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Regional Interests

‘Capturing What Matters:’ An Oakland Photojournalist on Covering the George Floyd Protests 1 Yea

Photography helped capture the intensity and emotion of protests that erupted after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer one year ago today.

Among those documenting the historic moment was Amir Aziz, a visual journalist who grew up in East Oakland and is now covering his hometown for The Oaklandside.

Aziz says his personal experience shapes his craft as a photojournalist, a characteristic particularly evident when documenting local protests.

“As a person who’s from Oakland, as a Black man, there’s a lot of overlap with the work that I do and the coverage that I’m seeking out to do,” he said. “It’s about capturing what matters and having access to that story that makes it more authentic than it would be if I didn’t have that access or I wasn’t from this community, or if I didn’t resonate with that story.”

Aziz says Oakland’s history is intimately tied to social justice movements, so he felt a particularly strong pull to capture last year’s protests.

“It was another chance for us to educate ourselves, to come together and to just be present as we all mourn the loss, but also fight for justice,” Aziz said, who at the time was working as a freelancer. “I believe my role helps to document what’s going on and to even say that we have been having the same conversations. And that’s an important element as we continue on this path for social equality for everyone.”

Aziz recently spoke with KQED’s Brian Watt this week, discussing some of his own stand-out images and how the experience covering last year’s uprising affected his approach to visual storytelling.

Image as Truth

‘Black Lives Matter,’ ‘No Justice, No Peace,’ ‘Defund the Police.’

Aziz spent countless hours photographing demonstrators holding signs of these rallying cries.

“There’s a love I have for signs because in images, they’re really cut and dry, like they’re really clear, the messaging is really clear,” he said. “There’s just so much going on with signs during civil unrest that really make the image, at times, even if the image is just a sign.”

Among the scenes Aziz captured during a caravan demonstration around Oakland’s Lake Merritt on May 31, 2020. (Courtesy of Amir Aziz)

Following Floyd’s murder on May 25, 2020, thousands of protesters filled the streets for days. Although most demonstrations were peaceful, isolated incidents of violence and vandalism prompted officials in San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose to implement curfews and deploy large numbers of police, many in riot gear, often escalating tensions.

“I was freelancing, so I was independent. I didn’t have a badge. I didn’t have a lot of gear. I don’t have a helmet or anything like that. So I can look like a protester to police,” Aziz said. “And what I think allowed me to still get so close was there’s this line where it can be blurred — where I am there almost as a demonstrator to actually tell the story.”

California Highway Patrol officers block demonstrators from entering the I-880 freeway on May 31, 2020. (Courtesy of Amir Aziz)

Aziz recalls one night in particular: On May 31, 2020, he captured a tense standoff between protesters holding signs and police in riot gear blocking them from marching onto the I-880 freeway in Oakland.

“You see this vast difference in how they’ve shown up. Demonstrators are just in plain clothes, masks because it’s still COVID. Young people, older people. And on the police side, you have riot gear, you have helmets, you have batons, you have guns,” Aziz said. “It just shows a stark difference of who the ‘rioters’ are and the ‘peace officers.’ ”

Showing up Safely

Aziz, who has covered protests for years, draws on his hometown’s activist culture.

“An editor asked me this recently, if I ever feel like I’m in danger with my equipment or at protests. You know, honestly, Oakland is so dynamic in how we experience the world. I feel safe anywhere. And it’s odd to say out loud, but places like this are almost in our DNA,” he said. “In the Bay Area, on the weekend, you go out to a protest. It’s so regular.”

Demonstrators stand on top of a van, hoisting a Black Lives Matter sign, during a caravan protest for George Floyd at Lake Merritt in Oakland on May 31, 2020. (Courtesy of Amir Aziz)

Aziz says he’s trying to be more careful now that he’s gone from being a self-operating freelancer to a representative of an established news organization.

“I’m relatively young. There is a lot of risk I can take without relatively, you know, being harmed. But I know that’s not the case for a lot of people as well. So if anything, I’m also out there for them,” Aziz said. “I try to be open to how I show up and show up for different communities that allow me to be a voice for the voiceless using images.”

Copyright 2021 KQED