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14.01.2022

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National Guards, fences, and barbed wire, yet also a glimmer of hope: on January 20, the Democratic President Joe Biden was sworn into office. The security measures taken around the event were a consequence of the storming of the Capitol two weeks earlier – and were the focus of Simon King's photographic and monochrome work.

LFI: How did you experience the 59th Inauguration – and what set it apart from others?
Simon King: The foundation for this body of work came from my perception of this event representing something special in the tapestry of the American status quo. It was the first Inauguration I’d had any interest in attending; my work in the USA up to that point had been general and generic, exploring superficial slice-of-life stories. This was a story occurring under a global spotlight, and I was drawn to document it in November 2020, when I watched live as people took to the streets in a collective state of out-breath, a tension broken both for those applauding their win and those distressed by their loss.

What camera did you use and what made it special for that particular event?
I worked with two cameras, a Leica M6 and a Leica M4. I had 35mm, 50mm, and 90mm lenses, though I very rarely used the 35mm: the 90mm stayed on my M6 throughout, and the 50mm spent most of its time on the M4. Rangefinder cameras are an incredible storytelling tool, and for an environment like this there’s nothing I’d rather have used. Small and light I was able to move quickly, and with short to mid lenses I was concentrated on a close radius around me, rather than anything happening far away in the distance. At one point I climbed out along a ledge on the Lincoln Memorial, in order to get a higher angle of a group of soldiers beneath me: no worries about balance with my lightweight kit. I need my cameras to be second to my ability to manoeuvre through any situation; simple to operate which allows my literacy to be visual rather than technical. There’s no other camera I would have considered carrying with me.

The flag and its colours are a symbol of America, but you photographed in black and white. Why?
I was working on this story with black and white film loaded into two of my M cameras: in total 6 rolls of Ilford HP5+, and 1 roll of Ilford Delta 400. I like to work with consistency, and black and white imagery used to tell a narrative story, is something that has worked better for me so far than anything I’ve made in colour. Black and white describes less than colour photography; but that limitation means I can concentrate more on the content of the frame, in terms of what is happening rather than what something simply looks like. Everyone knows the Star-Spangled Banner is red, white and blue; it's as universal a semiotic signifier as grass being green or the sky being blue. Even without colour it is still recognisable and contains the information I need it to, without reminding people again what colour it is.

After Trump, this time a Democratic President was elected. What feelings did you have while taking the pictures?
Aside from a few banners being held or flags being worn, the names “Biden” and “Trump” barely appear in the story, because it truly isn’t about them, or the view they may individually represent. They have enough accolades without needing to be highlighted in any way through my photography. I would rather focus my attention where I believe the true power resides: with the people.
This chapter, and hopefully the wider story I end up telling in my work in the States, will be a humanistic exploration, not an ego-driven manifesto. I’m not interested in cults of personality or seats of far reaching power; my attention is drawn to those who attach themselves to those agendas, and who may do their best to extol their beliefs within their communities, families, neighbours, not through imposition of will but through an outstretched hand. (Interview: Katja Hübner)

