For his brand new photo book and exhibition at Doomed Gallery, New York City-based photographer Pete Voelker travelled around America, creating a compelling collection of images that document the voice and the visuals of social and political change. In American election year – where tensions are high and the fate of the country is uncertain – and the tumultuous years leading up to it, Voelker regularly attended protests and demonstrations to capture the importance of obtaining equality to allow true justice.
From the 2015 Keystone XL oil pipeline demonstration against the construction on and easement of land, to the July 2016 demonstrations at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, Voelker has travelled far and wide to represent the ideas and faces of American social justice. Whittled down from thousands and thousands of images, the exhibition provides a critical analysis of social change and what it means to be American, with the raw emotional energy of Voelker’s images transporting you into the heart of the demonstrations and protests, capturing the feelings and faces of these movements.
Voelker’s interest in conflict photography isn’t a recent development, he has always been drawn to documenting activism and social change. His natural aptitude for capturing moments that walk the line between peace and tragedy make System Change Not Climate Change an exhibition and photo book that is deeply moving and an enthralling catalyst for discussion over social change and activism.
What made you start this project?
For the same reasons I’ve inserted myself in this line of work, I’ve always been interested in conflict photography. Human nature is obscene and beautiful at the same time. After two years of concentrating on photographing protests and political rallies, I figured out of thousands of images I could make a book and present an exhibition. In such a divisive political climate and an election year in the USA, I had a desire to help encourage discussion and promote awareness. I’m often covering movements on both sides of the aisle, aiming to document the voices of all. With that said, System Change Not Climate Change is a personal project in wish I hope to show the importance of protesting and demonstrating with a focus on the need to obtain equality which will allow true justice for all.
Were there any particular protests you observed that struck a chord with you?
They are all important; I’ve shed so many tears listening to the stories of families affected by police violence. Although, a small rally held in the shadow of the UN building often stands out to me when I’m asked this question. It was the 3rd anniversary of the Syrian civil war—it was a vigil more than a demonstration and it correlated with similar events around the world. I didn’t take many photographs because the gut wrenching experiences people were sharing overwhelmed me.
How did people react to you photographing the protests?
I’ve received both support and disdain. While in the moment I try to stay as neutral as possible but I often find my emotions getting the best of me, especially when things start to turn violent. Whether that be Police officers suppressing the demonstration or counter protestors presenting aggression instead of dialogue. It’s easy for the most peaceful of demonstrations to can get out of hand. I’ve been spit on, arrested, pushed and yelled at, but I’ve also been thanked, hugged, embraced and encouraged. Demonstrations are a massive concentration of high emotions and things can swing very quickly.
What kind of people did you meet during your journey? Any particularly interesting characters?
I’ve met a lot of characters in the streets, more so at political rallies though. Political rallies bring out the extremes from both sides of the political spectrum. Most people I’ve met on the streets during social justice demonstrations are brilliant, from organisers to heart broken compatriots these people are dedicating their energy to activism in a hope of benefiting not just themselves but their neighbours.
Why do you think it’s so important to document social change? // Why do you think it’s taken until now for these movements to be documented in so much detail?
We live in a rapidly changing society; from technology to education it’s hard to say there is any sort of standard. It’s very easy to tune out or be unaware of something that may be happening on your own street. 2016 brings customisation and curating to the masses, we all receive information in a personal way; often living in a bubble only opening ourselves up to what we like and what we know. Social Change affects everyone and their needs to be an understanding of which direction it is moving in.
Why did you focus on US movements?
First and foremost, I live in New York City a melting pot of cultures from religion to economic status; the range is vast and shoved together right next to each other. I’ve seen a lot of the USA and I am constantly trying to grasp what it really is to be American, the good, the bad and the ugly are all things that intrigue me and represent who I am. We are becoming a more global community every day, but there are people who resist that movement. I think by focusing on issues in the USA I am following my intuition. I’m an American and I need to be critical of that.
How do you feel emotionally when photographing the protests?
It really ranges, I’d say its exhausting but its equally rewarding at the same time. Not always in a financial or literal way, but there is a very gratifying feeling I receive after marching with a group of passionate activists for 8 hours. The pain in your feet is an ache that represents commitment and a desire for change. Not to mention that act of demonstration is more than civil disobedience and a nuisance to the evening commute; it’s a way for people to act on their grievances and hopefully offer some catharsis.
Where did the title “System Change Not Climate Change” stem from?
The title of the book is a fairly common phrase at demonstrations around the USA. It’s representative of the need to address systemic problems within society as well as our rapidly changing climate.
Do you have any favourite images, or are there any images that show a particularly important moment?
I’d say the images in this book are all favourites from the past two years; it’s a very small edit from thousands upon thousands of images. I made the decision to not show moments of conflict with law enforcement or any focused depiction of law enforcement at all. I aim to show the raw emotional energy and beauty that protests offer. The image of a man wearing a shirt with a handwritten note that reads “my life matters, are we really free?” is one of my recent favourites, strictly in a photographic manner, aside from that I think its utterly tragic.
Why did you choose to exhibit at Doomed Gallery?
Doomed Gallery is a raw DIY space in east London, curated and operated by two progressive lovers of photography. I’ve done a show there before and was very happy with the result. I’m not presenting this project to make money but to spur discussion and create awareness, to promote hope and maybe even inspire people to engage. Doomed Gallery is a perfect place for this as it brings a progressive like-minded audience together, people who are motivated to ingest art and lovers of photography.
Will you be carrying on photographing protests and movements?
Most definitely, I can’t see myself stopping anytime soon. I hope to expand my range and experience more movements across the country, working with activists, organisers and editors who all understand the importance of Social Justice.
System Change Not Climate Change is on at Doomed Gallery, 65-67 Ridley Road E8 2NP on 13th-16th October.