"Trial by Fire"

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Trial by Fire A 15-Year Old Neophyte Photographer Grows Up Quickly During A Final Spectacle in the Waning Days of Hippydom. Article and Photos by John Elliott

The national media was buzzing and the nectar that summer of 1972 was a double dose of news practically in my back yard: the Democratic and Republican conventions in Miami Beach. Everyone in Florida seemed either excited or apprehensive about the focus to the south, just a couple of bus rides from the Coral Gables home where I lived with my parents and two sisters. I had just become interested in photography earlier that year, and the important events seemed to me to be the perfect forge for my imperfect skills. From occasional film clips on the local news, everyone was reminded that four years earlier, the previous national conventions in Chicago triggered national outrage at the oppressive brutality of police countering anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. So I suspected there would be many interesting scenes to capture on film.

and enjoyed the photography of Life Magazine. I particularly appreciated a Life book we owned, The Family of Man, with its vibrant and emotional studies of people from around the world.

It had been just a few months since I had learned the science and a little more about the art of photography–as part of an architecture/drafting class in junior high school. But as a child, I had absorbed

moted by his administration as “Vietnamization”) had already failed, and the daily toll of scores of war casualties, media coverage of all aspects of horror, and fresh and more detailed revelations of the

So, In spite of the numerous misgivings of my mother, I would set off one sun-baked morning with camera bag and just 5 rolls of black-and-white film and soon found myself deboarding my final bus My first camera, a Miranda Sensorex 35mm, was a and walking toward the Miami Beach Convention far cry from a pro’s Nikon or Leica, and I had just Center. It was my trial by fire and would be the first one lens. I had forsaken purchasing any additional of two sojourns to a spectacle which would form a equipment so I could invest in a decent darkroom foundation for my romance with photography as a enlarger, which I set up in my bedroom closet. Now creative outlet and communications tool. I felt I could do it all, but my actual photography The vibrancy of the anti-Vietnam War movement, in experience was minimal, consisting of exposing a all its confrontational colors, would reach its climax few rolls with images of pets and school friends. that summer. Nixon’s “peace with honor” plan (pro-

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Trial by Fire and the dressing of the main stage. I observed and snapped photos as a spry, young news reporter and his crew filmed his initial on-camera story on the event, and later identified him from his national appearances as television reporter Ted Koppel.

one, in which I was in the middle, protestors tried to take over a city bus but were repelled by city policemen in riot gear. Tear gas charges were fired and I escaped down a street with part of the youthful faction. In another, an angry and shocked crowd formed around a luxury Cadillac carrying delegates, Virtually everyone there that summer recalled the which had plowed through protestors blocking its previous contentious and violent Democratic 1968 passage to the convention, injuring various youths convention in Chicago, and both “the police” and and at least one very severely. Perhaps I wasn’t protestors were thus anticipating similar confronta- emotionally prepared for the traumatic scene, so tions. Certainly, many in the demonstrating faction I focused instead on a resting hubcap which had had also been present in Chicago four years earlier. hurtled off the car upon impact; my film never revealed the blood and anguish I witnessed.

I was awed by the energy and creativity of the protesters I had seen, first-hand, anti-war demonstrations in New York City when I lived there until 1970, and also saw like confrontations on television, but nothing would prepare me for the first-hand violence, nor the sting of tear gas on my face. Police sirens and the throb of police helicopters added to the high level of tension. My Lai massacre had mobilized millions of young Americans to sojourn south to the site of national spotlights, where Revolution might just take place.

administration or various aspects of the militaryindustrial establishment. Signs were nearly always hand painted (“Drop Seeds Not Bombs!” and “Stop What I saw was always fascinating and sometimes Repression”), and I witnessed various aspects of shocking to this 15-year old. I never knew what preparations and mobilization. to expect from one moment to the next, because On my initial visit, I arrived a day before the first convention officially opened and wandered toward the convention center. It was well guarded on the front, but when I found myself at there were so many energies pressing into an area the rear of the building, I noticed that busses were of just five square blocks. Often I would just walk able to pull up to a large door and that area was around and witness some phases of a marched ad- less guarded. Timing my entry carefully, I was able vance toward the convention building by hippies, to hide behind a moving bus as it passed through “Yippies (Youth International Party),” and other a gate and thus I was able to gain access to the factions which were angrily denouncing the Nixon building. Once inside, perhaps it was my camera and equipment bag that gave me the freedom to walk by the police and guards without being detained, but certainly there was far less security than in present times.

