East Danforth resident Christopher Manson, like many photographers in Toronto, spent the G20 summit weekend in 2010 with his camera pointed at the ensuing chaos, trying to understand what was happening in his adopted city.
It was the first time he’d experienced such a massive protest, and while he showed up determined to use his camera as an impartial observer, he soon found himself conflicted by the emotion – and anger – caused by what he saw from police.
On the fifth anniversary of the events of that weekend, his exhibition Riot Act: Looking back at the G20 in Toronto was launched at Ryerson Artspace at the Gladstone, 1214 Queen St. W. The show runs until July 26.
To complement Riot Act, Manson has collaborated with colleague Joel Elliott to publish a 32-page tabloid-style newspaper with more than a dozen of Manson’s photos, accompanied by Elliott’s essay on the G20 weekend.
“Everything about this weekend could have been predicted. When you suspend everyday life you can’t expect normal behaviour. When you manipulate legal rights you can’t expect lawful responses. When you hold a summit for fragmented, self-serving and un-democratic purposes, you can only expect the same from your populace,” writes Elliott in his essay.
Riot Act: Looking back at the G20 is on display until July 26 at Ryerson Artspace. The limited edition self-published newspaper of the same name is available through Manson’s website. A package with a signed print is also available.
Manson and Elliott took the time to answer a few questions about the project.
Why choose to publish a print newspaper to showcase these photos?
Christopher Manson: The connotations of a newspaper, it being news, is kind of an ironic thing given that it’s five years later, but to many people it will be news to them. At the time the news concentrated on the burning cars and a few violent protesters. The wide tabloid format lends itself well to presenting the wide images produced by the frame of the 35mm and 20mm lens that I was using.
Could you briefly discuss your reasons for framing the photos with the essay?
Manson: Joel’s text works to compliment the photos – it doesn’t illustrate them. Not that I don’t think that the photography can’t not work by itself, I just think that by offering both the literary and visual form of communication, you’re going to get a better idea of the story.
What is the general idea behind the essay?
Joel Elliott: The idea behind the essay was just to document my own perspective on the progression of the whole weekend from the point of view of someone who actually was there. At the time it seemed like a lot of major news outlets were cherry-picking certain incidents, or arrived too late, or left too early. I also wanted to interrogate some of the hypocrisy surrounding official statements from police and politicians. At the time, in the days and weeks that followed, there was very little talk about excessive police force or unlawful arrests. Of course that’s all anyone remembers now. I was trying to speed up that awareness.
What was your experience like during the G20 weekend?
Manson: It was hectic. It was confusing. It was sad to see. You didn’t know what your role was. You went in there as a photographer but everything that you saw agitated you and suddenly the lines between you as a photographer and objective witness and the protesters, that line became blurred. So for a person who wanted to stay on the objective side, it was confusing and unpredictable. It was infuriating also.
Elliott: I was also trying to record the events and avoid getting arrested because I was heading abroad a few weeks later. I didn’t actually think we would be detained for a long period of time just for being present, but at the time, fear takes over. I got shot by rubber bullets a couple times. At times it was farcical. There were beautiful moments of meaningful protest like the group of local Tibetans who dressed as Chinese President Hu Jintao at the summit to demand independence. Sadly, these most pressing concerns barely received a word in the mainstream press.
How did the G20 weekend affect you personally and artistically?
Manson: Personally I’m more cautious and wary of the police. Until you really experience these confrontations first hand, you don’t understand the power dynamic. You don’t understand the structure whereby you have no rights whatsoever if they decide you are not allowed any. It’s simple to follow the rules when you know what laws are there, but when laws have been taken away – for however short a time – how do you know you are transgressing them? And how do you know not to?
Is there a message or theme you would like viewers take from the images?
Manson: The message here is that this was a very important event in the history of Toronto. It was a moment when everybody’s rights were taken away from them for a very short period of time and because we live in Canada, a place where you don’t expect that to happen, that was more shocking. And it’s something we shouldn’t forget.