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article imageThe 99 Faces of the Occupy Toronto movement Special

By Andrew Reeves     Nov 25, 2011 in Politics
Toronto - Toronto artists Richard Gottardo and Boston Dell-Vandenberd saw an opportunity to go behind the crowd at Occupy Toronto to better understand just who made up the endlessly diverse crowd.
Toronto photographer and videographer Richard Gottardo didn't set out to help document the Occupy Toronto movement in such a concrete way: Initially, he simply had an interest in taking photos of the diverse crowd assembled in St. James Park to form Toronto's contingent of the Occupy movement.
"I was planning on just setting up a portable studio, getting head shots and leaving it at that," he told me. But as he moved among the protesters, taking photos and collecting names, Gottardo was struck by the diversity of faces and names he was gathering.
"It seems like the message of the movement was so convoluted - I really wanted to know what it meant to people individually," he said. These were not the people Gottardo was expecting at the protest, and likely he was not the only one with assumptions about who constituted the Occupy Toronto movement.
"When I went out," Gottardo explained, "I was expecting a bunch of students and activists, but what I found was a very diverse crowd - from 72-year-old retirees to business owners and professionals. There were a few homeless, but they seemed to really get behind the movement with a sense of purpose and hope that was pretty touching."
What emerged was 99Faces.org, an online collection of intimate portraits accompanied by simple text: the person's name, their age, and why, in a few words, they were there. Gottardo brought friend and web designer Boston Dell-Vandenberd on board to help develop and manage the project as it grew in scope.
An Occupy Toronto protester. Part of 99Faces.org.
An Occupy Toronto protester. Part of 99Faces.org.
Richard Gottardo Photography
The project began as a way to organize in "a stylistic manner what we hoped would appeal to people curious about the people behind the movement," he writes.
"The goal was to present the pictures to the public to show who was out there and perhaps break the stigma that all the protesters are uneducated, unemployed, and homeless, as well as to raise money to help expand the project to other occupied areas so we could deliver more faces and stories."
And it is a lesson that observers of the Occupy movement are learning right across North America. That the initial impression of the protesters, as students, professional activists, anarchists, special-interest groups, the unemployed and homeless was giving way to a more nuanced version of who belonged to the 99 per cent as they began calling themselves.
Turns out, the vast majority of protesters were average, middle-class workers who had been laid off or, even if still employed, were upset with the growing income gap between the richest one per cent and the rest of society. We saw 84-year-old women pepper sprayed in Seattle and Iraq war veterans injured in Oakland, both protesting with the Occupy movement - not the typical anarchists one suspects of protesting the government and corporate greed.
And Gottardo found through their photos a similar narrative emerging in Toronto. Students, the unemployed, and the homeless were there to be sure, but there was another element as well: retired citizens, musicians and artists, construction workers, IT support staff, company presidents, educators, executive directors, and professors turning out to be documented, to support and be heard.
An Occupy Toronto protester. Part of 99Faces.org.
An Occupy Toronto protester. Part of 99Faces.org.
Richard Gottardo Photography
Unsurprisingly, while the reasons for attending the protest were as varied and as personal as the individuals themselves, Gottardo began to notice a common thread running throughout the motivations.
"The most common reason I heard while being out there was people being unhappy with the distribution of wealth, which makes sense as I think that is the primary message of the occupy movements."
These photos help demonstrate not only the diversity of the crowd and their varied motivations, but act as proof against those who would still make the claim that the Occupy Movement represents nothing but fringe elements in society. These faces, and their names and few words, tell otherwise.
What's next for 99Faces.org is difficult to say. Occupy Toronto's camp has been torn down in St. James Park, although the movement was never about the ability to camp out in a park, but the ability to vocalize and organize growing popular support against income inequality among other issues. The website relied upon the money and volunteer hours of Gottardo and Dell-Vandenberd, both of whom have other commitments.
"We would love to continue and travel around taking more pictures and get more in-depth quotes from people," Gottardo told me, "but seeing as how it is run entirely on our donated time and money we are really restricted by the amount we are able to do by ourselves."
Yet the 99Faces project has already succeeded in helping to document the protesters in a very real and dramatic way, regardless of whether the project - like the movement it reflected - carries on.
More about 99Facesorg, Occupy Toronto, St James Park
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