This image was taken on September 15, 2012, in Lisbon, Portugal. What is happening? It is obviously some kind of demonstration, part of a large public gathering. A placard, presumably bearing a political slogan, is being held up at the top of the image. And in the forefront, a young woman seems to be cursing a heavily armoured member of a riot squad, or maybe it’s an elite special force, a force trained to squash insurrection at its very core.
This image has been published in newspapers around the world for what it conveys about these two people. The picture is easy to decode in this sense: a vulnerable young woman will ultimately vanquish the much larger and invincible riot squad member – shielded by €35,000 worth of protective gear and holding a heavy, deadly truncheon valued at €2,500 that we cannot see – through sheer spirit. Via this image, we actually feel the fire in her eyes, and though we cannot see the eyes of the riot squad member, we know that he is cowering, that he fears this angry yet innocuous protester with died red hair – representative of the blaze in her belly, her politics, her social milieu. She has nothing but her beliefs; but she is a Goddess next this faceless porn, this callow, masked, heavily fortified riot policeman who is Greed’s last line of defence, who will ultimately fall to a pure and noble force that has come as if from nowhere.
But the politics that brought these people together – we may as well admit now that the picture depicts a scene from a protest against the harsh austerity measures demanded by banks in return for loans that will keep financially ruined Portugal liquid – are less interesting than the very complex relationships between the people in the image, relationships that could, it might be argued, add important flesh to the tired tale of a European debt crisis in which the troika, the evil triumvirate of the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, subjugate weak, vulnerable innocents in countries like Portugal for the sake of power and profits.
Of course, everything that follows is hearsay. But let’s pretend for a moment. Let’s look at the man to the immediate right of the young femme fatale, for instance, a bespectacled man aged over 50, say 25 years her senior, who is wearing a t-shirt that is worn by other people in the image, maybe protest organisers. The t-shirt has the word “Troika” written in gold, along with some other words which in Portuguese most likely read something like “Fuck the Troika”, which is how this and similar protests were billed at the time.
Let’s look again at this man and the way he is looking at the woman. The aggressive flexing of her rosebud lips, the absolute righteousness of her words transfixes him. She strikes him, not only as saint-like, but as the apotheosis of the real woman he has been searching for his entire life, the woman whose raging, subterranean sexuality redefines the very word.
The look on the man’s face is one of post-epiphany bewilderment, of someone who has made a very sudden realization; that there are very good people still in this world, angels somehow watching over us.
In fact, the man knows this woman, had met her at campaign meetings to organise the “Fuck the Troika” protest. She was from anther socialist group, the members of which were mostly very young, and he was struck by her passion, her visceral anger that made he and his more established Communist cohorts seem a little tame. But he had not, at this point, been dumbstruck by her. She was ultimately another young high-minded radical who would at some point see some reality.
They even talked intimately once in the bar where the comrades would go to relax after meetings, and he treated her in an almost fatherly way, a way that she believed was a little patronising, she having respect for this man who she knew had fought the fascists in the 70s.
To the right of this man a younger man, say about 30, is taking a photo of the woman as she seems to accuse the riot policeman of something, maybe of striking out against the protesters for no reason, or for just being there, for representing everything that she despises.
The younger man is using an analogue camera, a little incongruous in the digital age. His right eye is therefore close up to the camera as he takes the inverse of the shot that we can see. But the man does not take the image. As he focuses, he too is transfixed.
The young man comes across as a protester-cum-camera enthusiast who is straining to capture an important moment in the drama of this seminal day, a day in which the Portuguese people will finally say ‘enough’, will finally end the subjugation propping up the cartel of financial institutions, EU governments and rich Portuguese who continue to grow their money in Swiss banks.
Earlier that day, for instance, the young man taking the photo thought often that Deutsche Bank again made a ridiculous profit last year of 5.2 billion euro – in the so-called midst of the crisis. But this thought is erased as he sets his focus on the finger the woman is pointing at the riot policeman, a finger that is a bone. All the cameraman feels now is uncertainty, as if this woman’s fearlessness has turned his world over and over and henceforth his world may never again find its balance. She has changed the rules of the game and I have been naive he thinks to himself. In a sense he cannot believe what he is seeing, and as much as he strains to capture the scene, he now believes that no image will ever do it justice.
There are two other men in this scene who have a more integral role in the drama. Both are wearing sunglasses, one standing to the left and behind the woman, his face partly obscured by her red hair – not for the first time – and wearing the same “Fuck the Troika” t-shirt as the older man; and the man at the rear of the image, seemingly tall, whose shaved head fronts the bottom right of the placard.
Both these young men wearing sunglasses are not looking at the woman as she abuses the riot policeman. In this moment, they are more concerned about each other.
The man to the left of the woman whose face is obscured by her hair for not the first time is part of the group of young socialists mentioned above. Like she, he is also a charismatic leader of the group, a bright and committed man with a strong ego, strong enough to suggest to the woman that they get together, even if she always insisted that she had a boyfriend who she loved, to which he would reply that their lovemaking was for the revolution, was destiny and so on.
It is obvious by now that the man wearing sunglasses at the rear of the photo is the woman’s said boyfriend, and that he can only look at the other man in this epochal moment. The boyfriend desperately wants to see how the other man views the woman at this time, to see once-and-for-all if he really loves her. But the man to the left of the woman, the third wheel so to speak, knows that these eyes are on him. And so he looks the other way.
But this is also a ruse. The charismatic male leader of the socialist group that helped organise the protest with other sometimes more experienced leftist groups, feels a little threatened by this woman’s sudden, monumental show of bravery. He is not transfixed like the older man, or the young camera man, because all he can think in this moment is that he should be facing off with the riot policeman. But he turns away knowing that he never could.
We can gather from this image that the boyfriend is the nice and decent guy, but that the egotistical and cowardly guy will ultimately lead the revolution, like the guy who now is leading Portugal. And what will become of the woman? There are so many possibilities. For now, she has stood up, she has told the truth, which is what she did with her boyfriend following her past transgression. She has swallowed her pride, her self-doubt, giving herself absolutely to this moment, making one true articulation for her people; but as we can see in the image, the men, all dumb in their way, still have the numbers.