Alex Garland has been harassed, arrested and tear-gassed while taking to the streets with his camera.
The last time I went looking for Alex Garland on the job, I knew where to find him. I was downtown at the Black Lives Matter rally on Black Friday last year and a tense scrum had formed at a side entrance to Westlake Center, where police were blocking protesters from entering the mall. The crowd shouted and pushed forward and the police advanced using their bikes as shields. Hemmed in between the protesters, the cops and the door, Garland stood snapping pictures.
Garland takes photographs for a living, but his true vocation is bearing witness, a personal practice that lies somewhere between artistry and activism. If you’ve been to a march or act of civil disobedience in Seattle in the past five years you’ve probably seen him. He’s the 32-year-old guy with the thick reddish beard wearing a ball cap and urban hiking attire, his face perpetually obscured by a camera. For the armchair revolutionaries and comment-section skeptics viewing the action from home, Garland’s photos are the closest they’ll get to a whiff of tear gas. For the activists whose struggles he chronicles, he’s an ally and a vital resource. His pictures bridge the divide between the street and the screen, expanding the reach of a protest by thousands.
“What I love about Alex Garland is that he’s everywhere and you don’t even know he’s there,” says Amir Islam, activist and cofounder of United Hood Movement, a community organization founded by former gang members. “He’s an ally without saying it. He shows up and does what he’s supposed to do; you can tell it’s a calling for him. I appreciate the brother one thousand percent.”
Garland’s subjects run the gamut of progressive causes, from major Black Lives Matter marches and kayaktivist flotillas to smaller local events like the Dearborn homeless camp eviction and the demonstration against Nooksack tribal disenrollment. His work has been featured in TIME, The Guardian, CNET, Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post and he keeps a running record of his activities on his website, The Dignity Virus. Freelance photography is his full-time job, and though he shoots things other than protests—headshots and promo stills for local theatre artists, a portrait series on the pets of Capitol Hill for the Capitol Hill Seattleblog—documenting social justice movements is his passion. He’s been arrested, gassed and burned with blast balls lobbed by Seattle police.
“I don’t think people want to be out protesting in the rain,” Garland says, sitting at a Beacon Hill brewpub on a bright Sunday afternoon. “I think they’d rather be carrying on with their lives. So if they’re passionate enough about something to be out in the streets, we should probably be talking about it.”
Garland was raised the son of college science professors in Denton, Texas. He rebelled against his PhD parents by joining a fraternity at the University of North Texas, where his folks taught. For Garland, the frat house was a place to get laid and get wasted and a haven for racist and sexist attitudes, including his own. “Of course I was a dumbass,” he says. “I was a below-average white guy who had grand ideas of himself.”
After graduating with a degree in emergency administration and disaster planning, Garland was determined to break out of his hometown rut. He sold all of his possessions and embarked on a year of solo travel. The journey turned him into a completely different person.
“I was working at Happy Home in Nepal, an orphanage I found through my hostel,” he says. “I remember bringing these kids some crayons one day, and they were just so damn excited about a box of crayons. They had nothing—but I was invited to every meal. I wasn’t raised that way. That’s not my culture.”
Garland returned to Texas to take care of his dying grandmother and work for FEMA as a geographic information specialist mapping disaster sites. Then in 2010, he moved to Seattle with his wife, actor and labor organizer Jessica Severance. Like a lot of would-be activists of his generation, he was drawn to the Occupy movement the following year, attending protests and visiting the Westlake encampment.
He’d been interested in photography since his grandma got him an Instamatic as a child and he shot promising photos throughout his year of travel, but he considered it a hobby, not a profession. He began bringing a camera to Occupy to work in different lighting conditions. “I went to practice portraits,” he says, “and found out that what I was doing was called photojournalism.”
Since then Garland has quietly built a reputation in the local activist community. He gets daily tips about upcoming actions and covers as many as he can, usually several a week, whether or not he’s being paid.
At times, his photos go beyond depicting movements and serve as critical on-the-scene evidence. At the downtown Seattle May Day protests of 2012, one of his first freelance assignments for Real Change, Garland snapped a picture of now-retired assistant police chief Mike Sanford rushing into the crowd, armed but out of uniform, to make an arrest. His fellow officers had to extricate him using force. Garland’s photo contradicted the official narrative and ended up on the front page of The Seattle Times. It was his first big score.
On that same May Day, Garland was arrested and jailed overnight for felony assault of a police officer. Two weeks later, a video surfaced on YouTube that showed the opposite was true: The officer pushed Garland, then grabbed him and threw him to the ground. The charges were dropped.
In March 2015 Garland was covering a pro-Palestine rally in Westlake when a shirtless man began shouting racial epithets and accosting the crowd. He spat at a black man named Raymond Wilford who happened to be passing through on his way to meet a friend at the mall, and the two squared up. When a Westlake security guard arrived, he pepper-sprayed Wilford and ignored the wild-eyed white assailant whose aggressive behavior had been witnessed by dozens. National media outlets, including the Huffington Post, picked up the story, armed with Garland’s moment-by-moment documentation of the prejudiced assault. Wilford sued and recently settled out of court.
After the Break Free PNW environmental action in Anacortes this past May, KIRO ran a story about trash left by the protesters who blockaded train tracks to the Shell and Tesoro oil refineries at March Point. It had the makings of another sneering environmentalists-are-hypocrites story, but what the KIRO pictures didn’t show—what Garland photographed—was the protesters being arrested by BNSF’s private police force (which has jurisdictions in 25 Western states) and barred from returning to pick up their possessions.
The importance of digital evidence can’t be overstated in the age of Eric Garner and Laquan McDonald, but that’s not the primary focus for Garland. He doesn’t grapple with whether or not what he does is art—he uses the term “photojournalist” as both a job description and an aspirational signifier like “freedom fighter” or “truth-teller.” He’s inspired by historic pictures of the Civil Rights era and by local contemporaries like former Seattle P-I photographer Josh Trujillo. He’s looking to capture insight into the human emotion behind public struggles, to show commonality. “I like things that happen quickly and once. You don’t see it again,” he says.
One image that still affects him is a shot he took of Black Lives Matter protestors Mara Willaford and Marissa Johnson standing on stage after interrupting the Bernie Sanders rally in Westlake Park in August 2015.
“They’re holding hands and you can see tears streaming down Marissa’s face,” Garland says, tearing up himself. “They’re being screamed at by people I didn’t expect it from. You see the faces in the crowd and they’re just angry. They’re not listening.”
Garland cries openly, without shame. He’s emotionally driven and engages social justice movements through empathy with its participants. Bearing witness to so much pain and resistance has taken its toll. Garland was diagnosed with PTSD stemming from his May Day arrest.
“I’ll go to a demonstration where there’s a lot of traumatic stuff going on and I’ll be fine doing the job; the camera provides focus and clarity. But when I get home there’ll be times when I spend 15 minutes shaking in a chair. It’s just a thing I do now.”
Garland’s job is a constant, sometimes brutal hustle, but his singular devotion to showing up, march after march, has yielded respect from and access to a community that’s often skeptical of white men with cameras. The platform he’s built reaches farther than many of the groups he covers.
“When he shows up [at a protest] people are trying to get to the front because they know it’s gonna get some exposure,” Islam says. “When he comes and captures it you know it’s gonna give [the cause] more momentum to continue the dialogue and the action, and that’s what we need.”
Garland says it works both ways. “I’d be taking photos of Little League games if it weren’t for people out in the streets trying to make change. I wouldn’t have a subject to photograph if they weren’t there. Their passion, their devotion to their message—it’s worthy of my time.”