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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Photographing the Budget Protests

“This is What Democracy Looks Like”

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The worldwide web is full of photographs of the protests that took place in Madison over budget "reform." From the Capitol rotunda to the protestors' signs on the streets, the photographs document the thousands of people who came to have their voices heard. Alongside the photojournalists and amateur photographers, artists also showed up with their cameras to respond to the protests.

When Kevin Miyazaki went to Madison to photograph the protestors, he chose to carefully remove them from their surroundings.  Each person, couple or family was photographed in front of a black backdrop under bright artificial lights and they appear as though they are in a photographer's studio rather than on the street. The people in the photographs are posing for the camera one by one or in small groups and their attention is turned toward the photographer/viewer. These are not documentary photographs of a moment in time and place but rather staged creations that catalogue the variety of individuals that were present at the protests.


Miyazaki's series can be experienced in three ways, on his website, on YouTube and for a short time at Milwaukee's Portrait Society Gallery. On Miyazaki's website 36 images are seen one by one and side by side, but at the Portrait Society they are displayed in two grids of 50 8x10" photographs. Even though the people are still isolated and posed at Portrait Society, 99 other photographs surround them. The range of emotions, backgrounds, ages and ethnicities are present in the overwhelming grid and can be seen as a collective unit with one voice. The individuals operating as something larger than themselves becomes apparent in the installation where it is lacking on the web.


While you can easily go to http://www.kevinmiyazaki.com/
and see one version of the photographs, the experience of seeing them at the Portrait Society is well worth the trip.  To see the installation in person clearly illustrates how different forms of media affect the meaning of a work of art. The choices around how a photograph is made and displayed create layers of meaning and in the hands of an artist those layers can be assembled to create a new message. Miyazaki's "This is What Democracy Looks Like" offers a mixed bag. It celebrates the protestors as individuals as well as the strength of those individuals en masse. It both fails and succeeds as it walks the line between the two and the viewer is the one who has to struggle to resolve if the artist has made art out of this highly charged political event.

If you go to the Portrait Society you will find Miyazaki's "This is what Democracy Looks Like" in a public hallway outside the gallery available for viewing during building hours. They will only be up until May 30, so see them while you still can. The Portrait Society Gallery is located at 207 E. Buffalo Street, Marshall Building, 5th floor (Suite 526). The Portrait Society Gallery is open 1-5 p.m. Thurs, Fri and Sat