By physically erasing the flags from images of protest, Gordon MacDonald and Clare Strand highlight the similarities between enraged and violent nationalist mobs in the UK and US
BJP: Why did you start this project?
MacDonaldStrand: We started thinking about it after Charlottesville and the more extreme elements of the Brexit marches. We noticed a commonality between these marches in the way that the national flag of each country was being used as a legitimiser for nationalism and, often, racism. As an outraged reaction, we started to crudely remove these flags. Removing the flags was originally an act of cathartic Photoshopping.
As we did it more, other commonalities in the groups, which were partially hidden by the bright flags and carnival feel of the images, began to reveal themselves. Everyone has their own idea of a national identity, so, when the national flag is used to fuel a nationalist and monocultural agenda, the national identity is under attack. It is important to say that we have nothing against national flags per se – only against the use of them for these divisive purposes.
BJP: What is left when you remove the flags?
MS: This leaves just the groups of people, the anger and the violent intent. You are left with, for the most part, white, young and middle-aged men. When stripped of the icons of national identity, the tone of the images changes and becomes more jarring. It also leaves the shape of a flag or a white flag – a hole where this statement used to be. It’s possible to read these as flags of surrender, but this is just a by-product and not what we intended.
BJP: Why did you focus on the UK and the US?
MS: Groups in the US and UK seem to be most prevalent on the news feeds we are seeing regularly. They are also the two places we know best and feel equipped to comment on. This doesn’t imply that these problems are worse in the US and UK than in other countries. We wouldn’t be concerned if anyone worried about these problems in their country made their own interventions in photographs by removing flags.
BJP: Where do you find the images?
MS: We get the images from the internet, mostly from social media feeds. This only matters in that these are the places that these images are prevalent. The news media also show these groups a lot, so we sometimes find images through news sites. The photographs are shown through all these sources as if they are passive documents, just reflecting what was in front of the camera. Part of our understanding is that flags are used by these groups as props to be photographed. There is a keen understanding of the distribution and reading of images at work, being utilised by these nationalists through symbols.
BJP: Why do you transform the images into black-and-white?
MS: The images are made black-and-white to give them a uniformity, but also to reinforce the idea that they are constructs, with actively involved individuals both in front of and behind the camera.
BJP: Do the crowds always look the same?
MS: The crowds at far-right marches are mostly made up of white men, with some exceptions. We are not concentrating on the kooks and crazies these events draw, as this helps to cover the truly sinister nature of the events. The QAnon shaman will not feature in this project, for example, as he is a distraction from the terrifying nature of the violent invasion of the Capitol. Too often the media concentrate on these people, and mitigate the situation as a result. It is important to us that no one event becomes central to the project. It is cumulative.
BJP: Does this project say something about nationalist groups or about flags more generally?
MS: The use of national flags was the starting point, and most importantly the far right’s use of them. Other protest groups, such as Extinction Rebellion, use iconography which is unique to them – they do not claim to represent anyone not involved. If you do not believe in the cause of Extinction Rebellion, their symbol does not claim that you do. If you do not believe in the agenda of the far right and nationalists, their use of the national flag implies you do regardless.
BJP: Do you intend to keep going with the project?
MS: We don’t know. This is not an art project, but is driven by the need to oppose. So, will the far right keep waving national flags and causing violence, hatred and division? People are now pointing out images and sending them on to us, which we actively encourage as part of the project. We will continue to adjust them as long as they are sent or widely distributed.
BJP: How important is it to get this project into the public domain?
MS: It wasn’t important initially, as the catharsis was enough. But it would have no impact if it just stayed on our desktop, so we made a cheap website and people have noticed it. We are happy for it to grow or to wither, depending on how relevant it seems. Withering might mean the problems it addresses have diminished, which would be a good thing.
BJP: Are you censoring images and, as such, a part of cancel culture?
MS: This project, by any term or understanding of what ‘cancel culture’ might mean, is not easily read that way. For example, the Capitol images exist extensively on varied platforms with various texts surrounding them. They exist in such numbers that we could never ‘cancel’ or fully eradicate them. This project is opposition.
Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy