Collection Explore
Interview
Isaac Scott
on Documenting Protest in Philadelphia

On September 2, 2020, artist Isaac Scott attended Dayton Director Ian Berry’s Art History course “The Artist Interview” via Zoom. This interview was part of a series of interviews with artists conducted by Berry for the online exhibition Pandemic and Protest.


Ian Berry
While documenting protests in Philadelphia, organized by Black Lives Matter and other groups in the summer of 2020 following George Floyd’s murder, you created an important archive to share information and stay connected during that fraught time. Seeing your images online was a bolt of energy and a somber acknowledgement of the intensity and urgency of that historic moment. Let’s start at the beginning. Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

Isaac Scott
I was born in Quincy, Illinois, which is at the westernmost tip of Illinois, right on the Mississippi. It’s very segregated, mostly white and conservative. My parents separated when I was twelve and I went to live in Madison, Wisconsin, which is a very liberal place and was definitely a culture shock. I feel like I actually grew up in Madison.

I went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison and shortly after graduating, I moved to Seattle. Mostly, I just wanted to get out of Wisconsin and get out of the cold. I did whatever I could to stay in the studio and make ceramics while I was out in Seattle. Then, I was invited to apply to grad school at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, a part of Temple University, by one of the professors there, Roberto Lugo.

IB
Could you say a little bit more about the environment you grew up in, and how art entered your life?

IS
There aren’t any artists on the white side or the Black side of my family. That wasn’t a life path that was available to me. When I got to Madison, I was exposed to more types of people: more open minded, friendlier, less racist. I took a pottery class in my junior year of high school, which was the beginning of my wanting to make art and be creative.

IB
Were there artists or teachers that were influential to you?

IS
I had a really good and important teacher in high school named Phil Lyons. In college, I actually studied philosophy, so I didn’t go to school for art at all. I made all my ceramics outside of school and figured things out on my own. I never really trusted art school and I’m still kind of skeptical of it.

IB
You started taking photographs after COVID-19 closed everything down. What was that moment like for you as a grad student at Tyler?

IS
It really sucked because I had a show coming up at NCECA (National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts) that was supposed to take place in Richmond, Virginia. Richmond has a street called Monument Avenue that is home to giant Confederate monuments, some of which are being taken down right now. I wanted to make a show that was in response to the racial climate and everything that’s happening. I wanted to respond to those monuments, so I curated a show that included me and other artists of color from around the country. We all wanted to make large-scale ceramic works that spoke to our own personal experiences with monuments.

I made a twelve-foot ceramic sculpture that replicates a statue that is on top of the Capitol building in Wisconsin, where I’m from. Showing it at the conference was going to be a huge statement. Then, I got the news that the conference was canceled, and a few days later, school was shut down, too. I went from preparing for a big show to not even having a studio and just being at home. I was taking my first photography class at the time, so I turned to that as my creative outlet when I was stuck at home.

IB
What prompted you to go out and photograph around Philadelphia?

IS
Philadelphia is a rough-looking but beautiful place. There are all these brick reds and rust reds and browns that make it an interesting landscape. I was going on long walks, taking pictures of stuff that I thought was interesting. I started posting on Instagram as a place to document and show my work.

Then, George Floyd was murdered, and protests started breaking out all over the country. The following Saturday, May 30, I went to the first protest in Philadelphia and I brought my camera. It was like nothing I had experienced before. I had been to plenty of protests, but you could tell from what was happening that day and what was happening around the country that this was not a typical protest. It was not going to stop that day. So, I kept going to protests and kept bringing my camera.

IB
When did it become a project?

IS
I knew it had to be documented. I knew it was important that I take pictures of what was happening. History was happening. This is history. I didn’t really think it through beyond that.

2020 33 7 pr gal w01
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Isaac Scott (born Quincy, Illinois, 1990)
June 4th, 2020. Philadelphia Museum of Art Steps, 2020
archival pigment print
The Jack Shear Collection of Photography at the Tang Teaching Museum
2020.33.7

IB
One of the images you made as a print for the Tang is a sea of people lying flat on the ground, head to toe. What was happening in this moment?

IS
This was at the end of a protest during that first week, at the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was June 4, and everybody lay down for eight minutes and forty-six seconds as a moment of silence in honor of George Floyd. It was a powerful moment, in part, because eight minutes and forty-six seconds is a long-ass time. It was a really hot day, everybody was tired. The ground was hot. You could see everyone’s discomfort at being on the ground for that long. I think it really hit home for many. Some people stood up crying at the end of it.

