Photo Diaries: Uprising

Chelsea Edwards

I have always felt photographs speak more than words ever could. 

I was outraged when I first heard about George Floyd. Another innocent life lost to excessive police violence. I never understood how the police motto could be “To protect and serve” when countless have died at their hands.

I watched as the protests grew at 38th and Chicago following Floyd’s death. I was frustrated with the media coverage I was seeing. I had friends on the streets being tear gassed at point-blank range because they were asking for justice. I had friends volunteering as medics whose encampments were destroyed by police enforcing curfew. I had fellow photographers tell me they were targeted with rubber bullets. Yet only slivers of this were seen on major TV news as they focused on the violence and disruption.

The night I decided to go out and photograph was after someone lit the low-income housing building on fire, May 27th, two days after Floyd’s death. I remember seeing this amazing photograph of the building on fire, where every window had flames pouring out of them. To me it showed the rage of injustice, the unheard cries and pain of years of racial injustice in our criminal system. I was also aware that many of my family and friends could not wrap their heads around the destruction. To them burning an empty building was more violent than a police officer putting his knee on a man’s neck until he died. I decided I needed to document the movement through my eyes, to hopefully capture the emotions I felt in this movement. 

I went out the following morning to immerse myself in the protest. I decided to start at the memorial at Cup Foods. As I walked through the memorial, my heart swelled with pain and pride. The intersection was full of our community showing support — people handing out water and food, and painting murals in Floyd’s honor.

I made my way down to the 3rd precinct, where the active protest was going on. I felt unease as I approached. The crowds were yelling for justice. Officers could be seen on the roof pointing guns at protestors as helicopters circled overhead. I decided to not be directly in the crowd and instead chose to document some of the destruction around what had happened the previous nights.

As I walked along the destruction, which I had watched happen the night before on live streams, I was filled with quiet. In the broken glass and melted buildings I saw anger and hurt. To me it felt as if I had entered a war zone — a group of people demanding justice for those who were being murdered, lashing out in their anger at what they could damage. 

As I walked past a Target store, I saw a back door open, the alarm blaring, and the sprinkler system pouring water. There a different story emerged. I observed as a single community member stood with his phone out, live streaming people who were going in and out. He told them they were foolish and were only discrediting “everything we had worked for.”

I debated a long time before deciding to go in. I felt completely out of place as I trudged through three inches of standing water and debris. I saw people of all races and ethnicities behaving in a frenzy. I had flashbacks of when I used to work for Target on Black Friday. It was the same consumeristic crazed energy, except it wasn’t. It was people taking advantage of a situation for their own gain. I began to feel sick to my stomach — this was not what I wanted to capture about this movement. It was clear to me the people inside the store had no intention of joining the protest, but were there on their own selfish mission. I had to remember that outside these doors, two blocks away, were people screaming at police for justice.

I returned that evening as firefighters were putting out a pawn shop fire a couple blocks away from the precinct. As I walked up to the precinct, a different kind of energy emerged. I learned the police had just abandoned the precinct. Protestors were throwing things and attempting to break windows. Cheers erupted as the Minneapolis police symbol that hung above the door was knocked down. I walked through milk and empty water bottles covering the ground as recovery efforts from earlier tear gassings. Protestors suddenly surged and I realized they had broken the door to the precinct.

I could feel the celebratory energy, but decided to keep my distance. A few minutes later, protestors had made a bonfire at the front entrance. In that moment I did not feel fear, even though I was 20 feet from a burning building. I watched as young and old celebrated and laughed and cheered. Suddenly all the anger seemed to be released. Protestors shot off fireworks to celebrate the burning of the precinct. For a short moment, it felt as if some justice was served.

The burning of the precinct will never make up for any of the lives lost at the hands of police, but for a brief moment in the crowd it felt as if we were going in the right direction.

I had seen the memorial. I had seen the looting and the destruction. Now I wanted to be a part of the rebuild.

I don’t know if it is ‘Minnesota Nice,’ but I was moved to tears when I showed up to donate food and saw the front lawn of a church covered in donations. The amount of love I saw — as I walked back through the streets I had seen as war zones only a few days earlier — was incredible. I eventually had to put my camera down because I felt guilty for taking pictures while my community worked to clean up. I felt so much love that day.

Deciding to experience this protest through my own lens was the most eye-opening experience I have ever had as a photographer. I would encourage anyone who is hesitant about the movement to go out and be a part of it.

Feel the energy of your community, feel the power of marching with your community. But above all have the courage to speak up if your community is failing you. I am just one observer of this movement.

Jen Steffen

I felt compelled to photograph the George Floyd memorial after looking through the ‘Say Their Names’ cemetery in South Minneapolis. The first time I went to the memorial, I did not take pictures. I wandered the cemetery and said every name, looking for two in particular. I wanted to see Trayvon Martin and Thurman Blevins.

I realized that, as respectful as it is to wander in contemplation and respect those who have died by police brutality, this is something that needs to be immortalized. 

