Calm Amidst a Storm: The Defiant Impact of an Iconic Protest Image

An iconic image has the power to travel far beyond its original context, blurring the line between its photographer, subject and audience. Who takes credit for the impact of a powerful photograph, and what can it reveal about our current moment?


That image hurtled through the internet during the politically-fraught month of June, 2017. It can be difficult to picture times pre-Covid, let alone three years ago, so I’ll refresh your memory. The UK, plunged into a bubbling vat of Brexit-induced populism, had just emerged scarred from the London Bridge terror attacks, but the fire that engulfed Grenfell Tower was still a preventable tragedy. At a time when Islamophobic attacks were on the rise, what the country sorely needed was a symbol of hope.

Miraculously, it came in the form of a young woman, dressed in a Specials t-shirt, smirking in the face of an English Defence League protester. During a far-right demonstration in Birmingham city centre, Saffiyah Khan had stepped in to defend a woman who, after declaring them racist, had been angrily surrounded by protestors.

The image, captured by Joe Giddens, stands as a simultaneously poignant and empowering metaphor for the surge of right wing sentiment that was taking over Britain, bringing with it division, violence, and inequality. At a time where hate crimes against minorities were increasing at an exponential rate, to see an Muslim woman stand her ground armed only with a slight, amused smile proved that fury and noise does not always equate to power.


“Women of colour are often at the forefront of protests, perpetuating a calm image amidst a storm of anger”

Women of colour are often at the forefront of protests, perpetuating a calm image amidst a storm of anger. Jonathan Bachman’s photograph of Ieshia Evans standing tranquil while confronted by law enforcement in Baton Rouge, USA, similarly went viral in 2016, and was lauded for illustrating the contrast between the demeanour of Evans and the police.

The photograph depicted Evans stood completely straight, elbows bent at the waist, her dress flowing gently in the wind. It’s a profile shot, and her glasses obscure her eyes slightly, so you can’t tell whether they’re open or closed, adding an air of mystery to an otherwise clear cut scene. The figures rushing towards her juxtapose her posture completely, clad in heavy, black riot gear complete with face shields and bulletproof vests—a seemingly ridiculous amount of equipment opposite a woman clad in a thin sundress.

The impact of the image featuring Saffiyah Khan shot her to fame—in the last three years she’s toured with The Specials, modelled at London Fashion week and enjoyed a spot on 2017’s Dazed 100 lineup. A picture says a thousand words, as the phrase goes, and this is amplified by today’s internet—if the reach of your image is multiplied by hundreds of thousands, there can be huge gains for the subject. However, there is surprisingly little credit given online to the photographer, Joe Giddens—instead, Khan has reaped much of the benefit. Similarly, Jonathan Bachman, the photographer who shot the Baton Rouge image, received limited personal exposure for his work.


“The viral force of the internet leaves little time for credit, critique or context to be attached to a photo that is circulating at speed”

Often, images that gain quick notoriety can engulf their maker. The viral force of the internet leaves little time for credit, critique or context to be attached to a photo that is circulating at speed. Some would argue that it was Khan who performed the heroic act, and therefore rightly deserves this fame, while Giddens did little more than be in the right place at the right time. As a news photographer, his job is to capture notable events. This begs the question, should the magic of an image be credited to its subject, its creator or indeed its audience?

Add the throwaway and instantaneous nature of the internet as a distributor, and it’s easy to see the many elements that come together to create a viral image. Take away the subject, and the image means nothing—do the same with the photographer and the image doesn’t exist. But without the internet connecting a large audience to the work, it remains simply a news image of another protest. The rapid sharing acts as a system of validation; evidence that the photograph is inciting mass reaction. Can a piece of art be created unintentionally, borne out of a true collaboration between the creator, the subject and the internet?