An Interview with Activist and Photographer Emma Cassidy
Behind the lens and on the frontlines
by Emma Cassidy
September 10, 2021
Greenpeace activist and photographer Emma Cassidy talks about her favorite Greenpeace images and the work she’s doing in the wider progressive movement
On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the first Greenpeace voyage, we asked Greenpeace activist and photographer Emma Cassidy a few questions about some favorite Greenpeace images and the work she’s doing in the wider progressive movement.
Thinking about your experiences as both an activist and as a photographer, why do you think the Resist banner and those images became so immediately iconic?
The Resist banner action was just a few days after inauguration, and it had been such an emotional week for so many people. There was this feeling in DC of frustration and disappointment and just wanting to do something. Inauguration Day was filled with protests in the streets of DC and the day after inauguration was the historic Women’s March. But then came the first few days of Trump in office, and this horrible new reality was starting to sink in. Seeing the word RESIST flying high in DC in view of the White House just spoke to that emotion that so many people were feeling. The main image taken by another GP photographer near the White House flew around social media that day. I saw it pop up on almost all of my friends’ Instagram accounts that day. It felt like everyone was sharing this photo to say yes, we too will resist this administration at every possible moment we can.
What is it like to get a call from Greenpeace asking you to join a ship tour or document an event? How do you prepare?
I get excited every time the phone rings and it’s Greenpeace calling, whether it is for actions or for photo assignments.
The best way to prepare to be an activist is to go to a Non-Violent Direct Action training or to attend Greenpeace Action Camp. At these trainings, activists can learn the skills they need to peacefully and effectively take action.
I’ve been part of many Greenpeace actions and have been on Greenpeace ships for four short tours, each about two weeks. There have been many very talented photographers that have sailed on Greenpeace ships and I feel so honored to have had the opportunity to join them, and hope to do it again someday.
As a freelance photographer, one thing I do to prepare is I always keep my camera batteries charged and my camera cards formatted so that I’m ready for last minute photo assignments. I also have dry bags for my camera gear and a camera harness that I use when on the RHIBs so that I can be sure my camera won’t go flying off my shoulder.
One of my cameras got soaked once when I was on a RHIB waiting to greet the Rainbow Warrior on the maiden voyage to New York City. It was winter in 2012 and we were in New York harbor in a rainstorm and I didn’t have good rain gear back then, but I did manage to get one usable shot before my camera died. Lesson learned. Bring two camera bodies and good rain gear, and always plan for the worst.
PEOPLE’S CLIMATE MARCH
Some people will only ever experience marches or rallies or GP actions through images like the ones you capture. Can you talk a bit about what it’s like to be in the middle of an event like the People’s Climate March or some of the other events you’ve been at as an activist?
The Peoples Climate March was a big moment for the environmental movement. It took place in 2014 while the UN was meeting to address climate change. Over 300,000 people marched in NYC and thousands more in cities around the world. Personally it felt like a big family reunion since it seemed like every activist I’d ever met was in New York that day. I was documenting the march for Survival Media Agency, which was one of my first big assignments with them. We had a team of five photographers all covering different contingencies. The march ended up being so massive that we couldn’t move around on the streets much to get to different locations. Some of my favorite shots from that day are the ones with the giant round colorful banners.
Another memorable and momentous action was in 2015 in Portland when Greenpeace activists blockaded a ship that was part of Shell’s drilling fleet headed to the arctic. The action was beautiful and the photos are quite memorable– the activists were climbing on the iconic St. Johns Bridge with colorful streamers blowing in the wind attached to each climber. It was exciting and inspiring to watch this action as the climbers faced down a giant ship, but it was also amazing to watch the people of Portland show up in support cheering on the climbers.
GULF OIL SPILL
What makes an image stick with you? When you’re looking at your own or photographs taken by others, what are the things that truly grab your attention?
When I think of the Gulf Oil Spill, the first image that comes to my mind is of pelicans covered with oil. I think this grabbed my attention because it’s just so unnatural and wrong. The environment shouldn’t have to suffer because of the greed of the fossil fuel industry, but it does, and these images showcase that truth.
There are many other images like this that I’ve seen over the years that show the tragedy of environmental disasters. They are sad and hard to look at, but they also spark a feeling that makes you want to do something to stop this from happening again. There is real power in those images and it shows the importance of bearing witness, which is something Greenpeace has been doing from that first voyage in 1971. Sometimes we don’t have the power to stop something from happening in the moment, like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf, but we can be there to witness it and share it with the world, and then hopefully with enough people on board we will have the power to stop it from happening again.
This essay is part of our Perspectives: Our Next Fifty Years series, in which we reflect briefly on our first fifty years, but more importantly, we lay out the future we are building together—collaborative, ambitious, and intersectional. The work ahead won’t be easy, but we’ve never shied away from hard work. We continue to push for policies that recognize the contributions and leadership of marginalized groups, and we amplify their voices, looking to their wisdom to show us the way. We hold corporations accountable, demanding real action that puts people ahead of profit. We work each day with our partners to co-create green, safe planet for all beings. We recognize that equality is not necessarily justice. We demand more from our leaders, from our colleagues, and from ourselves. A green and peaceful world isn’t just a slogan—it is our mission, and it takes each one of us to get there.