Ripples of Occupy One Year On: Through the lens of a professional photographer

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The Umbrella Movement last year was highlighted as one of the 2014 Best Photojournalism by Getty Images.  One of its talented photographers, Chris McGrath was on the ground to document the whole event from a neutral perspective. 

The following is a series of the best photos that Chris took during the movement in 2014 and an account of his personal journey through the perspective of a lens.

Contributed content from Getty Images

When I arrived in Hong Kong to cover the pro-democracy protests, it had just begun and people were spilling into the main streets of Hong Kong. I arrived a day after the police had tear gassed protesters. I had seen the historic scenes on TV and could not believe it was happening in Hong Kong. I was prepared to cover a tense situation and brought with me my helmet, gas mask, protective eyewear, and flak jacket just in case things turned really bad.

On my arrival in Hong Kong, I went straight down to the protest site. It was late afternoon and there were rumours of more police action in the evening. I was ready for a long night when I climbed through the outer barricades into the site. I expected to see a tense stand-off between protesters and police. Then I heard a young girl’s voice, “Sir, would you like a banana?”

I stopped to see a young girl, a student, smiling at me with a cardboard box in her hand, full of fresh bananas, and offering them to protesters coming into the site for the night rally. I was confused. This set the tone and thus began nearly three months of protests unlike any I had covered before. Welcome to the Umbrella Revolution!

It was amazing to see this movement form in the heart of one of the world’s business hubs. Flanked by massive skyscrapers, students lined up against police, shielded by their iconic yellow umbrellas, and stood up against China while asking for universal suffrage.

I watched as the protests changed as the small box of bananas from the first day turned into supply tents of just about everything anyone could need: first aid, sweets, fresh fruits, blankets, umbrellas, and coffee. The morning I arrived, masses of people were sleeping in the middle of the road, without cover or blankets, but soon the first tents arrived and a massive tent city was formed.

The protests – while peaceful – were doubled sided. Days were mostly filled with art creation, studying in the study area, and barricade fortification. Evening rallies, where protester numbers swelled as the after work crowd joined, saw the crowd listening to young Joshua Wong speak of what was to come. By late evening, things would change. Stand offs and sporadic clashes with police often went on till the early hours of the morning as both protesters and police jostled for dominance.

As the days moved along my coverage changed. Instead of rushing to photograph police action, I found myself hurrying down to the Admiralty site because there was new artwork being put up and it was a rush to get pictures before the rain destroyed it or was moved to another location. Everyday, although nearly the same as the last, often offered unusual images. I never thought I would see an empty road tunnel sealed off by makeshift barricades and free of traffic (which became the site for opportunistic fashion shoots), eerie empty roads, sharply dressed businessmen climbing over barricades to get to work, thousands of smartphones lit up and being waved in the air… these were signs of our times and a reflection of a young movement in one of the world’s most high tech cities.

In the final stages of the occupation of the roads around government buildings, the protesters seemed to lose their way and inevitably became divided. Ugly scenes between protesters and pro-Beijing supporters in the sister site, the district of Mong Kok, began to scar the movement and the direction the protests were taking began to be questioned. Actions were started against police as the movement stagnated and protesters grew tired and frustrated, ultimately leading to a final push on the roads outside the Legislative building. It ended in a brutal push back by police.Protesters were dangerously cornered on a pedestrian bridge overlooking Admiralty, causing outcries of police brutality. The days after saw the departure of supply tents. Gone were the boxes of bananas, artwork was taken down and tents sat empty on median strips as protesters waited for the inevitable clearing of the site.

December 11, after 77 days of protests and without any political concessions from the government, police cleared the site, ripping apart artwork, tents and ad hoc barricades.What was left, was a banner simply stating “It’s just the beginning.”