While on assignment in Washington, D.C. in late January earlier this year, I had to think very carefully about the situation I was documenting. The events around the Inauguration of Joe Biden had swung the global spotlight around, and I knew that there would be scrutiny of any historical artifact that was produced in this space at this time.
One factor that stood out above the rest was the presence of the military in the streets of the Capitol, reportedly the number of troops was around 20,000, which represents a larger deployment than figures from Afghanistan and Iraq combined.
My degree was in advertising, and I am always acutely aware of the work that goes into public perception of certain things, which includes the way that pre-existing/historical campaigning effort shapes narratives that are then fed into by those not even employed to do so. Simply put, there is an existing “brand” around the military, especially the US military, and I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t doing work for their marketing department while making my photographs.
It was an incredibly rare sight to witness the military occupation of this home soil, in such a large fashion. Barbed wire fences, constant patrols, buses bringing in a constant stream of boots to fortify the location. There were many other members of the press making photographs and video records of this, working with many different perspectives and reporting to different outlets.
I was able to keep track of what ended up on the news and social media, and I was able to identify some of the different ways this seemed to be reported.
I saw some quality images, which showed the scale of the situation, the organization, and the movements of the troops, but I think many felt detached from the rest of the story, from the setting and context. The images seemed to show one thing at a time, which I think left the depiction of the soldiers based on their own visual form – on their own terms, and not as a part of a wider narrative.
I started to think wider (although not in terms of lenses, as I shot mostly with a 50mm and 90mm), using the environment of DC to show a landscape containing troops, not simply photographing the troops as the main subjects, or as separate and distinct. I think the most effective outcome from this approach was this photograph, which features the soldier out of focus, not the subject but rather a piece of scenery to what would otherwise be a tourist snapshot of the Washington Monument. This photograph had some interesting feedback, and I do have my issues with it, but I think it is one of the more effective ones I produced.
Those who spent time with the soldiers inside the restricted zones and inside the Capitol came away with photographs of soldiers at rest; playing cards, enjoying a cigar break, sleeping in the hallways, and so on. Much later on, similar photographs of National Guardsmen building snowmen – similar vibes from these images, and part of the same story.
I don’t think that these photographs shouldn’t have been taken, I don’t think that the work is necessarily bad or negative – the opposite is true for many, I think that there are some really special photographs to have come from this situation, but I am also very aware that these kinds of photograph feed into a narrative, and I think that decisions around the way access was granted further guides the way that narrative comes through in the photographs. I can only speak to my own approach and considerations, and seeing the kind of work being produced by the press was useful to this process.
Perhaps the most important aspect of documentary photography is whether or not you succeed in actually telling the story you set out to, and I think that even if working very carefully and independently there are still factors that can sway that story towards an agenda. In this case, I felt that there was a strong influence from the so-called “Military Entertainment Complex.” This refers to the authority exerted by the Military/Department of Defense over “Hollywood,” (and other equivalent organizations and media entities) who co-operate to allow things like script doctoring in exchange for use of props, locations, and other benefits.
I want to make photographs, not propaganda, and especially not propaganda involving powerful ideas I would consider to be “beyond my reach”. This is an awareness I carried with me while walking through DC, along with the thoughts about the images I had already seen broadcast and published so far on this story.
DC at this time felt like a space, an occurrence, a presence that changed the landscape, and that’s how I wanted to spend my attention. I didn’t want to sell the military or to treat them in a way I wouldn’t with any other subject — I did my best to break down the visual elements, and incorporate them aesthetically rather than necessarily thematically in some instances.
The military iconography was unavoidable, but something that helped was my experience photographing the police back home in the UK. I looked beyond the obvious, in order to make these situations work for me. I think my best images of the police are the ones that do not show them as monolithic uniforms, but as people with a bit more life, and individuality, and especially some of the more surreal scenes that police tend to end up in. I felt if I could achieve a similar vibe then I would be more comfortable with the results, as they would be less informed by the influence that propaganda has had on the way I perceive the military.
In this way I was able to record, I think, more objectively; neither endorsing nor condemning, but recording on my own terms. I guided myself towards shape and form, piecing together aesthetics in a way that was closer to the way I practice street photography visual exercises rather than the more journalistic approach where the story demands the setting – instead, the setting was the story.
Looking over my images my favorites are the responses I had to visual puns, layered scenes, and details.
I think the standout image is this one that layers the Washington monument as background, with a mundane scene in the mid-ground, but framed with the soldier in the foreground – out of focus, an imposing aspect of the landscape. The choice for the soldier to not be the focus was deliberate, and I think it makes all the difference. What would ordinarily be quite a boring touristy photo becomes a key part of the story being told here.
Photographers I think are worth studying for their work in DC on this story and similar include Frank Thorp V (@frankthorpv), Adam Gray (@agrayphot0), Anna Moneymaker (@anna.money), Adam Powell (@a_damp_owl), Derek Larsen (@6millionstories), Sam Corum (@thecorum), Joseph Rushmore (@no_jackson), Al Drago (@al_drago), Ron Haviv (@ronhaviv_vii), Stefani Reynolds (@stefani_reynolds), and many others. I think especially interesting are the different levels of access we each had, and how that informed the things we were able to photograph. Those of us on the outskirts of the barricades on the 20th have an entirely different view of the day to those in the press pen right in front of the swearing in ceremony for example.
With photographs of politicians, soldiers, civilians, protestors, performance artists, everyone came away with something different, so the only way to really see holistically is to have something from everyone. I think by looking at a variety of sources you can build a clearer picture of this space at this time experiencing this situation. I’m thinking of reaching out to a few who were there and seeing if they want to collaborate on a zine, even if they only contribute only a single image, to produce a collaborative and more independent document of this time.
I do find it interesting that awards like WPP would not accept submissions when certain kinds of access is granted by governing bodies and other organizations, I think that’s a sensible move, but I don’t think that makes those images necessarily invalid for their actual storytelling potential.
Another aspect I’m considering when looking at my work is that as of writing this article, the situation in DC seems to be ongoing. There are still deployed troops, fences still stand, the story is not over. I am not sure about sharing my contribution to the overall story I worked on in a formal way until it seems more definitively over, which may involve a few more trips to the area for more coverage as more aspects unfold.
History being written while it’s in the process of happening is a modern development, guided by the speed of technology, and as I continue to work with film, I will be taking the slower nature of being able to just shoot and purposefully not develop and review images as an essential part of my process, especially with this kind of story.
A short highlight reel of some of the work I have made on the East Coast is currently available as a zine, but does not represent a complete body of work, and especially does not represent the project these photographs of the military would be a part of. There is a spread featuring some of the images pictured in this article, but they are not a central feature.
About the author: Simon King is a London-based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow his work through his documentary collective, The New Exit Photography Group, and on Instagram.