Portraits of both sides: An interview with a protest photographer

Rian Dundon takes photographs at protests. He's been busy.

by BLAKE ANDREWS

Rian Dundon (www.riandundon.com) has been photographing Oregon demonstrations since shortly after moving to Portland in 2019. What follows is an interview conducted on January 21, 2021 between Oregon ArtsWatch’s Blake Andrews (BA) and Dundon (RD) along with a series of Dundon’s photographs taken over the last several months.

BA: Did you photograph the Portland protests last night (Inauguration night, January 20th)?

RD: Yes. I’m going on about 3 hours sleep so bear with me.

BA: They went all night?

RD: I left around 11:30, but then stayed up to file photos. Then my shower broke and I had to do some makeshift plumbing.

Pro-Trump “stop the steal” rally outside the Oregon statehouse in Salem, Ore., Jan 6, 2021. — “This pro-Trump rally was happening concurrently with the events in D.C. that day. I’m always trying to do portraits at these events as a way to cut through the visual noise of flags and sign boards etc. It’s easy to lose people to that stuff, and I want to make it clear that these are the individuals who took part in this.”

BA: Bummer about the shower. What did you see at the protest?

RD: Well I got there just before 9 at the ICE facility in South Portland. There were a few hundred protesters, and they were quickly pushed back by DHS officers. A lot of gas and smoke and projectiles fired—It was the heaviest police response I’ve seen in a bit. There had been another protest earlier in the day and demonstrators were riding that momentum last night.

BA: Why did they target ICE?

RD: ICE detention facility is a regular target. It’s also a federal facility so is protected by DHS and federal cops, who are usually more aggressive than Portland police.

BA: So the protestors were spoiling for a fight?

RD: Maybe. But it’s hard not to get caught up in the momentum. The police are on the offensive.

BA: Did you see any pro-Trump activity last night? 

Proud Boy, Portland, Ore., Sep 26, 2020. — “This is from the much-hyped Proud Boy rally at Delta Park. I had made a portrait of this guy a month earlier and didn’t like how it had come out, so we tried again. The Proud Boys are very calculated in their self image, and especially how they present to the media. This is basically a picture of a picture.”

RD: Nothing really. I went to Salem yesterday morning, pulled up to the statehouse as Biden was giving his acceptance speech on the radio, and the only people there were reporters and one man silently praying on his knees. No trump flags in sight. A couple Biden fans trickled in later, and some Trump supporters, but no rally. Just curious people.

BA: You started shooting these protests in 2019. What motivated you?

RD: I had been following some of these far-right rallies and they were interesting to me as a space for image making. As political spectacle it was over the top but there were sincere emotions there. Also the presence of cameras, the layering of the space with so many different people making images, taking photos, live streaming. It felt rich for visualizing. 

BA: I read that you were working as a security guard at PAM just before that period?

RD: Yeah, actually right in the middle. I was doing that for a couple months before Covid happened and I got laid off. Then a few weeks later the George Floyd protests began a few blocks away.

BA: How did working as a guard affect your views on authority?

Woman with zip ties outside the Oregon statehouse in Salem, Ore., Dec 21, 2020. — “Zip ties were always common at these events but after the D.C. attack they took on new significance. Protesters had tried to storm the Oregon legislature earlier in the day. They didn’t quite make it, but a few hours later people were still hanging around outside. Again, I’m interested in the almost forensic details of these movements, the way people self present, and the culture of extreme politics.”

RD: Well, I can’t say we had much authority. Technically I was a protection services officer, but really it was just about life safety and safeguarding the art from avoidable damage. It was a cool place to work, being alone with the art after hours. But I know I wouldn’t want to be an armed security guard.

BA: Why not?

RD: I’m not big on confrontation! I’d rather talk someone out of whatever they’re doing.

BA: I wonder if that might be part of your attraction to these protests? Because they are inherently confrontational, maybe there is a subconscious draw?

RD: Yes definitely. That could be said about photography in general and my attraction to it. There’s always some confrontation in photography.

BA: Not all photos are confrontational. But certain practices can be, like shooting strangers or shooting street or protests.  

RD: Yes, right, not all photos are. But the act of photographing, at least for me, always has some element of it. 

BA: Maybe all photos are kind of a battle. If you’re not battling the limits of the frame you’re battling against yourself. 

RD: Placing the camera in the world…that’s confrontational.

BA: How is covering the pro-Trump confrontations similar or different from covering BLM-Left confrontations?

Following a shooting that claimed the life of a man affiliated with local far-right group Patriot Prayer, Joey Gibson (black hoodie), the group’s controversial leader, is surrounded and accosted by BLM supporters demanding he leave the area in Portland, Ore., Aug 29, 2020. — RD “This is where the camera becomes a blunt instrument. In these situations it’s very hectic. I’m not thinking about framing or lighting or whatever. Just pointing the thing at the other thing, working the blow outs and trying to keep up with my spacing. I try not to shoot too many frames. Being conscious of slowing down even if everyone around me is flying off the handle. Sometimes with the flash you can see the picture illuminated in the moment it’s made.”

RD: It’s not really that different. I’m trying to approach both the same way, which isn’t to draw an equivalency between the two. Covering BLM protests in Portland can be really jarring and dramatic with the heavy police weaponry and tear gas. But so can the Trump rallies with all the armed protesters. I guess when police aren’t directly involved things feel less predictable.

BA: Does less predictable make for better photos? 

RD: No, not necessarily. I guess sometimes, but by predictable I just mean being able to anticipate what a group or individual might do next, which actually helps with seeing pictures.

