Q+A The People’s Photographer: Joe Brusky

By Ari Bloomekatz

Rethinking Schools frequently uses photos by Joe Brusky and they are featured prominently in this issue. He is interviewed here by Rethinking Schools managing editor Ari Bloomekatz.

Rethinking Schools: How did you get started photographing social movements, education activism, and teacher strikes?

Joe Brusky: My first experience was during the Wisconsin Uprising in 2011, when I started taking photos with a cheap point-and-shoot camera. I wasn’t a photographer at the time, but it felt powerful being among so many people fighting for justice, together in the same place, chanting and singing in the Capitol Rotunda — so I started documenting some of it. And I was surprised to learn how many people saw the photos and wanted to learn more and I was surprised when people were interested in what I had to say.

During the Uprising I participated in a POWER Walk from Milwaukee to Madison, during which I wore a piece of red fabric pinned to my backpack with the names of all my students written on it. I had so many students that it was hard to fit them all, and the fabric nearly reached the ground. That was a long walk! By the end I was in a lot of pain, and I helped other people understand what it was like by sharing a photo of my feet in a bathtub full of ice.

After the Uprising came the Occupy movement, and then the Overpass Light Brigade. I kept taking photos and learning by doing. I also started documenting events for my union, the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, and I was eventually released from my classroom full time to take a newly created Social Media Membership Organizer position. We used this new position to document and livestream school board meetings, and to tell the stories of other movements for justice — Fight for $15, Coalition for Justice, Voces de la Frontera. Other unions started to request my photography and social media help during strikes, including United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the Oakland Education Association (OEA), and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU).

RS: How do you prepare for photographing a strike? 

JB: The most important thing is to tell the workers’ story and why their fight is worthy. This means reading up on the details of the strike, working with the union’s communications team to identify subjects to shoot or interview, and mapping out the best spots to shoot along any march routes. But it also means getting to know the workers who are involved in the strike.

For example, before the Los Angeles strike I talked to one teacher named Joel Parkes about a shooting that happened in his school. They had no school nurse on duty that day, and he had to tie off the arm of the student who got shot with a tourniquet in order to stop the blood loss. I hear a lot of stories about the impacts of not having access to basic services and supplies, and since I’ve seen a lot of the same issues in my own classroom I can put myself in other teachers’ shoes. Whether in Los Angeles or Milwaukee, teachers are on the front lines — and so when they take to the streets, I take amplifying their message very seriously.

RS: How do you think about the photography work you do in classrooms and with teachers?

JB: When I was still working full time in the classroom, I felt like the story of educators wasn’t being told. The local news focused on negative developments in the district, yet I saw positive things happening every day in my school that got little to no attention. This one-sided narrative fostered a negative view of teachers, and eventually cleared the way for anti-union legislation, like the union-busting Act 10 introduced by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in 2011.

I think using photography to tell the stories of educators and their students is incredibly important. So when I was released from the classroom I created a media request on our website so that union members could request my attendance in their classroom or at events, and we got permission from the district to post photos from inside schools on social media. Our union’s public Facebook page now has a steady stream of positive stories and images. Members love seeing them, and the district has seen an upward trend in positive attitudes. My photos put a face on those doing the work in our schools and helps tell their stories.

I remember documenting an event at a school for a teacher who after I finished the shoot discovered they were not a member of the union. I informed the teacher my position was funded by the dues of union members. She immediately saw the value and signed right up!

RS: How do you feel your photos and videos impact movements for social justice?

JB: When the mainstream media sends a photographer to an event, you will often see the photographer get a few photos and leave. In contrast, I embed myself in the crowd and stay for the entire event. I try to really capture the passion of participants, so that people viewing from afar feel an emotional connection to the movement. I also allow the groups organizing the action to use my photos to advance their cause.

After the event, I post my photos online under a non-commercial Creative Commons license. This means that anyone can use my photos for nonprofit purposes, with attribution. This allows other unions, social movements, and nonprofits to use the images and videos free of charge. It also gets my photos on the radar screen of news outlets looking for images to accompany stories. The Flickr page where I post my photos has well over 10 million views, and I also post my work on many different social media platforms to help spread the stories of social movements far and wide.

RS: Can you tell us about a couple of your favorite photos from the teacher strikes?

JB: My favorite one came from the UTLA strike in January 2019. I was fortunate to capture a portrait of special education teacher Vivian Odega in a sea of striking educators in a bright red coat and hat, with her fist in the air in response to a speaker. Vivian’s confident, powerful pose really captured the essence of the teachers fighting to win a better future for their students.

I also love taking photos of the colorful 24-foot parachutes that my union and others have been painting at art builds prior to actions. During marches these parachutes are carried and repeatedly thrust into the air, which allows children — and the young at heart — to run underneath before the parachute returns to the ground. This adds a playful element to protest photos and creates beautiful optics. These are some of my favorite photos because they show the joy that can come from collectively fighting for change.

RS: A lot of people who know you and your work call you “the people’s photographer.” How do you feel about the title?

JB: I feel deeply honored when people call me that — it’s hard to imagine a higher compliment! To be successful, social movements need many people playing different roles, and I am happy to be able to contribute my skills by amplifying important struggles for justice led by others. I feel really grateful to be able to spend my time doing this work.

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