'99 Portraits' Series Creates Occupy Wall Street's Lasting Legacy
An interview with Steven Greaves, the photographer behind 99 Portraits for the 99 Percent
The Occupy Wall Street encampment may be gone, but the protest’s legacy lives on across New York City through Steven Greaves’ 99 Portraits for the 99 Percent.
Since Occupy Wall Street began at Zuccotti Park two months ago, Greaves has been documenting the protests almost daily. Now, his photos have been transformed into huge posters and plastered on walls across Manhattan as part of street artist JR’s Inside Out participatory art project, which he created after winning the TED Prize earlier this year (Check out our interview with JR.)
Though JR created Inside Out long before Occupy Wall Street kicked off, it seems almost tailor-made for Greaves’ photos. “JR, the TED Prize, and the Inside Out Project give people around the world tools to stand up for what they believe in,” says TED Prize spokeswoman Erin Allweiss.
We caught up with Greaves to get his thoughts on the goings-on at Occupy Wall Street and the role his photography is playing.
GOOD: As a photographer, JR's project must have resonated with you. When Occupy Wall Street first emerged, did you immediately think of this mode of street portraiture?
STEVEN GREAVES: I had no idea of the significance it would have both in New York, nationally and internationally. As it gained momentum and the major media networks began to cover it, I was disturbed by the biased and inaccurate coverage I saw. That was when I thought of Inside Out and about taking the message straight to the streets… literally. Hopefully, this would show that this movement is not merely one of eccentrics, hippies and anarchists.
GOOD: It is simply the act of making the unseen seen, or is there more to it than that?
GREAVES: I think that it's about engagement. I felt it was necessary to think out-of-the-box in an effort to accurately tell the story. Street art confronts you whether you like the message or not, and there’s no corporate filter. Most of our major media is under corporate control these days and "news" has now become more like propaganda for those in control. One can't really expect these same corporations to accurately and honestly report on something that threatens their very existence.
GOOD: Have you ever done this before? Or was it OWS that got you out of the gallery, so to speak?
GREAVES: No, never, and, to be quite honest, I was a little nervous about doing it. I think it was more my disappointment with the mainstream media rather than the OWS movement itself that encouraged me to take it to the streets.
GOOD: Do you think this is, in some ways, your own way of protesting? Expressing it through what you do, maybe?
GREAVES: Well, yeah, I guess. I’m very encouraged and humbled by what I see down there at Zuccotti Park. There are people sleeping out in the cold, dealing with police harassment and being on display in a zoo-like atmosphere. They have bigger balls than I and I felt guilty about not being able to contribute. I too am one of the 99 percent and felt it necessary to have my voice heard and do something about the rising inequality in this nation. Through my photography, I hope I’ve contributed to the dialogue rather than just being an idle observer who bitches about the system but then goes back to shopping and loafing on my couch.
GOOD: So what was your operation like? Were you out there yourself pasting in the night or was there a crew of volunteers running around? Did they get pasted all around or more central to Zuccotti?
GREAVES: I was fortunate enough to find a crew of people sympathetic to the cause. They offered their time for free, whether assisting with the photography, wheatpasting, promoting the project or building the web site. The images were put up all around downtown, Lower East Side, SoHo, TriBeCa and the Union Square area.
GOOD: Have you been down there with the Occupiers for an extended period, and how long have you been photographing it?
GREAVES: I’ve been documenting the movement since the first day on September 17th. I go down when I can, usually every other day. Unfortunately I don't have the resilience of the occupiers, so I haven’t been "occupying" per se, but merely lending support through my work.
GOOD: Did you do anything with JR directly for this? Or did you just enlist his print shop, which is conveniently located a few blocks away?
GREAVES: Unfortunately, I was not able to connect with JR directly. I was graced to work with his very committed and inspired studio staff and those at TED. Without them, there was absolutely no way I could have carried this out. I remain indebted to them.
GOOD: Where do you go from here?
GREAVES: I continue to go to Zuccotti Park quite often and document what I see as history in the making. I will soon be going to London to photograph the European movement and, from there, we'll see what happens.