A historic day in the fight for climate justice – photographs from Cop26 protests in Glasgow

Glasgow-based artist Flannery O’Kafka spent the day documenting those involved in the Global Day of Action for Climate Justice, as 100,000 people took to the streets of Cop26’s host city.

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On Saturday 6 November, a day that marked the halfway point of Cop26, protests were held across the globe by those demanding faster and more decisive action against climate change by world leaders. On the streets of Glasgow, the climate change summit’s host city, organisers estimate over 100,000 people marched the streets, starting in Kelvingrove Park and ending at Glasgow Green.

Their demands were clear and loud: place the planet over profit and take action now. Instruments accompanied the various groups and a chant that has become synonymous with Cop26 could be heard: “No more blah blah blah”. In true Glasgow fashion, it rained nearly all day but those involved in the Global Day of Action for Climate Justice could not be swayed. Much of society is angry and desperate for its leaders to have the courage to incite real change. The past decade has been the warmest on record and if we’re to avoid a climate catastrophe, there is serious work to be done to keep global warming at 1.5C (a figure which is still alarming). We need to end deforestation, cut methane emissions, and shift from fuel sources like coal and oil to sustainable options. Funding needs to be shifted towards the Global South to reduce emissions and tackle the effects of climate change. Developing countries tend to pollute less per head of population and are not responsible for most of the past emissions but are adversely affected by the negative impacts of climate change. Climate action cannot be separated from social justice.

What’s clear is that we need to go beyond Cop. These two weeks should give us momentum and the protests, if anything, prove that the power lies with civil society and community action – not the Cop process. Still, it was an inspiring day that confirmed overwhelming public opinion with regards to climate change, and it’s hard to not feel somewhat hopeful in light of such a large demonstration of outrage.

Flannery O’Kafka is an artist based in Glasgow working predominantly with photography. Having grown up “on the banks of the Ohio River in the lap of the American Suburban Dream,” she now calls Glasgow home having lived in the city for 19 years and having graduated from Glasgow School of Art in 2018. “I’m autistic, have rampant ADHD, and also have a physical disability that makes me painfully bendy, so although I am quite idealistic in my beliefs about community action and solidarity, I am often literally an armchair activist,” they tell It’s Nice That. We sent Flannery to photograph the march through their detail-oriented, observational approach to document a historic day in the fight for climate justice. Below, we chat with her about what she experienced.

It’s Nice That: What did you know about Cop26 before this project?

Flannery O’Kafka: I had been reading up on things, but it all felt very abstract; a conference, a summit, a gathering, a big conversation.... people sitting around a huge boardroom table like in the old Batman films? Lots of private jets involved? It felt inaccessible and not like something that would touch many of our lives... what had been more present to most people I know are the road closures and the separate fringe events, protests, and exhibitions happening. It felt like most people were feeling an urgency to respond to something we don’t understand.

To be honest, the luxury that some people in the world (including myself) have for the climate crisis to all be theoretical is astounding. We can choose to engage or not. Many of those who have travelled here from the Global South are risking Covid-19, trusting translators, and standing face to face with their oppressors because it is a very real emergency in their lives and homes.

INT: Can you talk us through any research you did before heading to the protests?

FO: I looked a lot at the work of one of my favourite artists, Sister Corita Kent, who you could argue was always making protest signs. This greatly influenced the photographs I made on the day – I found myself looking for her colours and also looking to embody somehow her belief that “doing and making are acts of hope.”  

I spent some time looking at resources from an exhibition in Glasgow (2014) about politically engaged graphic design. I also looked at trade union banners and read articles about the possibility of Covid-19 rates increasing after the march (which I find fascinating and beautiful – that people essentially risk their lives in emergencies).

My PAs spent a lot of time liaising with the accessibility team and press team to make the day accessible for me. There’s a real desire in Glasgow to make activism more accessible – we have a very long way to go, but I was able to see some progress in this direction.

In the week before the march, I’ve been talking a lot with a friend here who has been translating for some of the indigenous families who have come to Glasgow.  

Truthfully, there has been so much going on, I have only been able to engage with a tiny corner of it all. Balancing being disabled and chronically ill, I mostly spent my energy resting for the day and researching best practices with photographing protests. The activist community is very strong in Glasgow and there was a lot of information sharing and cooperative action leading up to the protests. 

INT: What was the atmosphere like on the day? Were there any surprises?

FO: Well, rain is never a surprise in Glasgow, but it was very wet. It was a bit like a street carnival at times: brass bands, dancing, lots of hugging and the blocs shouting in different languages. The march started and ended in two big city green spaces, and there were people of every age and seemingly every nation. After years of no tourists in Glasgow, it was a bit overwhelming in a nice way. I usually can’t tolerate crowds or noise, but it was very different. The usual capitalistic competition felt in everyday life was replaced by cooperation. A glimpse of a Socialist dream, ha.

