Photographing Portland: “It Was the Most Intense Night of the Last Five Years”

As part of an on-going series, we reflect on the events happening at the Portland protests.

America is facing one of the most challenging times in modern history. A pandemic, protests, and abuse of power from those serving to protect are crushing the nation right now. Portland, often cited as the epicenter of liberal, progressive values, has seen some of the worst acts of aggression from law enforcement in the United States. Beatings, bullets, and all-round brutality have been the harsh reality for the people – including the press and photographers.

The Portland Protests

Since the tragic killing of George Floyd, people in Portland, like most of America, have taken to the streets to protest. For over 60 days people have been showing their anger and frustration at the continued racial divide happening in their country. For the most part, protests have been peaceful. But there’s one faction of this whole saga that has caused more destruction than anybody: the police.

Portland, in particular, has felt the full force of the abuse of power. In a piece published by Business Insider, journalist Trip Jennings shared his horrific experience at the protests where he was shot in the face by police with “non-lethal” bullets.

Photo by Matt Lawrence

Photographers at The Portland Protests

Despite the aggravated violence, photographers are still putting themselves in the line of fire to ensure everything is being documented and the world can see the heated events unfold.

Matt Lawrence, photojournalist and street photographer, headed up to Portland – his former home – just before the police withdrew from the streets. He had the opportunity to digest all that had happened and had full awareness of the risks. He told The Phoblographer why he felt the need to head from his home in Los Angeles and document Portland.

“I lived in Portland for 13 years from 2004 through to 2017. This city had as much to do with me being who I am now as the previous 19 years did. When I saw what was happening, with the Feds moving in and being so aggressive, it just felt wrong not being here to document it and stand in solidarity with BLM. I was very active in documenting the MAGA/Antifa/Proud Boy clashes when I lived here as well. Portland is somewhat of an epicenter for this type of thing which some may not know. This latest chapter is just that.”

Matt Lawrence
Photo by Matt Lawrence

Although he chose to be present on the streets of Portland, we were curious about his state of mind. Even when choosing to be in a place of potential danger, you can remain worried that your safety may be at risk, and it’s important to handle that in the best way possible.

“I’m fairly familiar with this kind of behavior towards the press,” explains Lawrence. “The first time I got hit with a non-lethal was here in Portland in 2016, courtesy of the Portland Police Dept., and I had seen enough coverage in July to know that I would likely be targeted to some degree.” Accustomed to this kind of behavior from the police, he goes on to tell us that he doesn’t get worried, but there is definitely a heightened sense of awareness.

“You have to know going into it that some fairly dark shit will happen.”

Matt Lawrence
Photo by Matt Lawrence

On Arrival

Arriving at the Hatfield Federal building, the mood on the ground was largely peaceful. People were out making their voices heard, giving speeches and showing their support for Black Lives Matter. But despite the gathering being void of violence or aggravation, it had already been deemed unlawful. “I could tell that it was getting tense,” says Lawrence.

“Apparently, the driver had exited the vehicle with a rifle at one point, but I cannot speak to that.”

–Matt Lawrence

In this on-going tragic story exists several narratives. A photographer may choose to focus on one or all of them – going in with preconceived ideas or allowing the free flow of events to guide them. We asked Lawrence how he approached it from a photography perspective:

“Great question. I generally try to approach all photography from the same mindset and let the circumstances speak for themselves. I prefer tight compositions so I knew I’d like to get as close to the feds as possible and make them the focus while they were acting out. When it’s just the protestors, or between assaults, I go for wider more inclusive photos that show the crowd and convey that special group energy only found on the ground.”

Photo by Matt Lawrence
Photo by Matt Lawrence

Non-Lethal and Gases

As for what he saw on the ground, Lawrence describes seeing law enforcement clad in military gear and going after college-age kids as unsettling. But even more unsettling was the use of non-lethals (which still cause a horrific amount of harm) and chemicals such as tear gas and commercial grade mosquito hazer. He also described seeing people vomit because of the gas, which had a yellow tint and chlorine odor. In some cases, people had skin burns after coming in contact with the chemicals.

All of this seems way too extreme for largely peaceful protests. It’s no surprise then that Lawrence says the presence of law enforcement was “an overplay [sic] of their hand.”

“The crowd seemed to press them out, but as they departed the scene towards a waiting vehicle they let rounds off, approximately four to five shots, which caused panic in the crowd.”

— Matt Lawrence

Police Withdraw

The following day federal agents withdrew from the streets of Portland, Oregon. Protesters remained in their numbers, their message still being shared loud and clear. Lawrence hung around, still documenting the events that were unfolding. “I didn’t see a single uniformed police officer that night, and the crowd eventually broke up and dispersed on its own after an evening of chants and speeches. [It was] completely peaceful.”

Sadly, it wouldn’t stay that way.

Gun Shots and Fire

On Tuesday, August 4th, crowds gathered at Peninsula Park for what began as a peaceful march towards the Portland Police Association building, home of the Portland Police Union Clubhouse. Lawrence says things slowly started to get tenser, alleging that “antifa members of the crowd tried to set the building on fire.” Those there to protest for BLM immediately tried to denounce the behavior in order to ensure the message remained peaceful and on point. But the mood would soon worsen. Lawrence describes what happened next.

“I was on one end of the street and heard commotion from behind me. Looking back I saw the crowd part left and right, as a silver Chevy S10 pickup came hurtling through the crowd with a motorcycle stuck under its front end. Unable to turn, it beelined straight through barricades and out of sight. Apparently, the driver had exited the vehicle with a rifle at one point, but I cannot speak to that.”

Photo by Matt Lawrence

“Later in the evening, I saw some commotion coming from a 7-Eleven parking lot adjacent to the Portland police building. Two guys were coming to blows with each other over what seemed to be gang-related activity. The crowd was screaming that one of them had a gun, and indeed I did see one of the people in question reaching for their hip. The crowd seemed to press them out, but as they departed the scene towards a waiting vehicle they let rounds off, approximately four to five shots, which caused panic in the crowd.”

Photo by Matt Lawrence

Lawrence has been documenting protests and social justice for five years. And in all that time, he described this evening as being “the most intense” he has ever witnessed.

Coming Up

We will continue to speak with photographers over the coming weeks. Our aim is to get a broad understanding of what’s happening on the ground, and how photographers are coping with it. If you feel there’s a photographer we should speak to, or that you would like to know more about, please let us know in the comments below.

You can connect with Matt directly by visiting his Instagram and website.

All images by Matt Lawrence. Used with permission.