"Copycats," call two little girls walking down Wellington Street in Ottawa. "We already did it today!" But that was later, when I was going home again, during the day's second Middle Eastern demonstration on Parliament Hill. There would have been but one big one, had the oblivious schedules of the pro-Israel and pro-Palestine factions each been allowed to show up at 1pm. However, someone had the good sense to re-slate the Israelites for 11am, requiring them to conclude by 1pm, and the Palestinians for 3pm, requiring them to finish by 5pm to keep it fair.
I sleep through the notice and therefore the first demonstration, arriving at 1:05pm with an expectation of, at the very least, aggressive posturing. Which there is just the same. The speaker exhorts and the crowd echoes: "no justice, no peace", "Israel out of Palestine", "one two three four, we don't want your dirty war", "end the occupation now", "shame, shame, Canada" and "shame, shame, America".
It might as well be "down with hair" and "up with miniskirts"! Yo, kids, the government you're trying to interest, Jean Chretien's Liberals, didn't even care enough to keep their own country properly together -- to wit, allowing Quebec to have yet another economically devastating referendum in 1995, in which the separatists came within a few thousand votes of victory with a turnout exceeding 90%. What makes them think these goobers give a half-penny more damn about some country on the other side of the planet?
My boyfriend Bryan and I are here to photograph the protest, because protests are interesting. We have left the paparazzi zoom lens at home and are sharing a Minolta 35mm. Bryan takes some crowd shots from a distance and then we move up toward the mass. I take a few scenic photos because the light is extraordinarily good -- though it often is, inspiring luminaries such as Malak Karsh. I take a shot of the RCMP van filming the protest. Then I take a few crowd shots and move up.
I get right up to the edge of the slow circling crowd full of flags and placards. I am focusing on a young man in a bright red Che Guevara shirt -- striking against black-clad Muslim women -- when I notice my boyfriend is surrounded by four large policemen. I lose the shot and go over. Bryan is telling them no, we are not major media, the pictures are for our personal use. They ask me why I'm taking pictures. I say they're for my web site. They ask what my web site is called but, Philistines that they are, they have obviously never heard of it.
The police seem puzzled, but not hostile. They say there was "some concern" about who we were and what we were doing. They say to give the protesters "some room. Let them do their thing and don't bother them." They do not tell us to stop taking pictures, so we move out of the crush and I shoot some more. I say that next time I will bring the paparazzi zoom lens after all. Later I suggest that all photographers get bothered the same way. Bryan tells me no, that someone checked us out, went to the demonstration organizers, and from there to the police that talked to us.
I am disgruntled at being interfered with, however innocuously. I am photographing a spectacle that these people have staged in order to attract attention. In deliberately engineering public attention, they have forfeited their right to privacy -- obviously! Anything else casts them as a mess of yelling bodies on the Hill with no brains and no lives attached.
I am reminded of an article a friend sent me a couple of weeks ago about police photographing demonstrators in Worcester, Massachusetts. The demonstrators were -- naively or disingenuously -- shocked that the police photographed them, and claimed that it was unfair of the police to do so. They said that such photos could be misused and misconstrued. Which is arguable, but still not a good reason to disallow public record of public political acts. Without responsibility -- even if that may be reinterpreted as "culpability" -- a statement of conviction is stupid and worthless.
Bryan and I walk around the Hill and I take some tourist shots. The sky is lucidly, beautifully blue. Though I expect the photos to be a wash -- which they mostly are -- because my four-day-old glasses make it hard for me to focus properly, I am enjoying myself. There are dozens and dozens of Asian tourists having their photographs taken against the Ottawa River. They are on the wrong side for a beauty shot of the Peace Tower; their background is the factories and smokestacks of Gatineau.
When we circle back to the front lawn, the demonstrators are no longer circling, but are gathered in a mass by the stairs leading to the Peace Tower. The bells are tolling and the speaker is using them to punctuate his demands for Canada to get the hell over to the Middle East right now. As we leave we walk past a bullish, swaggering man with sandpaper short gray hair and nautical rope knot shoulders. He wears a cop-blue shirt, has a bright badge that looks like a fistful of crumpled gold foil, and has a sheaf of neat new American fifty dollar bills in his breast pocket.
We walk on, past ambulances and police cars and barricades. Wellington Street is closed to vehicles during the demonstrations. We are nearly off the Hill, approaching the Museum of Contemporary Photography in the Chateau Laurier, when I hear two children calling, "copycats, copycats..."