George Floyd was the straw that broke the system. It didn’t happen when a child was shot. It didn’t happen when a young father was shot. It didn’t happen when a teacher was shot. It happened now, when someone can be killed because they paid for their purchases with a suspected counterfeit bill.

The police are not hired to be judge, jury, and executioner. This needs to stop. This memorial has become a movement and it needs to be photographed. I went back a few days later and took several pictures, although I tried to respect people and ask before taking their picture.

What I hope history learns from this is simple. People are people, regardless of the color of their skin, and all people deserve justice. I hope the future will be able look back on our generation and shake their heads. They won’t be able to believe that there was a day that someone got shot because their skin was Black or brown. They won’t be able to believe that a person of color got a harsher prison sentence.

I hope for the future in which systemic racism disappears and this movement is a reminder for people to not slide back into fearing what they don’t understand instead of learning.

 Terry Gydesen

At the start of the COVID-19 crisis, I was with a team of 10 angels caring for a dear friend whose cancer had spread to his brain. He was a tenant in my building for 22 years. I am grateful we were able to keep him in his home and care for him until his death on April 6. I kept thinking of all the people who were dying alone in hospitals across the country.

In the midst of grieving this loss, George Floyd was murdered on Memorial Day. The horror of watching the video was shocking. I was faced with the desire to be out photographing the protests, but I was initially afraid to go out in the crowd with the threat of COVID. I watched video feeds online of the city burning. I was grateful for all the photographers and videographers documenting this historic event. I wanted to be out there, but I was afraid since I am considered at high risk for this virus.

After the second night of fires, I ventured out early in the morning to make some photos and bear witness to what went down. I started at the Hexagon Bar and talked with a firefighter who was exhausted from being out all night. It was a surreal scene. The National Guard had finally arrived and were blocking many places that had been burned and looted for two days. Some of them were very young and looked like they didn’t want to be there. I spoke to some of the neighborhood residents who were terrified and saddened by the destruction. My heart was heavy as I wandered the area. 

I headed over to the place where George Floyd died and was moved by the reverence of the growing memorial. I went back to the site several days later and was overwhelmed by how huge this sacred place had become. Flowers, paintings, signs, and sculptures, all in memory of a gentle giant who should still be with us. His daughter was right when she said, “Daddy changed the world.” He has.

I hope this is the moment in history when real change happens to protect and respect the Black and brown members of our community.

Jennifer Bong

One morning in early June I awoke knowing I must go to 38th and Chicago to photograph George Floyd’s flowers. Over many years I have been making soft, moody pictures of flowers with my cameras. This has been a quiet, meditative process; just me and the flowers silently being together. Flowers tell us stories of life.

Upon arriving at George Floyd’s Sanctuary, I was surrounded by many people and a sense of peace and love. A global spirit of honor. An aura of wonder. The gentleness drew me in. Humanity was searching for answers. 

The beauty of the flowers felt like sadness. There were young families. Next to me was a father holding his son close. 

With his comforting voice he was trying to explain to his son what had happened here. At that moment, I believed that all over the world there were parents having caring conversations with their children. I smiled, as this gave me hope. 

As I focused on the flowers, slowly moving from one emotional spot to another, powerful written words came together with the flowers in my view. The words dreamt kindness, openness, and empathy. We are all able to give in our own special way. I knew this is what I could do. 

Sharon Ramirez

I had been stringently socially distancing myself, because I have several pre-existing conditions that make me vulnerable to COVID-19 complications. I had not left the house since March except to take socially distanced walks outside and a couple visits to my doctor’s offices. We even had our groceries delivered via “touchless delivery.”

I had been closely following the news about George Floyd’s death and the ensuing protests and violence. I felt compelled to see some of what this was about in person.

I drove to 38th and Chicago. I carefully masked-up, and with sanitizing wipes in hand, I went to the intersection where the memorial was located. As I approached, I saw people in small groups talking quietly and hugging, or standing reverently observing the memorial. Almost all people were masked. I felt sadness and awe about the space. It did feel sacred. The incredible amount of flowers that people brought were inspiring, and the murals and artwork were uplifting.

I wanted to capture the spirit of the space. I wanted to capture the spirit of the people. They were reverent, peaceful, open, and generous, and interacted lovingly with strangers and friends. Individuals and groups had collected food, home goods, and antiseptic supplies and gave them to those in need. People were friendly and chatting to those that wanted to chat, and left people alone that just wanted to be there. I was moved by all the names of people that had been killed by the police that had been painted into the street. I meditated and read every name out loud and breathed. It felt peaceful and healing.

I took photos because I tend to document events. I did that so I could remember, and also to share what I saw with friends on social media. I also thought that the photos could be helpful in preserving these moments in history for future activists and historians.

After visiting the George Floyd memorial, I felt a sense of freedom and elation in having the opportunity to honor his life and Black Lives Matter.