Research notes – Allan Sekula

Allan Sekula (1951 – 2013) was an American photographer, theorist and critic.

Sekula’s series of crowd photographs “Waiting for Tear Gas [white globe to black]” were taken during the street protests around the 1999 WTO conference in Seattle. From the text accompanying the exhibit (1), Sekula took the pictures 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”. Sekula defines this approach as being “anti-photojournalism” and indeed, one would think that his technique would have implied being quite close to the action, perhaps even in its midst, rather than take a more cautious approach that one would expect from a normal press photographer.

Sekula’s work is presented as a slide show of 81 images. As the title mentions, the first picture includes a white globe (with a glimpse of a black globe in the background) and the final picture is a close up of the black globe. In between, Sekula presents a chronological account of the protest, starting in daylight, moving into the night, with light again and  finishing in the night. The pictures include a range of individual portraits, close-up shots of people in crowds, and crowds themselves. He shows the protesters, the police, some of the WTO delegates and some action shots, purposely of the police trying to contain or repress the protest, although there is no attempt to show explicit violence. The shots of crowds contain a great deal of tension. Even before the confrontations with the police began, you can see the crowds marching on purposely and dead serious, either resigned to their immediate fate (confrontation with the police) or with little hope of influencing the matters they were protesting on. Sekula himself noted that there were “…people waiting, unarmed, somethings deliberately naked in the winter chill, for the gas and the rubber bullets and the concussion grenades.”

Sekula seems to be using a normal lens. As he is close to the action, a normal lens in this case does not allow the inclusion of significant background information and consequently, many of the shots, even when including crowds, have a tunnel-like / cropped view point that adds to the tension and feeling of claustrophobia.  Furthermore, Sekula seems to be using a relatively wide aperture, even during daylight shoots, and this produces a “layering” of the crowd shots were the eye is forced to focus in a particular person or plane. He chooses this person or action as an “anchor” to the crowd, as if defining everything else going on in the frame, thus directing the attention of the spectator to what interests him. The effect is sometimes crude and other times more subtle: in a picture where protesters were sitting holding hands in front of a line of police officers, Sekula’s focus is clearly on the protesters, with the police being rendered slightly out of focus. This is preceded by a photograph of another line of police officers, now clearly in sharp focus, against the background of indistinguishable people, perhaps including other police officers and or protesters.

Due to his chosen angle of view and position vis-a-vis his subjects, Sekula’s crowd pictures feel more like portraits in which the remaining elements of the crowd act as background, which in this occasion is not “creamed out for bokeh”, but subtly left less defined to provide enough information to contextualize the actions of his subjects. This is an approach in stark contrast with Gursky’s crowd pictures, in which aperture is deliberately closed to render everything flat, as if it were in the same plane, with the spectator unable to fix his / her gaze at anything individual but forced to interpret the picture as a whole.

Sekula’s slide show, in its entirety, can be found here

https://slought.org/media/files/sf_1489sekula_waitingforteargas.pdf

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(1) All quoted text in this note comes from Sekula’s accompanying introduction to “Waiting for Tear Gas [white globe to black]”, which can be found here

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