A Conversation with John Jack Anderson, Occupy Photojournalist (UPDATE)
UPDATE: John Anderson will join us on the FDL Book Salon on March 30!
More: See John Anderson’s recent collaboration with the Austin Chronicle’s Michael King: “Fun And Games With Stratfor“
John Jack Anderson has decades of experience as a photojournalist. As part of the Austin Chronicle team, he conducted a long study of Occupy Austin from its first beginnings till the point when its activity waned two years later. He continues to be a fixture at local protests, and during the height of Occupy was our embedded reporter — someone activists trusted enough to tip off about direct actions and civil disobedience before they happened, even in those paranoid days of police infiltration and provocation.
Though the Chronicle published a continuous photo gallery, Jack Anderson has just collected the best of his coverage into a pair of photo books: In Search Of A Revolution, and the shorter Occupy Austin: The Encampment Months. Both are available as vivid, full-color printed editions, but Revolution is also available as an inexpensive iBook and .pdf.
Anderson has a sharp eye and caught many funny, chaotic and even tragic moments. The books contain both large events like marches and arrest, but also general assemblies, tent city life, and play. Revolution also documents his photos of the undercover Austin Police Department officers who infiltrated the movement — a special glossary in the back shows where to find each known officer in each photo in the book.
Of course I’m partial to the book in part because it contains so many great photos of my friends, myself, and all that we accomplished from the moment that first tent went up on the steps of Austin City Hall right through all the months we continued gathering and acting despite eviction. But anyone interested in the life of social justice movements and the use of public spaces should get a copy.
Though Anderson is an unapologetic supporter of Occupy’s goals, he stood at just a step removed from the rest of us citizen (gonzo) journalists in the camps with our tweets and streams. His loving outsider’s view of this uprising should not be missed. From occupiers raised in chants and song to the faces of police as they swing a baton or fist, there will be much that lingers in your memory here.
I sat down with Jack recently to talk about his experiences at Occupy and the new books.
Kit O’Connell, Firedoglake: Tell me a little of your background before Occupy.
John Anderson: I started getting into activist photography when I lived in Washington, D.C., as a photo student. There’s always a protest, march, rally or something in D.C. It made for easy assignments. My first photograph that was published in 1986 when Reagan bombed Libya. I went down to the White House and it got published in the paper and I got hooked on that.
The intentions of the Occupy movement really got my attention. It was something I’d been waiting for, for years. It was trying to get at some of the root causes — capitalism — of the structural issues in our society. Instead of chasing environmental issues over here, and education issues over there, Citizens United — instead of all those separate issues, Occupy wanted to bring them all together to strike at the root, which to me was too much corporate power in our government and the resulting inequality.
I wanted to go to Occupy Wall Street but just couldn’t manage it, but then of course the movement spread and came here to Austin and I thought ‘great!’ Now I can document Occupy without having to go to New York. At the same time, the Chronicle started putting together photo galleries for the website and we realized an ongoing encampment at City Hall would certainly be worthy of a photo gallery. At that point we were ambitiously hoping to update it every day, but you were having general assemblies every day and marches every night, and everything else in between.
I loved the energy, the 24/7 aspect of it. If I were downtown and between assignments I could just go down to City Hall and hang out. You can’t compare that to anything else, at least that I’ve covered. It started as an assignment and then became a labor of love. No one at the Chronicle expected it to go on for years!
FDL: Do you have any favorite moments from documenting Occupy?
JA: Just as far as personal favorites, I tend to like the fun stuff. I like that aspect of Occupy — the creative spirit. A few things that pop to mind are the sign floatings outside of Stratfor, the Santa chalking incident. Occupy did greater things than that and accomplished more but personally I like the fun.
Obviously eviction night was an important night to document and really that entire day of eviction.
FDL: Talk about 24/7, that was a crazy day.
JA: That was a crazy long day.
FDL: It started with a Fuck The Police March, and then the NDAA protest, and then eviction that night — with a dance party in the middle.
JA: And the post eviction marching.
FDL: You have a picture of me from that night where I’m just bedraggled and wet. I showed it to someone who hadn’t been there and they said “Kit, you look like you’re ready to ‘cut someone.'”
JA: Great look on your face. I mean “Hey, They took Occupy’s home!”
FDL: Were there moments you wish you could have caught?
JA: In hindsight, I wish I could have been there as much as I could, in particular because of the undercovers. I never knew those guys, to the best of my knowledge they never introduced themselves. Maybe if I had been down there more at the very least I would have had more photos of them or a better sense of what was going on.
I wish I’d covered more of the General Assemblies. When I did a book signing, someone asked me if I’d covered any of the fights or arguments. I think if you go through the book, it almost looks like everyone’s hunky-dory and they all get along all the time.
FDL: How did you decide what to put in the book and what to include?
JA: For me I didn’t know where it would lead, which is the usual thing with documentary work. If you’re following a story that’s ongoing, you don’t know where it’s going to take you. Certainly by eviction night I realized we had material for a book. But then as Occupy Austin continued I realized I didn’t want to end with eviction, because people wanted to keep going and stuff kept happening. It wasn’t until Spring of 2013 that I decided things had slowed down to the point where I could at least say there’s a book here. And who knows, if things crank up another day maybe there’s another book down the road.
FDL: We all knew you were in favor of what we were doing but you tried to maintain some journalistic distance.
JA: I tried to, yeah. I acknowledge that I was supportive of the movement but one way I maintain that line was I wouldn’t participate in actions, in planning of actions or even in assemblies which is a different approach than others, like yourself, in the movement. Even though I’ve worked in an alternative press, my background is more in traditional journalism compared to citizen journalists like yourself.
FDL: Do you have any insight into what galvanized people and what would do it again?
JA: At this point, I think it’ll take some external event. I don’t know what that is at this point. What happened last summer [the abortion protests at the capital] is an example of an external event that can bring that community back together. One thing Occupy did was create a very tight community of people who weren’t connected before Occupy, by and large. As we saw last summer, that community can be mobilized and expanded. If there’s anything lasting of Occupy beyond changing the conversation — which I don’t make light of that — it’s the community.
Public domain photo of John Anderson by Austin Police Department Commander Jason Dusterfhoft. All other photos Copyright © 2013 by John Anderson, used with permission.