IB
There is also a wider view that shows a park filled with people as far as you can see. It looks like you might be standing on the same steps. Was this also that day?

IS
Those are the same steps, but this was on June 6. It was the biggest protest by far that happened in Philly. Over 100,000 people showed up. The march went from the Philadelphia Museum of Art down to City Hall. By the time the protest actually started moving, the crowd stretched the whole way from the PMA to City Hall. I walked through the mass of people to the top of the steps and took this picture.

IB
Why choose Instagram as the way to share these?

IS
If there’s a place for photos, I think Instagram is it. It’s where you get the most eyes on images. My goal was to have a broader context for what’s happening because I feel that what people see in the news is watered down and doesn’t speak to the humanity of the people who are out there.

I wanted to take pictures that reflect the energy of these moments: to humanize and get people to look at the protesters, the leaders, and the organizers a little differently.

2020 33 10 pr gal w01
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Isaac Scott (born Quincy, Illinois, 1990)
June 1st, 2020. 22nd St and Benjamin Franklin Pkwy, 2020
archival pigment print
The Jack Shear Collection of Photography at the Tang Teaching Museum
2020.33.10

IB
Another image in the Tang group is what looks like a potentially violent image of people climbing over a tall iron fence during an altercation. What’s happening here?

IS
This was the second protest I went to, on June 1, and it was another big one with thousands of people. It was a peaceful protest marching through the streets, but once we made it out onto the highway, cops in riot gear with military vehicles emerged. They surrounded us very quickly and started shooting people with rubber bullets, tear gas canisters, and mace. I was toward the back of the march, so I just saw all these people running toward me suddenly, “What’s happening? What’s happening?”

I could start to feel the mace and tear gas in the air, so I made my way off the highway. As I got up onto a grassy embankment, a tear gas canister hit five feet to my left. It was hard to breathe and I started coughing immediately. The tear gas went up my mask, right into my eyes. My lungs were on fire, my face was on fire. I couldn’t see anything as I waded my way through the crowd, until some guy came over and dumped milk on my face.

I tried to collect myself and went down the street and found a scene of people who had gotten trapped on the highway. They were cornered and the cops were shooting rubber bullets and tear gas at them. They were screaming and climbing on top of each other, pushing each other up over the fence. People on the other side were trying to catch them and dump water on their faces. Everybody was shouting and it was just pure chaos. The craziest thing was that no one was fighting back; the cops just started firing at people. On the other side of the fence, they were dragging people down and beating them. It was the most horrific thing I’ve ever seen.

IB
You got very close to the police in many of these images. In one, you are at the front of a line of protesters who are pushed right up against a wall of police in riot gear.

IS
Yes, this was the first day of protests. It was a wild day. There were a bunch of bike cops that formed a line in front of the group I was part of. You could see these guys warming up to bust people over the head. It was crazy to watch them stretch before they started charging at us, in two lines. People started yelling, “White bodies to the front,” and all these young, small, white women, jumped right in front of me and locked arms. The cops stopped in their tracks and didn’t come any further.

That first week was the most amazing, hope-filled moment because there is no better response to the brutality that we saw on June 1. I was so inspired.

IB
You’re not a seasoned war photographer or trained in photojournalism: how did you deal with the pressures of people being uneasy around your camera?

IS
I was aware of the dangers associated with people asking me not to photograph faces. With the police, I don’t really care; I would walk up to officers and take pictures of them all the time. With protesters, though, I tried to put out photos of the organizers only, or of the people who were at the front of the marches because there are already whole files on them somewhere. I am mindful of not putting out images of people that are identifiable.

Malchijah Hoskins ’22
I notice how you capture Black joy in some of your images. What do you see as the relationship between Black joy and resistance?

IS
That’s a great question. It’s the key, right? When videos of Black people being murdered by police go out into the public realm, it becomes like a disease that spreads through the entire culture and around the world. It makes me so physically sick to see those videos, I can’t watch them anymore. You have to get angry—you have to go out there and tell the world how angry you are. You have to do something, but you can’t stay angry all the time. At the end of the day, what we want is joy, we want peace, we want to be full citizens, and we want to feel safe in our homes and in our neighborhoods. The key is to find ways to have that joy, and to feel peace doing something with your life that you feel is worth doing every day.

Cite this page

Scott, Isaac. “Isaac Scott on Documenting Protest in Philadelphia.” Interview by Ian Berry. Tang Teaching Museum collections website. https://tang.skidmore.edu/collection/explore/261-isaac-scott.

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