Over the weekend, I put up an article on tips about how to stay safe while photographing protests. Little did I know that just a few hours later, my hometown of Grand Rapids would experience a major protest followed by violent riots throughout our downtown area.
I chose to not go down for the protest, but I know several people who did. From what I was told it was peaceful for the first couple hours, and then other protesters turned up and it got violent. Several storefronts were damaged and looting took place. Cars and garbage containers were set ablaze like I had never seen before.
I decided right there and then that I needed to go downtown the next day and see the aftermath for myself. I knew that there was going to be several people downtown cleaning up. I figured if I could document the community coming together and try to help where I could, it would be well worth my while.
Deciding what to document, and how
I was pretty shocked when I got downtown. There were already several hundred people helping to clean — they had gotten there as early as 5 a.m. That’s miraculous in and of itself, as a few small groups of people were still rioting an hour before that.
It was right then and there that I decided to focus on the cleanup, instead of focusing on the damage. I met up with my client — Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. — and talked to them about documenting everything. We waked the downtown area for four hours, and helped at a local business for about an hour, too. I walked away with hundreds of photographs that I then culled down and turned into them, promoting the community effort to clean up our city.
While I did capture some damage, I only chose to share one specific photograph. It was a close-up of a double-pane window that had been smashed. It was from the first building that had its glass smashed in the city.
I did this because I didn’t want the focus to be on the bad. I wanted it to be on the good, that showcased the community coming together. And I wanted it to say “we’re broken, but not shattered.”
Should you become a part of the story?
I’ve lived in Grand Rapids for 16 years, dating back to the first time I stepped foot on the Aquinas College campus. I fell in love with the city. In my photography, I photograph for several community organizations, and have captured outdoor events ranging from concerts to food truck rallies and everything in-between.
So for me, being downtown was more than just documenting what had happened. It was about trying to help out and present a positive message to the community.
I photographed people scrubbing off spray paint, boarding up windows, sweeping up glass and more. Local construction companies donated time and supplies to help secure businesses. Restaurants were feeding all of the volunteers to a feast — some that had been damaged — all for free. Others who couldn’t physically help were handing out water and snacks with their kids, or handing out supplies like gloves.
You’ll often hear many journalists say that it’s important to not become a part of the story. This helps to avoid things like bias. Up until this past weekend, I thought that, too. But I realized I was wrong. When you can make a positive difference in your community — whether it be through picking up trash, moving furniture in a retail store, hanging positive messages on windows or helping secure businesses — that’s worth your while.
Sure, capture the destruction. That’s important. But be sure to capture the good things that come from it, too, and help where you can.
For me, it was extremely important to document everything. But it was equally important to lend a little bit of time to the cleanup efforts, too. After all, this was my community. My city that I love.
My client estimated that a couple thousand people came to help. And while I was by no means as involved as those who got downtown before sunrise, or those volunteers who worked to clean up all day, I was happy to be able to document everything and to lend just a little bit of time into the efforts.