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Stephen Voss: Protests, Insurrections and Bonsai Trees

Interview with DC photojournalist Stephen Voss

Tue 11th May, 2021

By Polly Gaillard in Recognition

Day 1, ©Stephen Voss

Photojournalist Stephen Voss (APA DC), equipped with a camera, gas mask, and helmet, photographed the Washington DC Black Lives Matter protests and that dreadful day - January 6, 2021, as protesters stormed the U.S. Capitol building. In his recent Politico photo essay entitled 100 Days of Biden's Washington, Voss captures the abrupt shift in mood in DC and administrations. He pictures National Guard troops protecting the Capitol, city streets and buildings sparsely populated with masked faces, and a nation waiting and hoping for change, normalcy, or just something else. His photographs change from the darkness of winter days layered with the uncertainty of a pandemic to the cherry blossoms and pastels of spring, the reality of vaccinations, and a city desperately anxious to get back to life. I had the honor of speaking to Stephen about his career as a DC photojournalist during the Capital's darkest days.

Day 30, ©Stephen Voss

Can you explain your process of covering the DC Black Lives Matter Protest and the Capitol insurrection in January?

SV: I’ve learned a lot about situational awareness in my job – assessing the scene, assessing the risk. I try not to stay in one place for very long. At the Capitol insurrection and the first days of the BLM protests, I was wearing a helmet and a gas mask. But you need to be close, and things happen so fast.

At the BLM protest, the moment when they cleared the plaza for President Trump to walk over to St. John’s was so unexpected. I wasn’t in a great place, so I had to get out quickly because a line of security forces was coming.

​©Stephen Voss

On January 6th, I brought my gear, helmet, gas mask, and a small first aid kit because you never know what will unfold. That said, I had zero expectation that this was more than a speech, a march to the Capitol, and a political rally.

On that day, I left to start walking to the Capitol before the speech was over. As I was walking, my photo editor texted, saying the situation had gotten out of control. So, I ran the last mile to get there. I came across a scene of chaos like nothing I’d seen before. 

​©Stephen Voss

What do you do when chaos takes over the scene you are photographing?

SV: You need to find a calm place in the craziness to access the situation. You want to ensure you’re staying safe, making sure the people around you aren’t a threat to you, and then you look for moments.

I want to take photos that feel cohesive, well-composed and are in service of thoughtfully showing people what is happening. I think it’s essential to be emotionally open in these situations, and it’s a huge privilege to do this sort of work.

​©Stephen Voss

Can you talk about political bias as in photojournalism?

SV: I would be deluding myself if I didn’t acknowledge I have biases in my work. We all have opinions about things, and acknowledging our biases and confronting them openly is a key to one’s growth and development in their work. I admire photographers who serve the role similar to a newspaper columnist in bringing strong opinions backed up by facts to a story, who let the story guide them, and are open to having their minds changed.                

While you were amid crowds at the Capitol, breaching the building, did you have an immediate emotional response?

SV: I felt anxious, incredibly sad, and upset about what I saw. It’s very difficult to process it in the moment. In the weeks afterward, when I looked at the photos, I still felt a little bit of anxiety. I’ve lived and worked in DC for fifteen years; there is a normalcy to the day-to-day of working here. This event broke through that normalcy in such a profound way. It was so chaotic, so unsafe. I felt the enormity of how out of control it was in the moment.

​©Stephen Voss

Can you talk about the photo of the Trump supporter you encountered taking a picture of a Christmas tree after the events of the day?

SV: At the end of the night, I was exhausted. I had parked far away and was slowly making my way back to the car. I saw this guy stop to take a picture of the Christmas tree at the Canadian Embassy. He had clearly been at the Capitol, and there was an irony that he paused to take a pretty picture of a Christmas tree. The moment felt surreal.

​©Stephen Voss

As a photojournalist and political portrait photographer, you seem to be surrounded by others in most of your work. Do you consider yourself an introvert or an extrovert?

SV: I am very much an introvert; that was one of the motivations for my having a camera. It’s a reason for being in a place. It satisfies my curiosities. I can poke around in a new place, explore ideas and have a reason for being someplace.

​©Stephen Voss

While exploring your website, I found your project on Bonsai trees published by National Geographic in an article entitled, Visualizing the Meditative Lives of Bonsai Trees. The images are quiet and thoughtful as if you are contemplating the importance of the tree’s presence. Can you tell us about the project?

I wanted to slow things down with this project and rediscover things I love about photography. To stand before something and take it in fully. The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum in DC is one of the best bonsai museums in the world outside of Japan. Some of the trees are older than the United States itself. The trees make you think about your own life and the generations of people who have worked on them, with each master gardener knowing that the tree would outlive them. Something fascinated me about this living, dynamic art form. I wanted to try my hand with a slower, more introspective project. In the end, I was trying to document the emotional experience of standing before these trees.

​©Stephen Voss

​©Stephen Voss

Stephen Voss Part 1 (approach to shooting two political portraits.)

Stephen Voss Part 2 (insurrection at the capitol.)

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