Capturing Four Years of Protest

Starting out as a street photographer as the world goes a bit mad.

Marci Lindsay
Dec 4, 2020 · 8 min read
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Women’s March, New York, January 2018

We’re coming to the end of a four-year presidential term and also four years of protests, the likes of which we haven’t seen in the United States in 50 years. As a street photographer in Washington, DC, I’ve documented much of it, starting the day after Trump’s inauguration with the first Women’s March in January 2017, through Biden’s election this November and the subsequent MAGA rally.

Four years ago is also about the time I started doing street photography. Although I’d been a huge fan literally since childhood, I never took up the challenge of shooting in the street myself until then. I didn’t know it was a genre and that there was a whole universe of people doing it and sharing their work online. So it’s easy for me to remember how long I’ve been a part of the Women in Street community — it’s been exactly one presidential administration. Shortly after participating in the first Women’s March, Casey found some of my photos from that day on Instagram, which I’d taken with my phone, and asked if she could include three of them in the march-themed gallery that month called “Pretty in Pink.” Casey recalls that I wasn’t using street photo hashtags at all back then.

Shortly before the 2016 election I had traveled to Cuba to provide emotional support for a friend who left the island as a teenager and was returning for the first time in 28 years. While there, I did a lot of what would be considered street photography. Anyone who’s been to Cuba knows that shooting street there is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. Cubans are friendly and open, and so busy living their lives that they don’t seem to notice you taking their picture. And of course the crumbling and colorful buildings and the ubiquitous classic cars make excellent backdrops. Not having a camera that I was at all proficient with (I hadn’t yet fully committed to the digital age), I used my phone’s camera to record it all — people on the street, my friend’s reunions with her family, and even unexpected encounters with old friends who recognized her all those years later.

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Woman in Cienfuegos, Cuba, October 2016

If you were an American traveling abroad in 2016, all anyone wanted to talk to you about was the election. Just after returning from Cuba, Trump was elected in an outcome that was surprising to all, including him. Many Americans were deeply angered, worried, and just plain sad. And the new president hadn’t even been sworn in!

The day after the inauguration, the country witnessed the most massive rallies it had seen in some 50 years, the largest of which was by the White House on the National Mall. I, along with a few friends who’d come to town and another million or so of our closest friends, swarmed the Mall for the first Women’s March to send a message to the new president and to the world that “women’s rights are human rights.” There were so many protesters in DC that day that they couldn’t actually march, yet no arrests were made in DC or in other large cities such as New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles.

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Women’s March, Washington, DC, January 2017

I again shot that day with my phone camera. In the shooting-fish-in-a-barrel vein, people at protests want their pictures taken, hoping for their fifteen minutes of fame. But it’s good practice for someone aspiring to be a street photographer. It was wet and raw that day, and the fog never completely lifted above the top of the Washington Monument, as seen in my favorite shot from the day and one of the images that WiS asked me for. I titled the photo, “Not having it,” which sums up how millions of people felt.

A couple of months later I was in New York, by coincidence on International Women’s Day. A large rally was held that day — A Day Without a Woman — populated by women skipping work, refusing to spend money, and wearing red. Protesting seemed by now to be in our collective blood.

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A Day Without a Woman, New York, March 2017
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A Day Without a Woman, New York, March 2017

For the second Women’s March in 2018, our little group, largely based in New York, decided to attend the event there. It was a beautiful day and it was New York, where I’d lived for years and the city I feel most at home in. By this time, the list of grievances had grown. People weren’t just protesting the fact that the Pussy Grabber in Chief was on his way in; marchers had actual policy concerns by then, such as those around the environment and the treatment of immigrants.

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Women’s March, New York, January 2018
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Women’s March, New York, January 2018

In 2019, our gang went back to DC for the Women’s March. We agreed this annual event was now our favorite holiday. It felt good to be part of something so big and it provided an emotional outlet. It was a comfort to know we weren’t alone in despairing of our country ever moving beyond the mess it was in. (By this time, I was using a digital camera and was more or less in control of what I was doing!)

