The Occupy Wall Street movement started out as a kind of headless dragon, with no apparent leadership or distinct goals; and the Australian photographer Ashley Gilbertson, commissioned to photograph the scene last week for Mattathias Schwartz’s piece in this week’s issue, felt similarly about his own work early on. “Photographing Occupy Wall Street was one of the most difficult stories, visually speaking, that I’ve had to cover in years,” he told me. “My photographs looked as disparate as the motivations of the hundred or so people who lived full time in the park.”
Gilbertson’s earlier projects in the financial district had been more straightforward. “In 2008 and 2009, I examined the mood of the bankers and traders,” he explained of his “Down on Wall Street” project, “and in 2010, I worked on a series, ‘After the Fall,’ about how New York City had been affected by the ensuing chaos. I was missing a similar approach, or statement, in my Occupy work.” In mid-October, Gilbertson showed what he had to his editor at VII the Magazine, Scott Thode. “He was brutal,” Gilberston recalled of the meeting. “‘Seen it before,’ he’d say, before cutting it.” But the small handful of pictures that Thode left on the table became the seeds of an essay that gave the viewer a sense of being in the park, involved in the conversation, among the occupiers.
From that point on, as the Occupy Wall Street gained momentum, so, too, it seemed, did Gilbertson’s project. “I began to respond less to people’s individual reasons to demonstrate, and more to the overriding sense of anger at the financial system,” he said. “It appeared to be what tied the occupiers of Zuccotti to the frustrations of tens of millions of Americans. For the first time since I emigrated here eight years ago, I was getting a sense of what the American Dream meant to the country’s citizens. Above all, the so-called ‘99%’ were committed to creating change whereby they might one day be able to invest in the dream they today felt robbed of.” Gilbertson showed a more recent edit of this work to Thode. “You’re getting somewhere now,” Thode said. “It’s a good start.”