Photographer Gathers 1,000 Portraits Of Occupy Wall Street Faces

Jan 12, 2012

Vanessa Bahmani, a 31 year-old freelance photographer and artist in Brooklyn, is attempting to capture the faces and messages of the Occupy Wall Street movement in a series of black and white portraits. She launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $17,000 to cover the cost of equipment, photo-processing, and travel between New York and the Bay Area — the two regions she wants to focus on. Turnstyle spoke with Bahmani about the stories she’s heard and her inspiration for the project.

Turnstyle: How did you become interested or involved in the Occupy movement?

Bahmani: I found out about the Occupy movement through social media. I was curious about what was happening so I went down there, and everyone was excited and trying to figure out what to do next. I decided to take pictures, and I got involved with the media group. I was doing interviews with people and that’s how I began my photo project.

One of the things that inspired me to do this was when mainstream media gave Occupy Wall Street attention; it was very negative. [Mainstream media said,] “They’re just crazy, jobless, lazy hippies.” But there was nothing crazy about anyone there. I talked to veterans, pilots, families, students, teachers, investment bankers and even Wall Street employees.

Turnstyle: Can you recall any moments during your photo shoots that stood out?

Bahmani: Sometimes people don’t jump in front of camera; they hover. This man who had been watching came up to me and asked me to write his message for him because he couldn’t read or write. His message was: I want a better world for all mankind. That was really moving because you see the range of people that are at Occupy, the diverse backgrounds, financial backgrounds and religious backgrounds, the different races, ages, and yet the message is all very similar. People just want justice, equality, and fairness.

Turnstyle: Why black and white?

Bahmani: Initially when I thought of photographing this project, I thought I would do 99 photos. But I took those in a couple of hours. So I thought, maybe I would take over 1,000. I was thinking of the final product and I thought making them black and white would be a way of unifying everything, so your eyes don’t jump around between colors, and you can focus on the messages.

Turnstyle: There is a 99 percent Tumblr page – was this project inspired by that?

Bahmani: Yes, I was inspired by that project. I was moved by the messages I was seeing, and I felt that the same thing needed to happen AT Occupy. So I set out to do it.

Turnstyle: What is the artistic value  in singling out people from a movement of tens of thousands of people and hearing their individual stories?

Bahmani: I think it’s important to highlight the individual messages especially in a movement like Occupy that’s leaderless, because essentially all the messages, all the voices, are saying the same thing. That’s what really strong about the movement . People from around the country, from all different walks of life have the same concerns. In the editing process, I started to see lots of similarities. I grouped the messages and started making collages. I grouped the families. I grouped the students, who were all saying they were over-educated and underemployed. I grouped the teachers, and the children.

What’s beautiful about the children is that their parents didn’t write their messages for them. The children wrote the messages themselves. One of my favorites says, “More money for education not for war.” Another one was concerned about tuition hikes — he’s like 8 or 10, but he’s saying, ‘Tuition went up by 98 percent in the last ten years — what will it be when I’m in college?’

That’s what makes the voices strongest, after you read one by one, it’s all one voice, yet the people don’t know each other.

Turnstyle: What are your goals for this collection of photos?

Bahmani: I’ve photographed over 200 images and the goal is to shoot over 1,000 images between NYC and the Bay Area. The goal for now is to reach the Kickstarter goal and finish the work. As we move into Spring of 2012, we will see the Occupy movement get stronger and bigger, and I want to photograph that. The photos will be featured in the OWS exhibit in the South Street Seaport Museum, regardless of funding. I’ve been approached by publishers about making a book. For now, it’s just making the work and finishing it, and displaying it.  Just having the work amplifies the voice of the 99 percent.

Turnstyle: The Occupy movement is morphing dramatically from what it used to be in September. In your mind, where is the movement headed and how does that influence your portrait project?

Bahmani: I think the movement has changed since September. I think the thing that has changed is the police brutality. It has changed a lot of the messages that people were saying. Initially people were happy coming together, expressing concerns, but now I’ve photographed people with broken arms. On their casts it says, ‘The NYPD did this.’ There’s a lot more frustration.

I get permission from people to take pics and publish it, but I won’t publish their names. I don’t think their names are as important as the messages they hav.

This story was originally published on on January 11, 2012.