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Mugshots and propaganda: Photographer learns about #J20, Socialist Alternative Grand Rapids

This is an article about photography. But sometimes photography is really about something altogether not photography. There are tools, and there is a message. Use the tools to deliver the message.

/Tyler Steimle

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/Tyler Steimle

/Tyler Steimle

This is an article about photography. But sometimes, if done right, photography is really about something altogether not photography. The gear and the shop talk and the technique of the craft dissipates and the message shines through. It's what we often forget that art is all about. There are tools, and there is a message. Use the tools to deliver the message. 
I was recently asked by a very good friend, Raina Cook, to come do a simple group photo for the Grand Rapids chapter of the political organization she works with, Socialist Alternative.
I never want to be a "simple group photo" photographer, and always look for extra, interesting opportunities where I can find them, or craft them. This isn't a family gathering at a park, this is a group of people who care about issues that affect each and every one of us. People who take time out of their lives to meet, talk, argue, and organize to make their country a better place. This has never been more important for this particular generation of Americans. We are living an unprecedented historical event right now. All those words to say, there is a story here.
Every shoot I'm looking to do something a) that matters; b) is different and/or challenging for me personally; c) tells a story/conveys an emotion.
While money and getting paid for your time, work, and expertise of craft is extremely important, we photographers are artists and storytellers. Don't be lazy! Get the shots you need to get, but don't stop there if you don't have to. This is my work and it represents me. I want it to be fucking good.
I started off by taking candid black and white images of the meeting, using my time to feel my way into the room. Explore angles. Get to know my subjects a bit. I chose to do this for a few reasons, one being I didn't know what the room or light would be like before showing up. This gives me time to get all that in order without having to maintain a conversation with a subject, a unique advantage to this type of meeting/shoot.
The meeting lasted about an hour before we actually broke for the group shot. Raina coordinated clothing and props prior to the shoot, but I hadn't anticipated the Socialist Alternative newspaper which turned out to be a feature element of this photo story. The title reads "ONE YEAR IS ENOUGH," referring to You Know Who's reign of terror.
Two things became immediately apparent to me during this shoot. One is newspaper as propaganda. Another is this room with its concrete walls and huddled shadows, highlighting their plotting an escape from this latest tyranny. We are trying to break out of prison here. In my mind, prison means mugshots. Mugshots and propaganda! Let's roll.
Post-meeting, I was inspired to do more with this photo story, so I followed up with Raina via email and conducted a brief interview to help share the #J20 message.
How did you become involved in Socialist Alternative - Grand Rapids?
I got involved because I was finding that I was just angrier and angrier by the day. I felt like I had no power whatsoever and was watching my country self-destruct. I had to do SOMETHING. I found that I was almost always further left than people I would talk to, and none of the organizations I was encountering was a good fit. And then I went to my first Socialist Alternative meeting. I knew it was exactly where I needed to be; it just felt right instantly.
What would you tell people who feel put off by the labels socialist or socialism, such as they are typically perceived in America, with a negative connotation?
I think most people that are instantly freaked out by the word "Socialism" really don't understand what that means. There's a LOT of misinformation swirling around on the interwebs. is packed with information about the party and Socialism in general. You'll often hear people say that Socialism "doesn't work." Honestly, I think it's pretty obvious that capitalism doesn't work. The divide between the haves and have-nots is widening every day. The younger generation tend to be more open to the concept of Socialism, as they are experiencing the enormous burden capitalism has placed on them. We have 20-somethings with tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of debt from college who still can't find a job that pays a livable wage. The U.S. has a serious problem, as is quite clear to a growing number of young people. They're ready for change. So are we.
Were you politically involved to the level you are now, before the Trump Presidency?
Before the Trump administration, I was very interested in politics, but was not politically active in real life other than voting and posting on Facebook. I was an armchair activist. After Trump took office, I realized that I had been laboring within a rigged system. Nothing I did was making any difference. I knew I needed to step it up or nothing was ever going to change.
What’s next on the Socialist Alternative - Grand Rapids agenda?
Saturday, January 20th, we're heading up a rally at Calder Plaza in Grand Rapids at 1:00 p.m. This is a chance for us to voice our displeasure with the current administration and make contacts within the community to get involved on a local level. We'll also be raising money for the legal defense of last year's J20 protestors that are facing felony charges simply for being present at rallies.
Find us by using the hashtag #J20GR and by visiting [our Facebook page]( for more details. This is definitely an event that Democrats, liberals, progressives, and Democratic Socialists will also want to be involved in. We're hoping we can all come together to find ways to combat the injustices we're now seeing.
Anything you’d like to end on or more information you’d like to pass on? 
As much as I wanted to get involved in things on a political level, I was not prepared for how much joining Socialist Alternative-Grand Rapids would have on me socially. I truly found my tribe with this group of people. There's something very comforting in knowing that you're not alone in your beliefs. These folks have become another family to me. It's really quite beautiful.

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