Misan Harriman captures London’s stand against racism

A woman with a child on her shoulders in the middles of a large gathering of people.

The London-member, photographer and founder of What We Seee shares ten images from two weeks of Black Lives Matter protests in London

As told to Jess Kelham-Hohler   All images by Misan Harriman   Tuesday 9 June, 2020   Long read

After seeing the global outcry in response to the murder of George Floyd, London member and photographer, Misan Harriman, knew that he had to capture the reaction in the UK. The founder of What We Seee – a curated platform for enriching film, music, poetry and art, with an audience of two billion per year – Harriman was also keen to use the site to showcase his photography of the Black Lives Matter protests. In doing so, he helps his audience understand the fear, anger and defiance of everyone involved. Here, Harriman shares his experience of the protests, along with his selection of images from both weekends of demonstrations. 

‘Capturing this moment is my duty. I believe my pictures will last longer than my (hopefully) long life. I want my children and my children’s children to remember a very unique time in our history. I am empowered to be out there. As I went to more and more marches, I realised it’s even more important than I initially thought to make sure I capture these raw and honest moments. You don’t get these opportunities as a photographer very often and certainly not at this scale. So, I had to be there, there was no question.

‘There’s never been a display of solidarity with regards to racism within the civil rights movement in the UK like I witnessed at the marches. It’s a combination of where we are in 2020, the amount of information and ability to scale afforded by the internet, and the absolute sense of helplessness felt by so many normal people. The only thing they could do was come out and let the world know that they do not agree with what they’ve seen.

A man with a camera wearing a t-shirt with I Can't Breathe printed on it.
Misan Harriman (Camilla Holmstroem)
‘A powerful still image is impossible to defend yourself against. It seeps into your soul and that is my weapon – I can reach into the hearts and minds of millions of people just with that. I also want there to be a record showing the very best of who we are, the very best of multicultural London, where people of all races and ages came together to fight against the biggest stain of modern man.

‘Beyond being a record of London at its finest, fighting against racism, I want anyone who doesn’t understand what it means to mobilise for a noble cause to see these images. If you look at them, you’re not going to think “thugs”, not on my watch. You’re going to see solidarity, hope, purpose, some heartbreak, love and dignity – and that’s what protest is, nothing more than that. There’s no vandalism or violence in my images, [they] just show how protest is done right, and how it was done right, in London in the summer of 2020.’

Top image
‘It’s become possibly the most shared image I’ve taken during the protests. She’s unearthly in her beauty, which definitely helps the shot. But she’s not looking at me; this isn’t a fashion shoot – she’s looking ahead at something important. Then you have her boy on her shoulders, who clearly understands how important it is that he’s there. He clearly knows it’s a moment for him to take it all in and make sure he understands the lottery of life, meaning that he is a Black boy. It is a hopeful image. When you see the youth in these pictures, I have nothing but hope in my heart. They are seeing things that I certainly didn’t see when I was a boy. It will help them have a rounded view of the world and hopefully change it for the better.’
A person holding a sign with you f*cked with the last generation written on it.

‘This is really a photographer’s dream composition. Eye contact, along with one of the strongest signs that I’ve seen. I think the signs are as important as the subjects in this kind of photography. The composition of the faceless boy on the shoulders of, I presume, his father looking at me with absolute confidence and strength, matching the words above his head. And a whole bunch of young people behind him and the Black Lives Matter message overhead. It evoked a lot of emotion from the moment I saw it.’ 

Misan Harriman

A young woman standing while holding her right fist aloft.

‘Protest, but make it fashion. I mean I think looks like it’s straight out of the 60s or 70s and he looks incredibly chic. But, with the wonderful sense of style he has, you can still see that sense of pride, dignity and absolute determination to try and improve the world that he was born into.’

A young woman with thee word empathy written on the side of her face.

‘Apart from just looking like an incredibly kind, sweet person – which she was, because I spoke to her after I took the picture – she spells it out. Quite simply, if there’s one thing we need to eradicate racism in this country, it’s empathy. That’s it. If we have empathy in our hearts, within a generation racism will be no more.’

Misan Harriman

A young man wearing a face mask with the word educate written on it.

‘I believe that one of the bigger issues in relation to institutional racism is that the common man is not very well informed on why racism has existed and the history of the slave trade, both with regards to the American story and the British Empire story. In this age, where you have access to free information online, if you could be bothered to spend two hours reading the history of the civil rights movement and the slave trade, you would begin to understand how we got here. And then what we can do to change our present and, thus, our future.’

Misan Harriman

A large group of people wearing face masks.
‘I was looking through what I’d captured at 4am, and when I saw this I just wailed. Nothing spells solidarity like this image. You have this special-needs boy who’s there holding his mother’s hand, who you can see is in tears. They felt it was important enough to be out there, and behind them is a sea of people with their hands up in solidarity. When I saw it I thought, “You know what, London, if you want to be proud of yourself, it is in that image”.’
A woman standing on an elevated area amongst a large crowd.

‘She looks incredible. The sun was kissing her skin and she’s glowing. This was at the first big protest in Trafalgar Square and the last time we really had any light. She was extremely eloquent and galvanised the whole audience with her speech. I stood lower down and decided to shoot from that angle to show strength in her sense of purpose.’

Misan Harriman

A person holding a sign with black lives matter written on it.

‘I get the most messages about this picture on Instagram. It’s a sort of obvious image, but I think the composition is clean. You don’t see her face, but you see she’s a White woman, which shows solidarity. It’s a simple, strong image taken on Park Lane and I love it. It goes to show that it doesn’t have to be complicated to be a good photograph.’ 

Misan Harriman

A person holding a sign with I can't breathe written on it.

‘This is probably the most personal shot for me, because I have many aunties, many relatives where I’ve seen that look in their eyes. The older generation of Black men and women who did not have the internet have had to deal with so many humiliations on their own. To see them come out and witness their children and their children’s generation have this strength in numbers, this unity, is a deeply moving thing for me. That look in her eyes shows so much – not just strength, but vulnerability, pain, shock and some kind of hope in everything that’s happening so quickly around her.’

Misan Harriman

Teenagers wearing face masks leaning against a railing.

‘I love this because they literally look like exchange students – not particularly intimidating, just a kind of pleasant, touristy look that you’d get anywhere in London. But then [there’s] the punch out that she did when they saw me, as if to say “We’re not lost, we’re here because you shouldn’t die when you leave your house for no good reason” and I love that.’

Misan Harriman

#shotbymisan  #misanharriman

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