It was also so good to see so many people I know marching. It felt at times like a flash of the Queer communal utopias that many of my friends and I scheme about and work toward.

INT: Can you point out any highlights (or lowlights) from the day?

FO: I was mostly at the beginning of the march, as each bloc set off, so the energy was high and hopeful. The only exception to the spirit of the day that I experienced was the police presence, complete with intimidating circling helicopters overhead. There was an obvious increase in police numbers at the beginning of a Black migrant justice bloc and real heavy-handedness with the Young Communist League. From the very beginning, the police were moving them quicker than any other group and eventually kettled them and detained everyone for an hour, and filmed them. For this reason, I have blurred faces in photos.

One of the absolute best things about this particular march in my experience was that the speaking platform seemed to be entirely devoted to those in racially marginalised communities. The entire march began with Indigenous voices. Minga Indígena is demanding to centre climate justice as an outcome of Cop26. Along with other communities and climate change activists, they have demanded a “Justice Reset”.

“We bring a message from the sun, the moon, and the stars to declare that all destruction and injustices must end and a new conversation begins. Our voices matter, our wisdom matters, and we can help repair the earth together. You must see us to make it happen.”

INT: How did you approach photographing the protests? What were you looking for? Did you interact with your subjects at all?

FO: As you can imagine, there are thousands of photographs online of the march, and I tried to work in a way to make images that wouldn’t be made by others – more of an emotional document of the day; the rain and the wind and the uncanny bits as opposed to straight documentary or journalism. I was looking for Sister Corita Kent colours. I was also looking for a few other things: people interacting with the natural environment (including just being soaked in rain), people touching, fabric, quiet moments and strange moments. It was pouring during most of the march and extremely windy at times, so banners and flags and fabrics became twisted whilst cardboard disintegrated and a lot of text was obscured… so it became more about photographing the materials of a protest march in a way. I also ended up with rain on and in my camera, so there is at times a blur or softness – in general, there are a lot of details that make up a whole, which is generally how I work, specifically as an Autistic person.

I mostly interacted with everyone I photographed. Sometimes it was a short smile, other times it was learning where they were from and why they were here. I was mindful of anyone averting their face from cameras and made sure they were not identifiable. 

INT: Do any specific moments from the day stand out?

FO: One of the amazing things I noticed was that everyone had the same aim, the same concerns, we were walking in the same direction. Maybe this is love? I’m not sure I’ve ever been in a more gentle mob, ha. 

Although the desire is there, it was painfully clear to me speaking with other disabled folks about accessibility, that we have a long way to go. The concept of intersectionality needs to keep being discussed until certain people are not an afterthought… the day and many of the Cop26 protest events were still largely inaccessible. 

A few of my favourite things: exchanging a few words about how love is stronger than money with a stranger in a skull mask and then having a really nice hug; speaking to children about their signs; the way some people are so flattered and surprised when you ask if you can take a photograph; the raindrops on glasses. I do think my absolute favourite thing was seeing people I know in the march and hugging, waving, or just smiling if our hands were busy with signs or instruments or cameras. 

INT: What do you hope your images say about the fight for climate justice?

FO: I know I’m naive and idealistic, but I hope people feel hope from these images. I like this Jeremey Deller bit of an interview from a Frieze article in 2017: “How important is art as a form of protest? ‘Very.’ How effective is it as a conduit of change? ‘It’s not clear to me, to be honest, but it has to help.’” In the tradition of Mister Rogers, I always try to be a helper, and making these photographs is my way of helping. 

And Sister Corita again: “It is a huge danger to pretend that awful things do not happen. But you need enough hope to keep going. I am trying to make hope.”

From one of the Indigenous elders, my friend translated these words: “If we can try, you can” and I hope that maybe this reminds us all to try – to dismantle harmful internal beliefs and take collective action against colonising patriarchal systems that oppress and destroy the most vulnerable in our world, systems that perpetuate and protect the money and power of bullies.

I also hope some of the images are a little bit funny. I believe this Bell Hooks quote is absolutely right: “We cannot have a meaningful revolution without humour.”

Response & Responsibility – Cop26

During the next two weeks, over 120 world leaders are meeting in Glasgow to agree on the actions needed to pull the earth back from the brink of a climate catastrophe. The most important conference of our lifetime, in response, we are exploring creative responses to the climate crisis throughout the duration of Cop26.

Read the full series

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About the Author

Ruby Boddington

Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor. Get in contact with Ruby about ideas you may have for long-form stories on the site.

rbd@itsnicethat.com

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