I got more backlash for this photo than anything I’ve put online in 14 years.

What upset people about the 5 words on this woman's protest banner?


I got more backlash for this photo than anything I’ve put online in 14 years.
Which famous person appeared on this woman's placard?

In my 14 years online I’ve posted naked self-portraits that have been banned from Flickr, I've outraged activists with an ad campaign of stuffed animals which got pulled from a Hong Kong metro, and I've angered Italian Christians when I staged a scene of the Virgin Mary giving birth.

But nothing has had as much backlash as a simple portrait I posted on Instagram last Saturday.

I've been called disgusting, disappointing, irresponsible, and unfollowed by over 700 people including long-time followers who’d supported everything I've done up to then.

The image is of a woman of colour, Dawn, smiling in London. Wearing a khaki jacket and a fancy eye mask, she’s holding up a sign taped to a walking stick. Printed on it, next to a rubber-stamp style cartoon of Bill Gates’ face, it says “Say No to the Prick”.

I photographed her at the Unite for Freedom protest in London on 29th August 2020, which saw nearly 40,000 people gather in Trafalgar Square (the media reported merely ‘hundreds’.) They were protesting a variety of issues pertaining to the loss of freedoms that have happened since the world's been besieged by coronavirus. Most of them come under the 'Coronavirus Bill' in the UK or similarly titled bills worldwide, and they place increasing powers in the hands of police and the government against historical constitutional liberties for the supposed protection of health and safety, but which a significant portion of society refuse to accept as proportionate to the problem of covid-19.

'This is my idea of a Portrait of Britain 2020'

Just before I got the train up to the protest, I’d seen the results come out of the British Journal of Photography’s ‘Portrait of Britain’ competition. I couldn’t help feeling bored by many of the photos and captions that predictably clung to the left-wing political bias. In 2020, people are asking questions more than ever that go against the institutional status quo and I yearned to see portraits of people and their realities that veer outside of the accepted political terrain. When even the man across my street is asking questions about what's going on, surely so-called intelligent and talented photographers should be asking far more.

So whilst I hung out at the protest with my partner and our two little girls, ate Sainsbury's sandwiches and listened to David Icke between the Landseer's Lion Statues bellow "THE LIONS SLEEP NO MORE!", I photographed a bunch of protestors posing with their placards. At home, I lined up my favourites to post to Instagram. Normally I max out the character limit with long monologues about art and birth that usually are lucky to get 10 comments in response, this time the caption was simple - and the response deafening.

The first comment was an instant revolt. ‘Oh, you’re insane. Unfollowed. Irresponsible, get your children vaccinated’. I was taken aback by the rather sweeping assumption about my children’s medical records, given that Dawn’s placard was fairly obviously referring to the imminent, as-yet unreleased covid-19 vaccine, for which there are deep questions being asked by the most staunchly pro-vaccine figures (even the likes of hardened ‘skeptical OB’ Amy Tuteur.)

Over the next 24 hours the post swelled with over 200 comments of 50/50 split reaction. Many were blindly angry at any idea of doubting the existence of the virus or pandemic - which the picture was not even questioning. Others were in great support of similar freedom protests unfolding around the world; others either applauded or were appalled by the absence of masks.

For every horrified comment, there was a supportive one. "Absolutely glorious. My people", warmly commented Yolande Norris-Clark (@bauhauswife), whose voice during this time has been hugely helpful to me to believe that one can have a whole set of niche, unpopular opinions and yet still hold a captive audience. Someone else criticised how I’d chosen a black woman as my subject, and turned the idea of ‘privilege’ against myself, Dawn, women, and black people in general - which I found somewhat unbelievable, imagining how their response might be different if Dawn's placard satisfied them on a more anticipatory level with the words 'black lives matter'.

Gates to heaven

So why this questioning of Bill Gates? Since when, many wonder, did the loveable computer-programmer with the voice of Kermit the Frog set out to do anything but help the world through generous charity to get medical aid out to the poorest, and now swoop in to rescue every creed from the global nightmare of covid-19? Or rather, is he indeed performing the greatest show of philanthropy by helping cure planet Earth of its biggest virus - humans?

Bill Gates, for all his mainstream reputation as a fighting disease do-gooder, has gone down somewhat in public image lately. His Apr 5th Instagram post in which he thanks healthcare workers for their role in the pandemic, received a whopping 459k comments of backlash his team couldn’t delete fast enough. A never-ending scroll of references to Epstein, microchips and Satan - along with a heavy spewage of spam bots - make for a head-scratching month’s worth of Googling for people for whom that beckoning rabbit hole is conspiracy bunkum. But not everyone is happy with the fact he's not a medical doctor, nor that he has a curious nervous habit of badly timed grinning when talking about mass epidemics.

