Aftermath Vancouver: Picturing the Dimensions of a Riot

I took this photograph of one of the many message-covered boards now temporarily
replacing broken windows following the riot in Vancouver on June 15th. 
It wasn’t supposed to end like this. That is what most of us were thinking in Vancouver on Wednesday night when our hockey team lost to the Boston Bruins in a crushing 4-0 loss. Weeks of joyous anticipation and happy energy, the likes of which had not been experienced by locals since the Winter Olympics street celebrations in 2010, came to an unexpected end. Swept up in the euphoria of it all, most of the city was prepared to thank their team for a great season and move on. But that is not what the world got to see. Instead, what transpired after the game was a sad and shameful display of a small group of people-- many of whom were out to capture and represent their antics through the power of social media.  In less than 24 hours, the world came to see a very different Vancouver than the one advertised in glossy brochures and high livability indices.

A participant or by-stander of the riot? The lines are blurry.
Capturing the event on camera seemed to be the priority.
What was most disturbing to me as I watched the live coverage on television of a city appearing to descend into madness was the majority of individuals who stood by in zombie-like rows, capturing the spectacle on cell-phones and cameras, unwilling to scramble from the violence lest they lose their chance to digitally capture the scene. Most of what was being imaged was taking place only blocks from where I live, and so it was haunting—and no, the irony is not lost on me—that I too was experiencing the “live event” through the technological mediation of the screen. As the night wore on and more of the still and moving images were uploaded to Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter and YouTube, there was a clear sense that all of us were participating in a quickly unfolding social media event, the likes of which were nowhere comparable to the last time Vancouver experienced a riot when the Canucks lost a Game Seven hockey game in 1994.

So what was different this time? Beyond the obvious sheer ubiquity of the available pictures thanks to social media, what struck me was the aesthetic quality and approach of the many photographs pouring onto these sites. Some of them were of the predictable snap-shot variety—the “hey look at me, I was at a riot” motif that you would expect of a cell phone picture. And some of them were clearly of a documentary nature, trying to capture the faces of rioters getting away with goods etc. to be identified by police for later prosecution. But many more were disturbingly and even exceedingly stylized, far more so than what was circulated after the 1994 riots. Capturing that dreaded National Geographic photojournalist quality that renders scenes of violence in a seductive and even beautiful light, the avalanche of mostly amateur photos taken with high quality photo equipment (many photo-shopped to heighten effects) radically altered the dimensions of the riot. Not surprisingly, these were the images that also captured the media’s attention and circulated around the world, perhaps none more problematic than the strangely cinematic and perplexing quality of the photograph of an amorous couple in the street as the city burns down around them (see below). It looks like something out of a bad apocalyptic Hollywood movie, the kind, incidentally, where Vancouver is routinely utilized by filmmakers as a backdrop for a fictional and unknowable place.

The Vancouver riots of 2011 will likely be distilled to this one "iconic" image
taken by local photographer Richard Lam. He claims it is not staged, but the image remains strangely cinematic.
Waking up yesterday morning, I wandered out to see the destruction for myself. I arrived on the scene by mid-morning and was heartened to see hundreds of people, brooms and garbage bags in hand, cleaning up the streets. Once again, photographers numbered among them, and within several hours a new type of photograph was being uploaded to social media sites. The images capture yet another dimension to the riot, but one that is perhaps less spectacular or alluringly apocalyptic. Yes, it is true that these pictures may be contributing to another kind of lie as well—the city is not always this clean and not all of our residents are so friendly or sartorial, trust me. But sadly, the community effort to counteract the effects of the riot is an event that many around the world will never see. I am therefore using my platform to circulate access and some measure of visibility to these images.

Anonymous Vancouverite pictured by Andy Fang cleaning up the streets
the day after the Vancouver riot

At the same time, I ask the question of how aestheticizing or even attempting to make a spectacle of the semiotics of violence seen the night of the riot removes or excuses photographers from the crowd's actions. Don’t get me wrong, I am all about questioning the squeaky clean image of my city. I am born and raised here, and I know many of its secrets and unflattering aspects. But there is something exceedingly manipulated and overtly false about so many of the riot pictures I have seen. This is an idea to ponder for all of the amateur and professional photojournalists out there in Vancouver. What did your stylized images do to contribute to any meaningful or critical conversation about the night of the 15th? Which “truths” were you interested in representing and what “lies” did your pictures perpetuate?