Arts Post
Posted at 01:06 PM ET, 11/16/2011

Occupy’s 84-year-old pepper spray victim: Is this the most iconic image of the movement?

This post was updated at 7:45 a.m. Nov. 18

When Occupy marched in downtown Seattle on Tuesday night, a priest, a pregnant teenager and an 84-year-old community activist were doused in pepper spray. Although there have been many striking images of violence and peace in Occupy encampments, and many faces of the movement, none may be as immediately striking as this image of Dorli Rainey, taken by Joshua Trujillo.
Seattle activist Dorli Rainey, 84, reacts after being hit with pepper spray during an Occupy Seattle protest on Nov. 15 at Westlake Park in Seattle. (Joshua Trujillo - AP)

Rainey’s direct gaze at the camera as her face drips with pepper spray and milk is a haunting, cinematic image of brutality, emphasized even more by the chiaroscuro of dark gloved hands holding her head up to lead her to safety. Dashiell Bennett of the Atlantic has speculated that this image may become the defining one of Occupy unrest.

Rainey, a community activist since the ’60s, decided to walk by the protest on her way to a transportation meeting in the Northgate neighborhood of Seattle. As she told the Stranger, Seattle’s alt-weekly paper, “Cops shoved their bicycles into the crowd . . . If it had not been for my Hero (Iraq Vet Caleb) I would have been down on the ground and trampled.”

Rainey gave an interview to the Associated Press, saying that she went to the protest site to show solidarity with New York protesters, and that she is “pretty tough.” “It's a gruesome picture, I'm really not that bad looking,” she said.

Trujillo also talked about the image, saying that he knew he had captured the right second of the fast-moving scene. “I recognized the moment as being something unique,” Trujillo said. “Photojournalists by nature go after the things that are unique, odd or extreme. Those are the things that affect people.”

When Philip Kennicott wrote in 2005 about the lack of iconic images from the Iraq war, he spoke to the qualities that make a photograph emblematic of a movement or era in history. Until now, many of the photos of Occupy focused on the signs carried by protesters, rather than the clashes with police. This is partially due to access — by many accounts, press were shut out from Monday night’s eviction of protesters from Zucottti Park. Yet, even though Occupy Wall Street and its branches across the country are not analogous to the war, the visual language of iconic imagery is the same.

Too often, Kennicott writes, photographers of conflict focus on objects — a sign, a tent, a mangled car — as a stand-in for people: “The sum total of these substitutions feels, at times, like a theater without actors, a set of props and costumes and extras milling about, without hint of what the real drama is meant to be.”

Rainey has now been unwittingly thrust into that starring role. Protest images that become iconic show us faces in anguish, such as John Filo’s Pulitzer-winning image of the shooting at Kent State. Thankfully, no image or incident quite as violent has emerged from Occupy. Nevertheless, wrote one commenter on the Stranger, “This is exactly the sort of picture that changes things.”

Related:

Occupy Wall Street signs: Which should go in the Smithsonian?

Occupy’s most controversial art

In McPherson Square, Occupy D.C. creates a vibrant brand of urbanism

Explore Occupy D.C.

By  |  01:06 PM ET, 11/16/2011

 
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