Who is the 99%, and what does one imply when referring to the 99%? This is what I sought to discover when I visited Zuccotti Park in New York this past October.
As someone continually inspired by visual anthropology, my interest was piqued by the Occupy Wall Street movement. However, something more caught my attention: it was the escalating hum of voices surrounding the protests on my Twitter and Facebook feeds. Had I been offline the past few months, I would have never had the curiosity to check it out. In fact, it's important to credit the social media drive behind this movement as being the impetus for beginning this project.
Through my photography I seek to explore how we, as a culture, simultaneously perceive and influence an event. What I observed at Zuccotti Park was that Occupy was as much a political movement as it was a social media phenomenon. There were perhaps more people there taking pictures, Tweeting, or reporting than there were protesting. Zuccotti Park had become a media circus and a tourist destination.
I saw businessmen walking around the park on their lunchbreak, homeless people getting fed, and young men getting high or trying to pick up girls, while the police looked over. There was an anarchist arguing with an ex-cop, an entrepreneurial lady selling "We are the 99%" buttons to visitors and tourists, and an eccentric man simultaneously running for political office and warning of conspiracy theories.
I asked myself, isn't this scene at Zuccotti Park not a fitting analogy for the 99%? At merely half an acre, Zuccotti Park is a tiny piece of real estate. Yet in that very small square everyone present coexisted in relative harmony, regardless of purpose, racial makeup, political inclination, or income. Whether one was there to participate in the movement, sell buttons for profit, run for office, or — like me — set up a studio and take portraits, you were left alone to do your business. It occurred to me that this park was a very small-scale version of America.
I thought it necessary to not only shoot the protesters, but everyone else somehow involved in this social media phenomenon. Hence my desire to present each person as an individual, by stripping them of banners or statements whenever possible, and isolating them from the context of the park or the movement. All that remained was the subjects' aesthetic, their psychology, and their interaction with my camera and me. What surfaced were also their attitudes, hairstyles, or sense of dress. Inadvertently, this exercise became a window into our cultural anthropology as it stands at this place in time.
Now that the Occupy Wall Street movement has been shuttered out of Zuccotti Park, what occurred there has become a social experiment in my mind — a sort of petri-dish — attempting to re-investigate the concept behind this country. Witnessing this event, I sincerely believe that we as a nation are at a crossroads. Through my Ninetynine Portraits project, it is my hope that these faces, and who they represent, are a reminder that this experiment is still very much alive.
The following portraits were taken on October 21 and 25, 2011.
NYC, November 22, 2011
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