Street Politics: Political Protest in the City of Angels

Words and film photography by Justin Yun

“Whose street? Our street! Whose street? Our street!” The echo of a familiar chant bellows through the air as banners and black #NoFascistUSA placards occupy the Los Angeles horizon. With a click of a shutter button, I quickly lift my camera to my eye and recompose the shot as the demonstrators march closer. I shoot another frame. As I walk backwards, I remind myself the reason of the protest as I lift the viewfinder to my eye again. Click.

By the time I’ve entered my third year in college, I have already photographed countless protests in Los Angeles. There were the anti-Trump protest, of course, but there were also smaller demonstrations against urban gentrification, mass incarceration, police brutality, climate change, the military-industrial complex, the lack of a nationwide universal healthcare system and the patriarchy. I’ve been to enough demonstrations to detect certain patterns — you meet the same people, hear the same chants, and see the same banners over and over again at every protest.

The streets were the place where I really learned how to photograph people and capture ephemeral moments in a thousands of a second. In a world where fast DSLRs have reigned supreme, I decided to leave my digital cameras at home and adopt a film camera because of the sheer simplicity and honesty film photography can provide. I decided to take photography seriously after a trip I took to Colombia in the summer of 2016. After witnessing a western-owned coal company use their economic power to displace and intimidate indigenous communities in northern Colombia, I realized the simple power of photography. Photography allowed me to document in ways my writing failed to do. Cameras were more powerful than guns, and I realized images can alter the way citizens view conflicts within their own nation.

Besides the minor enhancements, there are no major editing when it comes to my photos shot on film. All the details are provided by the negative, and the pictures are monochrome images of reality. The late great American photojournalist, Stanley Greene, emphasized the importance of film because of its honesty. Monochrome photos can allow us to strip away any distractions provided by color, and emphasize the forms and shapes of the composition. Maybe there’s a reason why the black and white photos taken by photojournalists during the Vietnam war still stand out today, decades later. There is a commotion happening, and black and white film accentuates the visual theatre unfolding on the street.

I don’t photograph protests anymore, but I’m glad I did when I first started photography. Photographing the streets of LA disciplined my eye but also allowed me the privilege of documenting historical moments and events on negatives that will last for years to come. With my trustworthy Nikon F3 and a fast lens at hand, little stands between me and these mean streets.