watched them watch the scene unfold around them; they shared glances of hopeful longing, of fearful anticipation, of confusion over the abrupt use of tear gas on protesters, and the chemical’s painful elicitation of artificial tears. In 2002, Sekula wrote in October magazine that, beyond serving as a method of crowd control, tear gas produces “through chemical means the exaggerated liquid symptoms of human empathy and grief. This chemically induced parody of extreme human emotion is in itself an assertion of robotic power.” A population emboldened by unity poses a threat to those in power who seek to control, manipulate, and capitalize on collective grief. “Only the markets are allowed to be fluid,” he continues. Consequently, the resort to tear gas further bonds the radical many.
These photographs are unlike the spectacular images used by the mainstream media to depict the protests. Active consumers of the news (in all its insidious forms) know these images well—the boarded-up businesses, the graffiti, mobs of protesters abutting riot gear. Sekula’s motive was to highlight the liminal moments of the protest, of its lulls and delays, with “no flash, no telephoto zoom lens, no gas mask, no auto-focus, no press pass and no pressure to grab at all costs the one defining image of dramatic violence.” He terms his decisions as “anti-journalistic,” which I’ve come to understand as his manifesto of sorts, taking to task the mediatized image’s aim of shaping public consciousness. The artist believed, through his depictions of this new era of protest, “a simple descriptive physiognomy was warranted,” and they are at once vehement and empathetic in their candid simplicity. His attempts to record simultaneously the chaos and banality of human bodies united in the city streets did not aim to tell an alternate story of the protest, but a retelling of events that incites critical pause. Sekula produces images of the protest’s interiority and leaves them for a viewer to decode. Holding each image for 11 seconds, a slide projector carousel cycles Waiting for Tear Gas through a continuous loop, offering an invitation to sit with the photographs at a distance and reconcile the margins of history in which they rest.
All of this is cyclical. Our contemporary images of protest share an affinity with Sekula’s, whose aesthetic intentions were realized while the social injustices regrettably persist. In Waiting for Tear Gas, I recognize the faces and scenes from last summer’s protests against the systematic murder of Black people by the police, and feel the catharsis of standing alongside the community in solidarity. I recall the tear gas, the chants, the police cars set aflame—all of these instances while we waited to see what change would come. With empathy and grief, we’re still waiting.