Turkey's protest movement has ebbed and flowed dramatically over the past week, as has the government's sometimes heavy-handed response, but this photo from last Tuesday, the second day of large-scale demonstration, remains an iconic and affecting symbol of the ongoing movement.
The photo was snapped by Reuters photographer Osman Orsal in Istanbul's Taksim Gezi Park, where the movement began with a peaceful sit-in protesting the government's plan to turn the green space into a shopping mall. Police moved in to clear the square, deploying barricades, tear gas and pepper spray. These photos show the crackdown in action, with the young urbanite Turks who had gathered at the square – the sorts of people who would hold a sit-in to protect city green space – clearly surprised by the police's severity.
But the protesters held their ground and have dug in over the last week, staying in the square despite an escalating police effort to dislodge them.
Orsal's photo captures so much of the Taksim Gezi movement. The two young women in the frame are unveiled, like most Turkish women, and, like many young residents of cosmopolitan Istanbul, they present as more European than Middle Eastern. The woman in red, the focal point of the photo, looks like she just stepped out of her office.
The dynamic between the woman in red and the police officer in the photo is fascinating, a microcosm of the relationship between outraged Turks and not just the police but perhaps the Turkish government itself, which they see as increasingly authoritarian. The policeman is hunched over slightly as if braced for combat as he, in almost Orwellian cruelty, sprays a few tablespoons of what appears to be pepper spray directly into the face of a young woman who is clearly a threat to no one. One immediately thinks of the photo, from 2011, of a University of California at Davis policeman pepper-spraying students at a sit-in. There's something jarring about seeing a policeman deploy such casual and one-sided force.
Looking at the young woman's hair blown back, you can almost feel the force of the pepper spray against her face. But what's most remarkable is her stance: head slightly bowed but she stands her ground, neither charging the officer nor running away.
In the foreground, the woman in the orange scarf looks like she's recovering from a similar blast, but she's not running, either.
Looking at this photo raises the immediate question: does it really take all of these heavily armored policemen just to pepper spray a young woman in a park? That, of course, is a smaller version of a question that last week's protests raised for many Turks: why is the government responding to these protests with such overwhelming force? Or, even bigger than that, is the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which was democratically elected, becoming a bit too authoritarian?
That last question, after all, is driving much of the movement's underlying energy and the apparently fervent distrust of Erdogan and his government. This photo, then, isn't just a portrayal of what's happening in Turkey, but as a visible and viral demonstration of those dynamics it is part of the story itself.
In a bit of final, dark irony, the photographer who took this photo, Osman Orsal, was himself injured by the police crackdown. The next day, while covering the escalating clashes between protesters and police, Orsal was hit in the head by a tear gas canister. A photo of the Reuters photographer attempting to cover the wound, blood streaming down his face, has spread widely on social media. You can see it here, although be warned that, like an increasing number of photos out of Istanbul, it is a bit graphic.