A paraphrased quote from journalist Edward R. Murrow sets the stage for George P. Hickey’s protest photographs. “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty,” Murrow said in 1954, speaking on Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s hunt for communists. “When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.” His prophetic words are at the entrance to the show of Hickey’s work at The Washington State History Museum in Tacoma.
Hickey often refers to protesting as street theater, a phrase informed by his experience on the front lines of protests in Seattle. He attended upwards of 200 demonstrations, has been pepper -sprayed twice by police, ran through a cloud of tear gas to get the shot and police officers threatened him with arrest several times.
He offers a simple explanation for continually capturing those who challenge the status quo: “I could either go with them and be one more in the crowd waving a sign or I could take their photo and spread the word.”
“Loyal Opposition” covers Hickey’s work from the late 1990s to early 2000s. He covered protests and rallies dealing with the World Trade Organization (WTO), animal rights, Guantanamo Bay and war. Hickey’s black-and-white photographs leap off the walls painted a rich red. Overall the show has a kinetic energy. The people captured are passionate about their point of view, and his photos transport the viewer to the center of the action.
As Hickey explains what’s happening in the photographs, he vividly recalls how events unfolded. At a WTO protest on the morning of Nov. 30, 1999, Hickey captured one of his more recognizable photos at Sixth Avenue and Union Street. Protestors asked people who were willing to be arrested to move to the front of the line. Hickey said because of the lack of manpower, police brought out military-grade pepper spray in fire extinguisher-sized-canisters and shot them into the sitting crowd.
“I began taking photos with my camera with a flash. That attracted this police officer. He turned and sprayed directly into my camera, and the flash went off and stopped the pepper spray in mid-air,” Hickey said. “After he sprayed me I turned and I ran into the crowd and the police officer followed me spraying me in the back of the head and the neck.”
In another protest, Hickey captured a group who sat in the middle of Second Avenue in front of the Henry M. Jackson Federal Building to the dismay of drivers and police officers. His photo shows a protestor with zip ties around their wrists being hauled away.
“It was quite a sight. But it took some courage,” Hickey said. “The willingness to take abuse from the police, take abuse from the public. But they got the point across.”
Hickey looked forward to covering Pride events because of the energy and the ease of getting a good photo. One of his favorite groups, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, was usually in attendance. The group is a local chapter of an LGBT activist group that uses drag and Catholic imagery for protest and charitable work. It was tough to get a candid shot of them because “they can sense a camera a hundred yards away and they all have an individual way of reacting to a camera.”
Along with the revelry, opponents also showed up. Hickey said the day is about LGBTQ people coming out of the shadows to express themselves only to find themselves face-to-face with bigotry.
“And here you have people like this showing up and saying, ‘You’re less than everybody else is.’ ‘You’re going to hell.’ ‘You’re disgusting,’” Hickey said. “And yet they approached them with a sense of humor and a sense of happiness, we’re not going to let you ruin our day. I have great admiration for them.”
Even though he isn’t gay, Hickey can empathize with the experience of being harassed. In 1967 he lived with a gay couple in Dallas. They all worked at the same factory. When word spread that his friends were gay, people assumed he was too. He was bullied and harassed, but it only reinforced his belief in equality.
Hickey captured all of his photographs on film and developed them in his West Seattle apartment. The bathroom doubled as a dark room.
“I had trays set up on each side of the sink. One balanced on top of the toilet and two in the bathtub,” Hickey said. “I had another tray set up in the hallway where I would store them until I took them to the kitchen and ran it through an archival washer. I had a light setup in the hallway.”
Hickey is a bit of a late bloomer when it comes to photography. Fallen barns and interesting landscapes caught his eye while traveling for a sales job. In 1997 at the age of 49, he bought his first camera, a Pentax SLR. He shot a couple rolls of the scenery that initially intrigued him, but he ultimately found the subjects boring.
Later he shifted his focus to street photography after witnessing an animal rights protest. Hickey enrolled in a photography class then a dark room class at University of Washington’s Experimental College. He bought all the supplies he needed to create his own dark room and soon connected with Tim Harris, founding director of Real Change, then a newspaper still in its infancy and published once a month.
Two of his protest photos are framed and hang in one of the conference rooms. Harris fondly reflects on Hickey’s 10-year tenure with Real Change.
“George was like a war photographer — in it for the adrenaline rush and fearless behind a camera — and his work always reflected that,” Harris said. “I always thought of George as an activist first. Photography was simply his medium. There was always a healthy cynicism there, but underneath that crusty exterior, this was a guy who believed in the struggles he shot.”
His work also appeared in The Stranger and Seattle Weekly. The approximately 80 photographs on display represent a portion of the work he recently donated to the Washington State Historical Society.
While Hickey misses the energy and the excitement of being in the street surrounded by people railing against corporations and the government, he’s content with the new home for his work. His intent for the photos — to inform and educate — will continue to serve their purpose in the decades to come.
WHAT: “Loyal Opposition: The Protest Photos of George P. Hickey”
WHEN: Sept. 30 – Dec. 3, Artist gallery talk Nov. 16 at 5:30 p.m.
WHERE: Washington State History Museum, 1911 Pacific Ave, Tacoma
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge, Facebook
Mahogany Message: Humaira Abid’s ‘Searching For Home’ captures the worldwide refugee crisis through elaborate woodcarvings
Who Belongs? 'BorderLands' exhibition in Pioneer Square explores belonging and resistance
Animating Her Story: Artist Raven John is creating choices for Indigenous youth that were lacking in her own early life
Wait, there's more. Check out articles in the full October 11 issue.