Photographing San Francisco During the Reagan Era

October 23, 2018, 7:30 PM UTC

The current political narrative is nothing new. Parts of the conversations of what we are seeing now, especially those surrounding immigrants, were formed in the early 1980s or even earlier. At least that’s what photographer Janet Delaney saw 35 years ago in San Francisco.

Armed just with a camera and a hungry eye, she set out on the streets of Mission District, a primarily Latino neighborhood in San Francisco, to photograph everyday moments and events such as parades and marches. “Not many people had cameras, so I felt a sense of responsibility to take photographs,” said Delaney. “The camera gave me a reason to wander the streets and a role to play in the public events.”

What she didn’t realize at the time was the importance of the photos she took.

Delaney was in graduate school when President Ronald Reagan was elected. “We knew immediately we were going to be heading into difficult times,” she said. “It was like getting the wind knocked out of you.”

During this time there was a shift in policy. “All the rights we had fought for in the 1960s and 1970s, environmental issues, social issues, basic human rights, were all under fire or being dismantled.” Growing up in a very culturally diverse neighborhood in south central Los Angeles made her aware of the bias, she said, and she saw how immigrants were being labeled as enemies and were being discriminated against.

So marching in the streets became a regular weekend activity. “We marched to protect a woman’s right to abortion, we marched against the invasion of Nicaragua, we marched in support of gay rights.” She was in the middle of it all, documenting.

One image in particular struck her. She photographed a group of gay men marching in the first Martin Luther King Jr. Parade in January 1986. “The signs conflate the issue of South African apartheid with the imposition of quarantine on AIDS patients,” she said. “They use quotes from King to argue for acceptance of the gay community. This confluence of causes makes us see how we are all connected in the struggle for liberty and equality.”

Many of her images, minus some of the fashion and hair, look as if they could have been taken today, signs covering the streets, people chanting, and linking arms. You see that now with the Women’s March, The March for Science, March for Our Lives, to name a few.

When she began to revisit these unpublished images she saw the significance of bringing these forward now. “I want people to be reminded that there is a long and deep history of immigration that forms the basis of our country’s strength.”

You can see more of her images in her new book from MACK, Public Matters and on exhibition at Euqinom Gallery in San Francisco from Nov. 1 to Dec. 22, 2018.

To see Delaney’s images, click through the gallery above.

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