Occupy Frederick — A Confessional Photoessay in Vignettes

Mon 2012.01.30
by brian hefele

Activism takes a front row seat before downtown Frederick's ritzy condos.Activism takes a front row seat before downtown Frederick’s ritzy condos.

I am not involved with Occupy Frederick. I say this not with arrogance, nor pride. I say this with more shame than anything. Shame that I haven’t been able to find work in this town. Shame that I haven’t been able to find work elsewhere so that I may live in this town. Shame for loving this town, but having a deep personal hangup over the ethics of being heard in a democracy in which I feel I have no real community connection.

One of many tents delivering messages.Later, such signs are held up to passing traffic.One of many tents delivering messages.Later, such signs are held up to passing traffic.

Over the week of January 22, 2012, select members of Occupy Frederick set up camp and occupied a section of Carroll Creek Linear Park. Their section of park named Jarrel Gray Park after the victim of police-brutality-turned-deadly. I visited the camp in the middle of the week to gather some documentation photography, and was welcomed with open arms and inviting conversation. I was asked by a friend to return on the final day of occupation, Saturday, January 28, to document the ensuing rally and march. To this, I gladly agreed, and was again treated with nothing but respect and welcoming. This, from people who largely knew nothing about me, save for the rather large camera I was brandishing about with reckless abandon.

The area renamed Jarrel Gray Park.

Most people drive by and ignore the camp to their left. Some people drive by, honk and wave. Some people drive by, honk, and wave middle fingers. Fuck you, too, man. We all know how difficult it is being privileged, the burden of entitlement. Of course, once I get done shaking my head at that, a bright red Corvette rumbles by, its master shouting, ‘get a job!’ This hurts. It hurts to hear it semi-jokingly from friends. Somehow, it hurts more from total strangers. Those who are utterly serious, despite knowing nothing about any of their targets’ lots in life. It hurts when you did what you were supposed to, you went to school for something you don’t even care about, and then got left behind as all the jobs fluttered away. It hurts when you’ve been searching for years, your knowledge and experience fading. It hurts being 26, living with your parents, feeling wholly incapable of forming relationships, living life, accomplishing anything. I’m spending very little time with the group, I can only imagine the toll it must take on a person after a week of casual berating. On the other hand, I bet it really makes you feel good about yourself to be able to cause others such pain from the comfort of your cushy Corvette seats.

Activists hold banners up for passing cars.Conversation amid honking cars, shouting drivers.Activists hold banners up for passing cars.Conversation amid honking cars, shouting drivers.

A circle for discourse.A circle for discourse.

Before the march is a discussion around a circle. All are invited to talk. I’m shy; I opt to listen, and to photograph. Listening is easy, especially when you find yourself aligned with the people you’re around. Everyone is very eloquent. Their stories are very relatable, their messages poignant and clear. These are people I’m proud to be around, proud to live near, proud to be photographing. Which, is the other thing I’m doing, aside from listening. And, unlike listening, photographing the circle, the rally, the march is not so easy.

Listening around a circle……as others speak.Listening around a circle……as others speak.

Documentation photography is a peculiar phenomenon to me. Even if you want to, you really can’t get too involved with your surroundings, for fear of missing out on a shot. And if you really care about what you’re documenting, you absolutely don’t want to miss out on a shot. You treat it like its the best job you ever had, even when you have no desire for or expectation of pay. In between shots, trying to figure out the next one, trying to find vantage points for whoever was speaking, I stay close to the circle. I want to be there, to show solidarity, but at the same time I feel like it’s impossible for me to really be there. Partly because of my documentarian need to keep to the background. But largely, I admit to myself, this is an excuse for being shy, being alien. A realization hits me — when you’re used to being alienated, a welcoming group is in and of itself alienating.

People patiently await the march.People patiently await the march.

The other thing about documentation is that I always have reservations about being exploitative. How much benefit do I bring to my subject versus how much I take for myself? How much am I benefiting my subject versus how much I would be by directly contributing that time or money to their cause? These are unimaginably hard questions for me. I meet several other photographers at the rally, the first time I’ve met and talked to photographers since I lived near the District. The photographers are all pleasant, and seem to be somewhat sympathetic to the cause. But when it comes down to it, they won’t be following along on the march. I feel like their hearts are in their day on the town, or perhaps their photos. But not in the group, not in the cause, not in representing a community, not in documentation. My fears of exploitation grow more confused.

The dogs of occupation.The dogs of occupation.The dogs of occupation.