All images on this page and all image captions: © Simon King
Equipment: Leica M6, Leica M4. 35mm f/2, 50mm f/2, 90mm f/2 APO. Ilford HP5+, Ilford Delta 400
"I travelled over Christmas via Bulgaria, and arrived ready to see the best of American patriotism, in the hope and community I expected would gather together in solemn celebration. This atmosphere was short lived, after only six days into the New Year peace was interrupted by the threat of insurrection. This shifted the landscape towards paranoia and defensiveness, the hope and community I was searching for became muffled, harder to access – not invisible but now irrevocably set against a deeply ominous backdrop."
"After the Insurrection, a perimeter fence was installed around the Capitol, and over twenty thousand National Guards were positioned around it in anticipation of disruptions to the handover of power. This is the situation I documented and published as its own case-bound photo-essay, D.C. Exclusion Zone. It isn’t the definitive body of work I want to produce from America, but it is a complete chapter, and definitely one that will shape the future of my work in the country."
"I managed to spend some time photographing in the Field of Flags on the day after the Inauguration, when security was less restrictive. I arrived early and walked through the corridors of knee-high flagpoles, the fabric waving in the morning breeze. Soon I was joined by passers by, mostly locals who wanted to spend some time in this unique and previously inaccessible place. At first, they walked softly with reverence, but once volunteers started to work at removing the flags and clearing up they took the opportunity to take a flag, or two, or ten for themselves. Some wanted them for their yards, others to offer as gifts, some simply to possess a small piece of history."
"These flags held more symbolism than just representing “America” in a general sense as it tends to: here in this field they were there in place of the citizens who could not travel to D.C. because of the pandemic. In that way, I saw the flags as people, and those who were taking them were actually reclaiming a small part of themselves."
"By remaining consistent throughout my project, I can attribute equal weight to the flags, the soldiers, the civilians, the politicians, the fence, and everything else. These are all key to supporting the narrative framework in their own way – without one, the impact and context for the rest would be reduced. The story is greater than the sum of its parts, and monochromatic photography allows the narrative to be at the centre, not the aesthetic."
"During my time in D.C., the members of the National Guard, soldiers, and Capitol Police were in a constant state of flow around the perimeter, around key points and the historic monuments. They were as much a part of the landscape as the flags, or road markings. Incorporating them into my images was an interesting process, and despite their imposing figures I felt free to move around, get close and even in amongst some of the marshalling groups. I didn’t want to portray them as distant mythical figures, I wanted to look at the people; the imperfections not the uniformity."
"The breakout images from this project show military figures, but I don’t think they glamourize, or work towards the “Military Entertainment Agenda”. The balance is towards serving my story, although there will always be some appeal to some, regardless of the light in which some members of the military may be portrayed."
"My current favourite image from the selection was a lucky catch, a soldier named “Head”, which was stitched into the back of his cap. While looking through a fence, he raised his hand to adjust it, and as I was already framed up for the detail I managed to catch the interaction. A simple visual pun, a bit on the nose, but humanistic and playful."
"The front cover of 'D.C. Exclusion Zone' shows the silhouette of a guardsman looking out over the Washington Monument. I composed this carefully, to make sure the tip of the Monument was eye-level to the soldier, and was sure that my focus was on the mid and background, not the foreground, which means he almost melts into the right side of the frame, present and bold, but not the core attention of the frame. Similar to the flag, a soldier is a heavily encoded semiotic symbol, and not one I need to comment on in a basic way; instead it’s the imposition of that symbol over the Monument, another symbol, which makes the photograph so meaningful to many who have offered me feedback on this story."
"As an outsider to the American political system, I found my documentation as a more objective lens, non-partisan and based in the unique location as its own character containing representatives of a spectrum of political expression. That comes through both in the characters and the characteristics of still life details: the fence, a misspelled, hastily printed sign, an abandoned Jump bicycle. All of this comes together in my photo essay in a way that relies on the context of the political event, but can exist without it being solely about that."
"I could feel the intensity in the small crowds who gathered, mostly in support of the Democratic Party: there was camaraderie, and plenty of smiles, especially when Marine One took off carrying President Trump away from the city; but behind the eyes you could see alertness, a shared awareness and understanding. Hopefully that comes through in my photographs, but it was a very special situation to work in."
"I did spend some time with a politician while in D.C., not one waving to TV cameras, but one working hard in his office while the event went on around him. D.C. is not technically a state, so they have a “Shadow” Representative, Dr Oye Owolewa, who very kindly allowed me to spend some time with him in his meetings. He was incredibly accommodating, while he focused his time on how the extensive security measures were affecting his constituents, as well as planning upcoming community events. No ego, just people."
© Zack Webb

Simon King

...is a documentary photographer and writer, working with 35mm film for long-format photo essays. His photographs work to illustrate narrative stories featuring classic arcs and structures, in order to present clear studies based on his humanistic perspectives. King teaches at UAL and the Leica Akademie in London, including narrative storytelling, darkroom techniques and practices, and book sequencing and design.

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D.C. Exclusion Zone
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