The Arty Semite

When Journalists Are Also Activists

By Menachem Wecker

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Photo Credit: Margaret Olin

Much was made in 2010 of Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, “becoming part of the story” when he treated the Haitian patients he’d been sent to report on. The journalistic ethics, it appeared, were murky; should reporters — particularly those with medical training — abandon their professional posts to help in a crisis, or keep their cameras and mics rolling?

In an April 30 talk, “Witnessing, Bystanding, Onlooking, Participating,” at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Gallery 400, Margaret Olin questioned the underlying assumption of the popular sign, “Put that camera down and join us,” which was the closing shot of Haskell Wexler’s 2012 film “Occupy Los Angeles.”

“Are holding onto your camera and joining us mutually exclusive?” said Olin, who holds appointments at Yale University’s Divinity School, as well as its religious studies, Jewish studies, and art history departments. “I thought there was something called engaged photography. Don’t photographic technologies take part in Occupy and other activist movements?”

Olin shared many of the roughly 50 photographs she took as a student at an April 1970 gay rights rally in Chicago’s Grant Park, which is often overlooked in favor of another march in June, which commemorated the Stonewall riots in New York.

“[One person] told me, ‘Wow. I’m amazed there was a rally like this already in April. I can’t believe it. Also that I didn’t know about it is even more amazing,” Olin said. But soon that person was looking at her photos and saying, “‘Oh my gosh. There I am with a bull horn,’” she added. “Eventually, it became clear he was one of the organizers. This rally was really amazingly forgotten.”

Olin herself thought she had taken the pictures at a different event, she admitted. When she scanned the photos a few years ago and put them on Facebook, Olin noticed the negatives were labeled in a manner that placed them in April, so she associated them with the Gay Liberation Front.

“But only when I started scanning them seriously a year ago and working out the chronology did I figure out where and when I took them,” she said in an interview.

That Olin and other rally attendees misremembered the significance and details of the event further underscores the differences she pointed out between witnesses, bystanders, onlookers, and participants. Her photographs of the rally show a wide range of attendees, from people standing with their hands in their pockets at some distance from the podium to organizers with megaphones. Others, she said, were “puzzled people on the sidewalk.”

It’s become somewhat of a game, she said, for those who see her photographs to guess which people were, undercover police, or Red Squad.

Although she didn’t bring it up in her talk, Olin noted in an interview that she sees a “larger story about Jews and leftist leanings” in the narrative she described.

“I don’t actually know quite what to do with it,” she said. “Almost all the leaders of this rally were raised Jewish — particularly the main ones, Step May [and] Murry Edelman.” Martha Shelley, who came from New York to speak at the rally, later wrote a Haggadah, Olin noted.

“This was in part a kind of Jewish-Black alliance,” she said. “And — as [Jewish Museum curator] Norman Kleeblatt mentioned to me around the time of the ‘Too Jewish’ exhibition, a lot of the people involved with Jewish identity issues had come out as gay before they came out as Jewish.”


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