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LOOKING FOR JC

The story behind the picture

‘Why don’t you come and march with us?’ said the woman from the media alliance as she navigated her way through the sea of banners towards one claiming ‘Media Workers for Peace’. I soon lost her in the crowd. She was expecting me to follow her, but the truth was, I didn’t want to follow anyone. I wanted to be a free-roaming agent with camera—gazing out, looking in and peering beyond. Or, as Nadine Gordimer puts it, ‘being a part of yet apart from the main event’. I also wanted to find Jim. ‘A special welcome to Jim Cairns,’ a rally organiser boomed through a megaphone. Her voice was relayed the length of Swanston Street.

Could Jim Cairns really be here? Thirty-two years earlier, I photographed him as he addressed 100,000 people lying down in symbolic protest in front of Flinders Street Station. It was near the end of the Vietnam War and Cairns was the intellectual driving force, as well as the avuncular face, of the Australian anti-war movement. In the years since, I have sighted him, as have many other Melburnians, selling his books at local markets and happily engaging whoever had the time in a conversation about the nature of society and change. And now, on Valentine’s Day 2003, on the eve of the war in Iraq, in a crowd of more than 150,000 people, the octogenarian protestor was somewhere out there. I wanted his picture.

I made my way up Swanston Street from Southbank, past the discordant architecture of Federation Square and past the huge peace banner strung like an apron from the Melbourne Town Hall. I overtookthe Christians for Peace carrying white cardboard doves on sticks, and the school kids in uniform brandishing ‘War is not good for Children’ and ‘Give Peace a Chance’ placards. Their melodic, almost mesmerising chant of ‘No War’ was barely discernible above the more determined and aggressive ‘No Blood for Oil’ from somewhere deeper in the crowd.

I like such kaleidoscopes of humanity. Everyone, it seemed, claimed membership of something—gender, occupation, political party, a country town, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity or some combination thereof. Not far from the ‘Palestinians Against War’ were the ‘Jews for Peace’. I knew some of them and they beckoned. ‘Join us,’ one of them yelled. ‘You’re one of us’. I declined. ‘I’m looking for JC,’ I mumbled to myself. They moved on, and their space was occupied by ‘Muslims for Peace’ and then the ‘Ex-Service Men & Women Against War’, followed by the teachers, the council workers and even ‘Puppeteers for Peace’.

Belonging seems to be important to protesters, particularly when democracy is threatened. I did not wish to belong to any one group, but I felt proud to belong to this city that was the first to take the anti-war message to the streets in a worldwide chain of protests; a city that has a rich tradition of protest—thanks, in part, to the man I was seeking.

From their city balconies, residents of postcode 3000 watched their backyard become a massive theatre—a swathe of slogans snaking its way along the tram tracks from the State Library to Federation Square. The consumers in McDonalds masticated their burgers and fries as they regarded the crowd with silent bemusement. Police officers whispered into their epaulettes as they stood on the sidelines, while news helicopters hovered like mosquitoes in the late summer sky. I continued my search for Jim.

I finally arrived at the library steps and secured a position on the speakers truck. And there he was, in his wheelchair, making his way slowly down Swanston Street. His placard, ‘Make Love not War’, was a distinct echo of earlier times and a perfect message for Valentine’s Day. I took my pictures and watched him merge into the accommodating crowd. Surrounded by helpers, he seemed alert and proud, but a little weary as though the shadow of world events weighed heavily on his fragile frame. ‘Who is Jim Cairns?’ one of the rally organisers asked me. History, it seems, needs to be re-learnt every 15 or 20 years.

In the months since I took those pictures, the contemporary history of Iraq has acquired a new and sad chapter, while the records of its ancient history have been obliterated in the chaos of occupation. The peace movement continues its steady march and its cry against war. Both still and moving pictures offer circumstantial evidence. But it’s the stories behind the pictures that reveal the texture of what’s really happening.

Peter Davis is a Melbourne writer and photographer, and a lecturer at Deakin University.

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