Although the internet is on fire with videos, theories, and accusations of debatable validity, sufficient evidence to rouse worthy questions can be found simply within Gates' own blog. Going on his own words, Bill is sure enough that the answer to the coronavirus is a vaccine, and that it will need to be administered to the world population before we can go ‘back to normal’.

“In order to stop the pandemic, we need to manufacture and distribute at least 7 billion doses of the vaccine. We need to make the vaccine available to almost every person on the planet, and we need all of this to happen as quickly as possible.

“It’s going to require a global cooperative effort like the world has never seen. But I know it’ll get done. There’s simply no alternative.”

“And then, we’ll be able to get back to normal.

“Our ability to get through this outbreak will depend on everyone doing their part to keep each other safe.” (Gates Blog)

Whether there is true choice over the individual receiving the vaccine, Bill's words appear to evade the notion, at least if they wish to go back to ‘normal’ society: work, travel, school. Or, if it’s the vast majority of society he aims at rather than the entirety, this would still pose the question of which small number get to opt out.

Man with a plan

Gates has inferred that not only will the covid-19 vaccine be urgently pushed and therefore bypass the processes of vaccine development that normally takes decades, but it will also possibly take on new RNA and DNA mechanisms, on which he admits uncertainties and in such a case, he relies on the consumer's trust to undertake a new technology. He’s also publicly hypothesised on CNBC that 1 in 10,000 suffer side effects from a new vaccine, which in the case of a mass-world job, would logically spell 700,000 adverse reactions. But he's added that the pharmaceutical companies would be exempt from liabilities.

Gates seems not only confident that we will readily accept the vaccine at least as we would a standard vaccine, but also that the fast-tracked and experimental nature of the covid-19 shot would not be an obstacle to 7 billion people’s consent. Gates states, again in his own blog:

“It might not be a perfect vaccine yet—and that’s okay. The smallpox vaccine is the only vaccine that’s wiped an entire disease off the face of the earth, but it’s also pretty brutal to receive… it was far from perfect, but it got the job done. The covid-19 vaccine might be similar.” (Gates Blog)

Whether one finds this idea of accelerated state-of-the-art science exciting or daunting is a point of personal opinion, but one which surely demands the need to make a decision with a clear mind, not helped by this current climate of fear.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has powerful monetary clout, directly funding the WHO as well as mainstream news including the BBC and the Guardian. This readily prompts questions about the impartiality of information we are given by the media and WHO about the vaccine's development, and equally about the road we are riding in 2020 to get to what Gates has called “the final solution”.

Our choice matters?

In my portrait of Dawn, her placard is both a rejection of a looming global medical mandate and the billionaire advocating for it - not only as one of those 7 billion human potential recipients, but poignantly also as a black woman. When asked “who needs [the vaccine] after health care workers?’, Bill and Melinda Gates have stated in Time:

"In the US, that would be black people next, quite honestly, and many other people of color. They are having disproportionate effects from covid-19." (Time, June 4)

Whether or not this prioritisation is of advantageous appeal to black people is for them to decide, and again what the consequences would be of non-consenting, is a moot point. But where there is risk - which Gates by his own statement has strongly inferred - there needs to be genuine free will.

"Madness and disappointment, I thought you were an intelligent human being."

As the comments rolled in on my Instagram post, I realised I didn't have that much of a game plan for how to respond to the comments. The truth was that - as passionate as I am - I wasn’t interested in virtual tennis matches with those of clearly opposing stances. Some wanted debate, but bestowed a ‘let’s educate you’ tone that I know spells disaster for both sides. No-one wants to be ‘enlightened’ or 'woken up' by another, and I knew from experience that it most often results in deep despondency. Mothering two young kids I had barely enough time to write a few sarcastic one-liners in retort, which angered some even more. But I didn't want to be a preacher. Several people did not accept or like this, and seemed to want a self-assumed 'authority' to bash down. I prefer instead that they debate amongst each other, think for themselves, and do their own research. No matter how emotional the current world situation makes us, we must remember to grant others the freedom to find their own intuitive way.

That's something I'd like Bill Gates to try too.

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Natalie Lennard
Natalie Lennard
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Natalie Lennard

I am a fine-art photographer and mother based in the UK, creating Birth Undisturbed, an award-winning series staging scenes of childbirth. (www.birthundisturbed.com). All proceeds from clicks and tips go toward the next in the series.

See all posts by Natalie Lennard