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We’re the People: Close-Ups from Zuccotti Park

Photo Essay: Portraits of a nascent society.
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Zuccotti Park Couple Photo by Joe Holmes

Click to play slideshow. Photos by Joseph O. Holmes.

When I first visited Zuccotti Park at the beginning of October 2011, I was overwhelmed with the sheer density of the site. It didn't look like a group of protesters—it looked like a tiny overpopulated city, with neighborhoods and paths and specialized areas, the whole landscape dotted blue with plastic tarps and surrounded on four sides by skyscrapers. And though I strongly sympathized with the philosophical message of the Occupation, I was mostly drawn to the nascent society that was growing there day by day. 

I returned as often as I could, but I found it impossible to photograph the park in a fresh way—dozens of photographers roamed Zuccotti every time I visited. So I quickly settled on a project of my own, to capture a portrait of every occupier I could manage. But I established a set of rules: I would only shoot with permission, I would capture people just where I found them, and I would ask each one to look straight at the camera. I didn't collect names, or stories or places traveled from, and I asked people to put down their signs. I wanted the sole message of each image to be that occupier's presence, the occupation of that spot at that moment by that person. 

I visited Zuccotti for about six weeks and shot portraits of more than 160 occupiers. Then in mid-November the city tore down the encampment without warning in the middle of the night. And though I've visited the park since and taken another dozen or so portraits, it's not the same. It's now a protest site rather than an occupation. I'm no longer taking portraits of the citizens of a tiny, new society in southern Manhattan.


Joseph O. Holmes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Joseph is a photographer living in New York City, whose work has appeared in Real Simple, American Photo, and Photography Monthly, among other publications. See more of his work at streetnine.com.

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