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Women’s March, Washington, DC, January 2019
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Women’s March, Washington, DC, January 2019

For the Women’s March in January 2020, our group decided we would not go to New York as planned, but we would meet in DC again. The Senate impeachment trial had begun just days earlier and it seemed important to be there. For the protesters, the way the impeachment was unfolding was added to the list of “things we’re unhappy about.” In fact, about a week after the Women’s March, a rally called Swarm the Senate was held outside the Capitol building, calling for evidence and witnesses to be heard at the trial. The hope that month was that perhaps by the following January this horrible era would be over.

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Women’s March, Washington, DC, January 2020
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Swarm the Senate rally, Washington, DC, January 2020

As big and as meaningful as the Women’s Marches had been, in late May 2020 an enormously important, more narrowly focused exercise of First Amendment rights broke out in hundreds of US cities — the Black Lives Matter protests. Events were set off by the murder of George Floyd by several members of the Minneapolis police force. It was hardly a new thing, the brutal murder of an African American person at the hands of police. But that was the point; things couldn’t go on as they had. Huge protests sprang up around the country and even internationally in the midst of a global pandemic, coronavirus be damned.

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Street protest, Washington, DC, June 2020
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Street protest, Washington, DC, June 2020

Protests continued unabated for weeks. Trying to be as cautious as possible but still wanting to document the protests, I would walk down to the newly named Black Lives Matter Plaza, close to the White House, and photograph, many times around the edges of the real action. Friends of mine had been shot with pepper balls and flashbang grenades, but I am not a documentary photographer and have little interest in being injured or getting Covid-19 to get a photo. Where I mostly stayed, people might have been less comfortable being snapped, but I was okay with that and I was able to make more candid images.

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Fence around Lafayette Park, Washington, DC, June 2020
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Reading on BLM Plaza, Washington, DC, June 2020

Many of us will always remember where we were that Friday evening in September 2020 when we heard the news — nearly simultaneously as that’s how we get the news in the 21st century— of the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The people mourned and the administration vowed to fill her seat as soon as possible. In October, a Women’s March was quickly organized to voice opposition to the ultra-conservative nominee and to remind voters what was at stake in the upcoming election.

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Women’s March following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and appointment of Amy Coney Barrett, Washington, DC, October 2020

On election night, crowds gathered on BLM Plaza, not knowing whether or not there would be results. It was an uneasy atmosphere. The crowd was hopeful, but after what had happened in 2016 and with all the messaging about a fraudulent vote, no one wanted to repeat the heartbreak. Four days later, however, at 11:25 AM, the election was called for Biden. Minutes later we heard honking and yelling out in the street. Within the hour I was walking down to the Plaza. I joined rivers of people pumping fists into the air and honking and hollering. It was a party atmosphere the rest of that day, into the night, and the following day.

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Election day at BLM Plaza, Washington, DC, November 2020
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Election called for Joe Biden, Washington, DC, November 2020

One week later, Trump supporters came to town in numbers too big to ignore (sorry, Helen), though hardly the million some hoped for and even reported. (Tens of thousands seems to be the most common estimate for the “Save the Steal” rally). This mostly maskless event seemed risky, but I had to go. My husband went with me to make sure I stayed safe (and not just from Covid). I only lasted an hour. My husband, who works in politics, remarked on how angry people were, and he’d been to the BLM protests. I had to agree, and captured proof of it, too.

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“Save the Steal” MAGA rally, Washington, DC, November 2020
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“Save the Steal” MAGA rally, Washington, DC, November 2020

We’re coming up on the fourth anniversary of that first Women’s March. Since then, a president has come and gone (almost); I’ve become more comfortable as a street photographer, able to move beyond shooting protests but still not wanting to miss out on them; and social justice protests have happened around the world that just might lead to real change. It’s been a turbulent and stressful few years, with 2020 perhaps the most eventful and challenging of them all. I am excited to be here for the Women’s March in January 2021 to witness this full circle of sorts and to capture the faces of hope.

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