Misan Harriman on photographing London’s BLM protests

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Harriman is one of the most widely-shared photographers of the Black Lives Matter movement. Here, he shares his story, and discusses one of his favourite images

It is hard to believe that Misan Harriman — known for photographing celebrities such as Meghan Markle, Rihanna and Stormzy, and more recently for his widely-shared documentation of London’s Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests — only picked up photography three years ago, at the age of 39. “I never thought I could turn my obsession into anything other than being a fan,” says Harriman, who, until five years ago, was working in London’s financial district, which he describes as “mind-numbing — the opposite of what I really wanted to be doing”.

Film, photography, and music have consumed Harriman’s entire life. At the age of nine, his school presentations focused around Stanley Kubrick’s use of light in his favourite film, Barry Lyndon, and growing up, he became known as “that guy” for recommendations on the best films and albums. As an adult, after long days of working in the city, Harriman would return home to his photobooks, spending every evening deeply fixated by the work of his idol Gordon Parks, as well as Helen Levitt, Bruce Davidson, and Sally Mann — “people who could observe the human condition”.

Soon after quitting his job, Harriman translated these obsessions, and his passion for sharing them with others, into a business. What We See is a fast-growing online publishing company with multiple platforms across the internet and social media. Still, it wasn’t until he met his wife, who urged him to aspire for more, that Harriman attempted to create anything himself.

Now, three years since he watched his first Youtube tutorial on shutter-speeds and f-stops, Harriman’s images are some of the most widely-shared of the BLM movement, with his iconic shots of London protesters appearing in Vogue, BBC, and The Guardian, among countless other national and international media outlets. Next week, his images will be publicly screened in Piccadilly Circus.

“It’s important for me to inspire people who look like me, or people who may think that certain doors aren’t open to them,” says the Nigerian-born photographer. “I want to be a prime example of someone who wasn’t doing any of this five years ago.”

© Misan Harriman.

“I look for hope and empathy more than anything else. I think that’s why people respond to my images, because they see solidarity”

© Misan Harriman.

Harriman’s monochrome images demand our attention, whether it be through the passion of an activist, captured as they rally a crowd, or through the meaningful gaze of a protester, their fist and placard punched proudly into the air. “I look for hope and empathy more than anything else. I think that’s why people respond to my images, because they see solidarity,” says Harriman, who believes that being a Black photographer also makes a huge difference. “There’s a trust,” he says. “If I’m shooting a Black person, I think there’s a shared experience when they see me.”

The current BLM movement — which is taking place as much online as on the streets — has been described as a tipping point not only in the US, but globally. In the UK, according to one of the organisers, well over 20,000 people attended the protests in the first week of June. Last summer, Harriman documented every single Extinction Rebellion, climate strike and anti-Trump protest, but “this was a different kettle of fish,” he says. “There were 10-times more people than any other march I’ve ever seen in London.”

“The health of our planet is the biggest threat to all of our futures, but it’s not something that people can have a deeply personal connection to,” Harriman continues. “If you’ve had a grandfather or a grandmother who endured violence, it becomes something far more personal… You’re talking about hundreds of years of pain and memories that people have been holding on to and passing on through generations. I call them ‘the walking wounded’.”

The UK’s BLM movement has brought issues of institutional racism into mainstream discussions, and protests have taken place all across the country, calling for police accountability, education reform and equal opportunities. “If you release all of that pressure of injustice, it’s bound to be a bigger movement than anything we’ve ever seen,” says Harriman.

One of the photographer’s favourite shots [below] was captured on Saturday 06 June in Parliament Square — one of the busiest protests he has photographed. He made his way through the crowd, and at some point, between steel bands, speeches, and chanting, he arrived at a moment of silence. “Everyone took a knee, and I was right in the middle of it. As I looked up, I saw a mother, her son, and a sea of fists behind them.” In the image, the boy, who is disabled, listens with anguish to the speeches off-shot, while his mother’s eyes pierce the lens. “I was crying while taking this image,” Harriman recounts. “That moment was absolutely electric.”

“These are the kind of images that find you, that are far more important than the story that you thought you were going to tell,” he continues. “If you look at most of the hands behind them, they’re not Black hands. They are mainly white. I just thought, ‘London, today, you have shown me your beating heart’.”

The image shows the hope and empathy that Harriman sought to immortalise from the movement, but more than solidarity, “this image shows that people are realising their own strength in numbers,” he says. “One of the gifts of the internet, and one of the gifts of photography, is that it has revealed an army of people who are like-minded, and they are going to show up, repeatedly. It has left me with hope in my own heart — that is what this image is to me.”

Marigold Warner

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.