A striking photo of the recent protests in Egypt has been going around the internet lately. According to The Atlantic’s Alex Mardigal, its power is in league with a “pantheon of iconic protest images” such as the famous “Tank Man” of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
Whether the image evokes a response as great as that of “Tank Man” is questionable. But the need for journalists to make such a comparison and to create a hall of fame for protest images is highly revealing about the unique identity that protest photojournalism has taken on.
From the London Poll Tax Riots to the Green Revolution in Iran to Protests in Athens, protest images worldwide have similar characteristics that convey a spirit of glorious and chaotic rebellion: dense crowds waving signs with provocative slogans, shielded riot police halting the mob (and often clashing with them), cars set ablaze, buildings looted, facial expressions of lone protestors, and demonstrators either injured or martyred by police. Protest photojournalism captures the drama of revolution to incite us through the electronic screen.
For many, these pictures go beyond incitement and serve as a call to action. The recent anti-government protests in Egypt, Yemen, and Jordan became intensified immediately after the worldwide coverage of the successful Tunisian demonstrations. The images in the news inspired activists. Furthermore, social media contributed to rapidly widening the spread and the accessibility of protest imagery.
This is why it is not surprising to see nervous regimes banning websites that they see as a threat. Protest photojournalism is not merely imagery to make us aware, but imagery that takes us to the streets. As the cliché goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. But each protest photo is worth thousands of revolutionaries and grave danger to an unpopular leader’s administration.