BA: One dimension I noticed in the US Capitol riot was a very promiscuous attitude toward being photographed. People were taking selfies and photographing each other inside the Capitol openly engaged in illegal acts. In comparison I think BLM protestors are more wary of being photographed. They see photos as a way to incriminate and track down people later. Which it can be, since the FBI used photographs to track down pro-Trump Capitol protestors. But perhaps a person’s general attitude toward photography says something about their views on society and privilege.

RD: Yes, totally. But those attitudes are obviously shifting, and actually were even before January 6th. With the right it’s gone from being very open to photos, First amendment and all, to increasingly cagey.

BA: Have you seen evidence of that in person?

RD: Photographing them over the past couple years, yeah I’ve seen a shift. But in my experience most people are ok with it if you talk to them first.

BA: Have you been asked to blur faces or delete pictures, at either BLM or Trump rallies?

RD: A little at the beginning of the George Floyd protests. People were hyperaware of being photographed, which is why I ended up doing a lot of portraits. I will delete a photo if someone who’s in it asks me to. I’m trying to work with people by getting consent and being transparent.

BA: Why do you think the pro-Trump rallies have fizzled since Jan 6? The one in Salem January 17th was a dud. And yesterday’s (Inauguration Day) too. Do you think wariness of being photographed is part of it? Or have they just moved underground?

RD: My sense is that those recent events were called off online. People were saying they were a trap by law enforcement, and there is probably some self reflection as a lot of people from the Capitol attack are being tracked down. But there has also been a purging of far right dialog from mainstream social media, so underground seems the next logical step as a Democrat takes office. I think people will think twice about being photographed committing crimes after January 6th.

BA: That’s what made the Jan 6 photos so jarring. The guy at the Speaker’s platform with his feet up or the man waltzing away with that lectern. Those people seemed so casual, like they had never considered that photography might be used against them. It’s a position that not all of society enjoys.

RD: Totally. There’s impunity there.

BA: Are there a few protest photos in particular which stand out for you as favorites so far? 

RD: Yeah definitely…This is one of my favorites.

Activists give speeches and photograph at a protest outside the Multnomah County Justice Center in Portland, June 8, 2020.

BA: That’s funny. That was one which jumped out at me this morning as I was looking through your Instagram.

RD: That’s good to hear. This is from the second week of protests downtown, and what you can’t see is the huge crowd assembling behind and to the sides of that statue. The picture is kind of all wrong—messy framing, too much empty space, backscatter—but it works for me because the elements line up. There’s an accumulation of information. I don’t want my pictures to be too perfect. There should be some discomfort.

BA: I love the spacing of all the stuff in there, and that arc which kind of runs up through the photo. There was another one of that same statue (which you’ve shot a lot in different paint jobs) of Ted Wheeler giving a speech, and people making odd hand gestures nearby. 

RD: That one is great, very streety. But maybe it’s not right to just view them as clever photos, separating out the politics. My tendency as a photographer and also as a viewer is to take pictures out of context and think of them visually. But that filter has some problems and maybe it’s not the way you want them viewed?

Well, I don’t want to be too clever. But that is absolutely one way to view them. I’m a photographer so the formal is always the priority, or at least on equal footing with subject.

BA: Photographs have multiple modes of interpretation. There’s no one way to look at them or use them. Which is a wonderful thing. And photographers might have all sorts of initial motivations which may or may not be realized. This touches on another subset of your project, all the cameras and media present at these events. It makes me wonder how much of these protests are performative and how much is authentic? If you took away all the cameras would they be enacted in the same way?

Portland mayor Ted Wheeler (left) spoke with activists ahead of a protest outside the Multnomah County Justice Center in Portland, Ore., June 5, 2020. An ASL interpreter translates to his left. RD —
“Again with the statues and the history but this was a turning point in the story. The mayor was still attempting to be diplomatic at this point, coming down for an impromptu presser in the park. Then a few hours later PPB inundated it with tear gas. I’m basically making the same picture over and over here. It’s gestural but anti-iconic. I’m not looking for a decisive moment. I want you to see how these things relate to each other, how space and texture correlate in an image to make you feel what is happening from inside the frame.”

RD: I think the short answer is no. And yes, all protest is performative. The media and the cameras are as much a part of this world as anything else. I don’t know if it’s about degrees. Either it’s performative or not, and the number of cameras out there perpetuates that further than many participants are probably even thinking about. These movements derive a lot of power from their reach online, so every action, every rally is an opportunity to create content and further your platform to a global audience.

BA: Do you think the protests in Portland or Salem —like last night, for example— will lead to any meaningful change?

Activists toppled a statue of George Washington from its base in Portland, Ore., June 18, 2020. The 8ft tall bronze at the intersection of NE 57th and Sandy Blvd. was dedicated on July 4, 1927. RD: “I’m always making pictures of pictures. I don’t know why I just love to see how they look. With this project there’s a pattern of statues and monuments being raised or toppled. Obviously it’s a familiar photo for 2020, but it’s a reminder that the meaning of images (statues included) shifts over time.” 

RD: It’s hard to measure change as a direct result of something like last night. It’s not really my place to make predictions or come with a hot take on where things are going for the movement. I think things are always changing. I don’t know if protest should be viewed or valued only in terms of what it accomplishes. The act itself is enough. It’s a confrontation and that has value as a disruption of the status quo.


  • Rian Dundon holds a BFA in Photography and Imaging, an MFA in Social Documentation, and is the recent recipient of a Magnum Foundation Grant for photojournalism. More of his protest photography can be found in his recent zines Protest City and Protest City II, published by Nighted Life.
  • Blake Andrews, 52, is a photographer and writer based in Eugene, where he lives with his wife and sons near Spencer Butte.

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See more of Rian Dundon’s protest photos, and his comments about them, in this Jan. 29 post, Photographing Portland’s summer of rage, at In Sight, The Washington Post’s photography blog.

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