My friends called me; ‘There is a protest, you better get down here, watch the streets – the cops are everywhere….’
I had never photographed a protest before, it was spring 2011, in Baku Azerbaijan. The Arab Spring was still simmering; there had been rumors, as there always had been, that people would protest, that something was planned here or there or someone was finally going to make something happen.
I had paid little attention. I had just started working for an NGO to profile a human rights worker who was involved in the dubious and complicated work of prison reform – I had visited prisons and sanatoriums on the grounds of abandoned Soviet resorts – the picture was grim and horrific. I shrugged off my seeming lack of concern about the very real possibility of protest by diving into work, love, and other sorts of photojournalistic pursuits. So did all the other expats. We had smugness about us: we were veterans, we were safe, nothing really ever happened in Baku – the haze and pollution lulls everyone into stupor! We shot cheap (and huge) Jagerbombs at the Garage, awkwardly writhed our way abound Crossroads (a dance club of bad reputation) and talked knowingly about how we understood the government and the people of Baku.
I grabbed my camera, ID and phone, the little bit of adrenalin a welcoming sting (and I thought, as I usually do at such moments, ‘Oh it has been to long since I’ve wandered through a particle collider, wadded through Stalin’s water tunnels and etc. etc.…’).
I knew the streets, it wasn’t far to Fountain Square, the cops were out in herds, I slipped past a line, (maybe they didn’t notice me?) and into the central square.
It was a zoo, and a circus, of the most pathetic and surreal and sad kind. There were no animals (thankfully the use of guard dogs was limited this time) – only humans, playing out a strange spectacle.
I stood on the patio of McDonalds. Rihanna and Pit Bull blared out the over huge speakers. Students had gathered, milkshakes and cheeseburgers in hands – the cops would later come and chase them away before scary scenes took place and the beatings started.
My friends were there. Quizzical and curious – ex-pats who worked for oil companies. I looked for my colleagues from the various NGO’s I hade been associated with over the past four years. I spotted several in the crowd (Fountain Square is not that big in reality, only spread out), wearing press jackets and carrying cameras. The air was tense, the cops and storm troopers had started to block off the exits, making human barricades, locking arms and pushing shields forward.
My film camera was finished after I had snapped several frames of an undercover (KGB) officer following and watching my oil worker friends and me.
The melee of journalists rushing to snap photos as one protester after another fell down and was beat up.
The comedy of a strange quiet when all could be heard was the pop music still blaring from the McDonalds loud speakers, the eventual silencing of those speakers, then students and others being pushed off the balcony. I had to jump into the square and felt suddenly very short and very small. An older man was getting rough handled fifteen feet away, and I decided to run over (how foolish) to see if I could grab a photo. It was a photographer’s race (the irony of competing for a news worthy photo when someone has their life on the line – but these thoughts don’t occur at the moment, they only come after, lying in bed, when trying to sleep). He was yelling, how Allah would be ashamed, how the president was false, how the boys roughing him up were disrespecting his age. His dignity is strong (is that a cliché to say? Maybe every photographer thinks that at the first protest), his face distressed. The cops call him father and old man, and yell for him to be quiet, the photographer’s swarm… I fall. Somehow. My small stature or lack of attention and me crouched on the ground as the party of cops and old man tumble towards me.
I shoot photos.
I am not a good photographer; I have not done this before. I am in over my head.
I scramble or am pulled or pushed out of the way at the last second.
This pattern is repeated again and again over the next hour. Someone will yell, the cops and photographers swarm; beatings, screaming, women and men dragged to paddy wagons.
I leave dazed, tired and full of adrenalin I can’t explain to my man or my parents (of course not).
I don’t understand what I have seen and captured. The rumors (always the rumors) are that it has been staged, false, a media spectacle to show the people to never revolt, to never speak out.
I still don’t know if I agree with that.
I know that a short time later, my friends who work at the NGO are jumped and beaten up one block from my flat, then late one night, one week before the move to St. Petersburg, I am jumped at the door to my flat.
The hidden, derelict and marginalized attract her; with a desire for adrenaline rushes and a love of heights, Colleen has photographed everything from abandoned highrises in Detroit to Particle Colliders in Russia. With an eye for portraits, a belief that everyone has a story, and a love of drains, she has been wandering through foreign countries since 2007. Accused of being a spy, a prostitute and a missionary; having repelled down elevator shafts, been caught up in political protests and nearly arrested, she has developed a fearless approch to photography seeking out the moments both violent and peaceful that give life meaning.