On the afternoon of March 25, 1911, hundreds of workers, including children as young as 14, desperately pounded on the locked doors as acrid smoke torrid flames spread across the building with startling speed. Frances Perkins was having a leisurely afternoon when she heard the pointed wail of sirens rush past her home. As the fire engines kept coming Frances became curious and followed them. What she saw changed her life – and the course of the labor movement as we recognize it today. Over one hundred people, mostly young Jewish and Italian immigrant women, died in the fire – either from the flames themselves, smoke inhalation, or jumping out open windows of the ten-story building. Locked exits in commercial structures were commonplace in the early twentieth century to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was a completely preventable, man-made disaster.
The beginning through the middle of the twentieth century saw unprecedented change driven by the skillful use of political action. Are contemporary remedies to our collective angst as well served through demonstrations similar to those decades ago? Are we well served by protest in 2018, when issues have magnified in complexity? Is our use of protest more reflexive habit than solution? I have photographed my share of modern protests, and though I was not alive in the fifties and sixties, I can’t help but feel that modern demonstrations don’t hold the transformative power they once did. Why, in the age of social media – when organization is easier than ever, have protests lost the unified grip of the public’s consciousness? The ironic truth is that the very strength of the modern world, our untethered ability to connect with each other on a somewhat perfunctory level, may be crippling the effectiveness of organization.
Ask any seventh-grader who Rosa Parks is, and he or she will explain the story of her refusal to give up her seat on a bus; however, The Montgomery Bus Boycott did not possess the political power it did due to happenstance – it was a masterpiece of discipline and logistics. The spark for such a flame never could have emanated from Twitter despite such a combustible public atmosphere, and it never would have gripped the nation as it did. Martin Luther King had given several variants of his famous speech prior to the summer of 1963. The speech wasn’t immortalized in history until the Washington D.C. Civil Rights March, where no logistical detail was too small to avoid having been painstaking considered. The venue, sound system, intimate media vantage points and a myriad of additional laboriously considered factors transformed a great speaker into an immortal icon.
In a world where every citizen wields greater reach that only a carefully considered few did in years past it’s no wonder that we find our organized demonstrations lacking in sustained organization. What does this mean for the future, and will we find a new way to turn the fine clockwork of progress? If photography is simply a mirror that reflects our joys, sorrow, misgivings and hope, what does this series of photographs say about us?