Timing my entry carefully, I was able to gain access to the building

I was fascinated by the myriad preparations for the week of conventioneering, the placement of signs identifying each state, the orchestra rehearsing, the parade of reporters making preliminary reports,

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Another confrontation on a later day also impressed me: an anti-war demonstrator found a beautiful specimen of an American flag on a flagpole (probably liberated from a local Kiwanis Club or the like) and proceeded to lead a group of marchers while symbolically holding the flag upside down. Some local residents were duly enraged and one of them, a man of perhaps 70, vainly attempted to wrest the eagle-tipped object from the protestor’s hand; a melee ensued and the older man received a bloody gash on his head.

During the various marches and cycles of demonstrating, I observed pitched battles throughout a I was awed and inspired by the energy and creativ20-block area centered on the convention center. In ity of the protestors and especially by the participa-

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Trial by Fire tion of women and teenaged girls there. It was possibly the first time I personally witnessed women in militant leadership positions, yet ironically their cause was pacifism. Women were in the middle of everything, from peaceful and symbolic communication of causes for gender equality, to the most angry and strident exhortations against the war. Many

I listened with interest to various speeches by wellknown radical leaders such as Abbie Hoffman, and followed reporters and news photographers trailing author Norman Mailer. In this way, I slowly began to learn more about the political situation and better understand the history that unfolded at arm’s length.

Soon, the tennis courts and ficus groves near the Convention Center became scenes of vigorous debates, tempered to a friendly level by what seemed to me to be the mellow ritual of feminists women walked around bare-breasted for reefer-sharing. Again, I was familiar with the concept either comfort or symbolic effect and would only of recreational drugs from scenes I observed in my receive shocked looks from the resident retirees, earlier years in NYC, but since the youthful visitors for at that time Miami Beach was still a sleepy city were in such large numbers and their preference was known mainly for its aged population, kitchy hotels primarally a benign marijuana, the police seemed to and tourist beaches. generally ignore the peaceful smokers and I saw no

The resilience of the protestors and the determination of “The Establishment” repeatedly met in a final paroxism of certainty in that summer

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Trial by Fire arrests to break their reverie. It was a summer of learning for me, about social perspectives, human interaction, the power of people to effect change. I would see similar scenes of unrest and confrontation in subsequent years, during annual riots at my college, Ohio University (which commemorated the Kent State Massacre) protests against primate experiments and animal cruelty at Emory University, and at anti-American demonstrations in Panama. The summer of ‘72, however, became particularly poignant for me, for I discovered that soon the masses of youth would allow their

idealism to wane and by the time I was in college, the focus was less on the world and more on personal stability in the face of rising unemployment and materialism. Although the ‘72 conventions in Miami Beach became one of the last spectacles of the waning days of the Hippies, Yippies and Zippies, I would personally become involved in the anti-apartheid campaigns, political races, the environmental and global climate change causes, and scores of animal rights demonstrations. But it would be more than a quarter-century until the revolutionary fervor of the 60s and early ‘70s would even remotely approach the galvanizing energy of the anti-Vietnam war era, during protests against the domination of world bankers or the Iraq War. To my utter disappointment, I spent much of my college years relegated to small events promoting social amelioration that were deemed either too idealistic or irrelevant by the majority of my own generation of teens. But the experience of viewing the activities and milieu at the ‘72 conventions through my camera viewfinder did form the basis for my career as a magazine photojournalist, advertising photographer and my lifelong artistic passion for documenting peoples of the world. It taught me how miraculous a still image can be in capturing both the larger context and fascinating details of time and place. The resilience of the protestors and the determination of The Establishment repeatedly met in a final paroxism of certainty in that summer, and I was forever changed as a person and a photographer.

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