This is What Democracy Looks Like: Sacred, Hard won, and Fragile
Featuring work by
Content Warning: Some images and videos contain graphic imagery or sound.
Bishop Tutu Votes
At age 21, I sold everything I owned and moved to South Africa for six years because I wanted to help the world by documenting the political issues there. Eyes from all over the world watched Desmond Tutu vote at the first democratic election in Cape Town, 1994. He was so elated to be voting for the very first time after bringing down Apartheid, which was institutionalized racial segregation. He suspended his ballot in the box slot and slowly pushed it in, then suddenly threw up his arms with a burst of joy, laughing. For him, being allowed to vote in his country meant full citizenship. When I hear the excuses some people in the U.S. have for not voting – it takes too long, it’s too hard –I realize it’s taken for granted just how hard civil rights activists and suffragettes worked to pave the way for everyone in America to enjoy the honor and privilege of voting.
—Chae Kihn, Photographer
Senator Chuck Schumer
November 11, 2020
New York, NY
Tiananmen Square Protests (1989) &
BLM Protests (2020)
From the Democracy Movement in Tiananmen Square to the Black Lives Matter Movement in New York
Photographs by Erica Lansner
In the spring of 1989, I was in Beijing, China, covering a meeting of the Asian Development Bank as a photographer when student-led uprisings calling for democracy, free speech and freedom of the press began to unfold in Tiananmen Square. When my job ended, I stayed put to document the rapidly moving events. For six weeks, I photographed the students and workers as they marched, slept, cooked, went on hunger strikes and rallied for democracy in the enormous square in front of the Forbidden City. When martial law was declared, the young soldiers of the Chinese People’s Liberation Amy repeatedly entered the city with tanks, but on each occasion, they retreated. This was my first experience photographing an event which the whole world was watching, and I felt an incredible excitement and responsibility every moment.
As I did not speak the language or have an interpreter with me, I could not understand the speeches or read many of the signs, but my senses were heightened and my vision was even more focused just on what I observed: faces, emotions, expression, colors, shapes, signs, red flags and more red flags. There were many journalists there, and we relied on one another for news and information. It was 1989 and this revolution was televised but not tweeted.
In early June, after the Goddess of Democracy was built and wheeled out into the square, the protests began to diminish. Just before the deadly military crackdown when countless protestors were killed on June 4, I was on a plane home with loads of other journalists and wouldn’t know that I had just missed the ending to the biggest story of my life until I arrived in New York that night. I don’t know what I would have done had I been confronted by the violence, as I was not in essence, a conflict photographer, but I am grateful to have witnessed the spirit and courage of the students as they fought for their beliefs. I can still remember the smell of garlic and the sound of the crackly loudspeakers playing Ode to Joy as if it was yesterday.
Thirty years later, in the middle of this indescribable Pandemic year, I found myself once again facing one of the biggest stories of our time, but now, it was unfolding in my backyard of New York City where I was born and raised and have lived most of my life. At the first protest after the killing of George Floyd, I was extremely nervous about the threat of Covid—even though was wearing a mask, as were most of the protesters. After taking photos from the sidelines the first day, I realized that I could not miss photographing this moment and this movement. The next day I went out and immersed myself in the crowds the same way I would have done at any march or protest. Almost every day in June and for many days during the summer and fall, I covered marches that crisscrossed Manhattan and Brooklyn, often joining several different marches in one day. Covering conflict has always been out of my comfort zone, so I did not venture out at night in the early days when violence erupted in some areas. I was always much more interested in following the people: the activists, all of the people who marched, the new leaders, and those New Yorkers on the sidelines who cheered and supported the protestors. Unlike my experience in China, it was inevitable that I also became a participant as much an observer. As the months went on, I continued to photograph events that marked each terrible milestone in the story of a Black person who was injured or killed at the hands of the police. The countless red flags flowing through Tiananmen Square and the signs with the powerful image of George Floyd are seared into my memory, but it is the people in all of these images that will stay with me forever.
—Erica Lansner, Photographer
Dancing in the streets
Click to view images larger.
This series asks questions; the serial numbers, money codes, flags, over the impression of a landscape, represent the monetization of our natural world. It is a commentary on our placement of arbitrary value on the land around us, and our perception of the land as something to be bought and sold.
—T.B. Ward, Painter