The march itself is a pretty powerful thing to behold. Literature is dispensed to people in cars, people on stoops, people with dogs. We venture out to a poorer part of town, past a Bail Bonds joint, past a forlorn community ballfield, and past so many vacant properties. We stop at an evicted building the group has investigated before. Very little is said, but there is an air of sadness about. It is a heavy minute, difficult to pass through. Fighting foreclosures is a major priority for the group right now. Convincing people to move their money to local banking institutions, away from those with no ties to their community save for exploitation. I personally have tried to switch banks twice, and both times realized I’m too poor and financially unstable to hold an account with an institution I don’t have to fear. That part of the American Dream was whispered, as an aside.

Activists take to the streets of Frederick.Activists take to the streets of Frederick.Activists take to the streets of Frederick.Activists take to the streets of Frederick.

There are times when the group slows down, and I try to rush ahead to get photos on the approach. By this time, though, things are sitting heavily on my head, and my skills are dwindling. I shoot plenty of motion-blurred photos of the backs of many heads. But the further we march, the more unity I feel. Small things like coordinated efforts to cross a street, or hold a banner taut. The day had started out cold, and turned unbearably warm for those of us who are still bundled up. We have been walking for a considerable amount of time, after uncertainty whether there would even be a march. So many things could have soured the moods of so many different people, but everything and everyone holds together. So many sad things stuck in everyone’s mind, the things everyone is here to fight against. Yet, so much happiness, kindness, togetherness throughout the group. Chanting, singing, drumming on boxes — life and liveliness. The longer the day grows, the more I feel accepted, the more I feel like I belong, despite still not knowing the names of most of the people I’m with. Despite being too shy to chant, hell, even to talk to nearly any of the people I am foisting my camera upon.

Togetherness. Solidarity. Unity. Themes of a movement.Togetherness. Solidarity. Unity. Themes of a movement.

Back at camp, there are free grilled cheese sandwiches waiting for us, cooked on a DIY grill fashioned from a shopping cart and a plate of metal. Much as I want to, I don’t eat one. I’m not hungry despite having barely eaten all day. I am very nearly out of film by this point. I have my digital on me as well, but barely think to use it. Were I smarter, I would try to get head shots of everyone present. Were I smarter, I probably would’ve done a lot differently throughout the day. Things are seemingly winding down, though my mind is more wound up now than it has been in a long time. Jan, who had invited me out that day, wants me to get a shot of her, so I spend my last frame on what is my favorite shot of the day. There is nothing more beautiful to me than the emotion that comes with such passion and dedication as is necessary to be involved in such a movement.

My last photo of the day, Jan.

I talked to a few people before quickly saying some goodbyes and ducking out. I wish that I’d stayed longer. I had a lot going on in my head, however. For a while, all I felt was a mixture of happiness and nervousness. But, it all catches up, and I needed time to think, and to write, and to work on the photographs. I spent hours processing film that evening. My mind wandered as I haphazardly mixed chemicals together, filling and emptying tanks. Memories of high school, where being an artist with questionable gender identity and highly socialist beliefs meant being under constant surveillance, scrutiny, criticism, mockery from peers. Where watching race-based fights break out in front of you was nothing out of the ordinary, and the punishments so trivial that the best course of action was generally for victims to just transfer away. Where so many of the truly open-minded classmates I knew have by now overdosed or committed suicide. This, all in the same county where I saw seeds of change being planted on January 28, 2012.

All in all, an amazing, powerful day.All in all, an amazing, powerful day.All in all, an amazing, powerful day.

When I snap back to present-day, my photos are hanging up to dry. I’m still unemployed, depressed, confused. I still have concerns about my interference in a democracy I can claim no place in. I still have reservations about the role of documentation. But I have met new people, and (in my mind at least) solidified an alliance with a group that has far fewer reservations about welcoming me than I have about intruding. I have set memories to silver, immortalized an event that may prove to be a powerful precursor to real change. I kill the lights, pour myself a drink, and turn on Prokofiev Then I wait patiently for these memories to dry.

The other side of the camp.The other side of the camp.


Note: I am not affiliated with Occupy Frederick, and these thoughts are mine and mine only — I do not and cannot speak for anybody else, though I hope dearly that I have not misrepresented anyone or anything involved. If you’ve done this much reading, I urge you to do a bit more at the official Occupy Frederick site — http://occupyfrederick.wordpress.com — as well as check out their zine (PDF). Thank you.