The Most Important Occupy Wall Street Photographer You've Never Heard of

David Shankbone documents OWS and asks for nothing in return. Meet the man symbolizing the movement.

You may not know his name, but if you've been paying attention to the Occupy Wall Street protests for the past several weeks, you've no doubt come across David Shankbone's photographs. They've run in New York magazine, Gawker, Business Insider, and The New York Observer, and here on GOOD—not to mention on countless blogs from around the world. With so many major outlets running his OWS documentation, one would think Shankbone would have amassed a small fortune in the past several weeks. And he probably would have, if he charged any money for his photographs.

For years now, well before OWS was a glimmer in anyone's eye, Shankbone, a native New Yorker, has been taking photos of famous people and events and uploading them to his Flickr account and Wikimedia Commons. From those sites, all of his pictures are in the public domain by way of Creative Commons licensing, meaning anyone can download them and use them for free for whatever purposes they'd like. Shankbone believes it adds to the greater good to distribute his work this way, and if any photographer represents the spirit of OWS, it's him.

GOOD talked with Shankbone this week, more than a month after he started shooting OWS, to better understand his life, his motivation, and the hobby that's turned him into the most important photographer in Zuccotti Park.

GOOD: We've heard photography is not your day-to-day career. What's your day job and what made you first decide to go take photos of OWS?

David Shankbone: I manage a legal department on Wall Street, so my proximity to Zuccotti Park has helped my work. Months before Occupy Wall Street, there was a lot of online chatter about it, and I received a few e-mails asking whether I was going to shoot it for Wikipedia. Influential folks from Anonymous were talking it up, which got my attention. But then I forgot about it until September 3, when I went for a walk in Tompkins Square Park and stumbled upon an Occupy Wall Street General Assembly strategy meeting. There was a big group of people in the dark with a flashlight under the Hare Krishna tree looking at a large map of the financial district. Around them were people handing out fliers that explained what they were about. I looked up from the flier and said, "Oh! I heard about this!" and took out my cameraphone to snap some shots.

Protests catch my interest, and I’ve shot about a dozen of them for Wikipedia and Wikinews. Protests are about people, passion, and conflict, so you can't go wrong for good photos.

GOOD: Since the start of OWS, have you been out to shoot everyday?

Shankbone: No, I've been out a little less than half the days. Photographing OWS too many days straight feels like I'm taking the same photos over and over. Clustered together, the days are filled with the same types of people, same types of signs, same blue tarps. When I’m gone for a few days and come back, it’s like, "Wow! The library has grown and now they have a sanitation department and medical tents!"

GOOD: Are you trained professionally in photography?

Shankbone: In 2003 I was on a volcano in Ecuador with some locals who ended up stealing my digital camera and all of my clothes, and it wasn’t until 2006 that I had a camera again. My sister bought me a point-and-shoot for my birthday, and I was bored and needed a cheap hobby. I loved Wikipedia and it had virtually no photos back then, so I taught myself in order to start filling it out with more pictures. Along the way I've been mentored by some legendary photographers like Billy Name and Christopher Makos.

GOOD: As this is one of the biggest stories in the world right now, you almost certainly could have made a lot of money with your OWS photos. Why do you give them away for free?

Shankbone: Getty Images approached me on Flickr because they had a client who wanted to purchase some of my OWS work, but I would have needed to take those shots out of the Creative Commons. I decided against it. What is going on in Zuccotti Park is important, and people need to see it unvarnished without having to wade through all sorts of possessiveness.

GOOD: Besides your OWS pictures, you also take portraits of celebrities and politicians and give them away for free for use by media organizations that may not have a lot of money. What made you interested in doing that?

Shankbone: Americans are often trained to measure worth only in dollars, but I care more about experience than money. I was at a party once where someone asked me about my work and she said I must make a lot of cash. When I said I give my photos away to the public, she looked at me like I was a fool. She derisively asked, "Why would anybody do that?" and I replied "What did you do last Tuesday?" She said that she came home from work late and watched Law & Order on her DVR. I said, "Last Tuesday I had a four-hour dinner with Augusten Burroughs, and then I photographed him. I didn't make any money off of it, but it was a hell of a Tuesday night." Then she smiled and got what I was about.

I never expected to make any money from photography; I expected to make it from law, and I see my photography as a way to experience the world. For instance, besides the Burroughs story, I met one of my good friends, the writer John Reed, because I photographed him speaking on a panel. I do get paid to do some of my photographs, but it adds a lot of pressure. When I’m shooting free it doesn’t matter to me if people like the results or not, although I hope they do, of course.

GOOD: Do you consider yourself a photojournalist?

Shankbone: Not really. I try to remove any trace of myself from a photograph, and that's the only way I think I'm like a photojournalist. I use my flash for almost every photo because light is revealing and I want as close to the truth of the situation as possible. If I manipulate shadows and try for artsy angles, I feel like I'm making myself part of the subject. I want my pictures to be windows into the subjects, not my artistic interpretations of them.

GOOD: What's the most unexpected thing you've come across at OWS?

Shankbone: Its success.

GOOD: Do you support what's happening at OWS, or are you just there to be a spectator and take photos?

Shankbone: I'm a liberal, and my whole life the left wing has been pretty pathetic, in my opinion. Liberals were embarrassed to call themselves liberals, because to be a liberal was to be a wuss. We were all about sensitivity, flaky theories, and milquetoast political correctness. Conservatives took advantage of this and successfully fought liberalism using street tactics like those pioneered by Newt Gingrich and Roger Ailes. We brought spoons to what we knew were knife fights, and then complained that the other side brought knives.

At OWS, it's exciting to watch liberals publicly and unapologetically fighting for their vision, and to make strong arguments for the world they'd like to see. There’s an epic struggle over basic American values going on out there, like whether we want to have a nation that tortures people or lets the uninsured die in the streets. It feels like we're finally fighting back.

Check out a slideshow of Shankbone's 15 favorite photos from Occupy Wall Street.

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