An informed citizenry is the heart of a dynamic democracy. And nothing informs with more immediacy and power than images. Through an ever growing range of media, protest photography brings an awareness of current issues to the 99% who never take part.
Look at how the Occupy movement has changed the political agenda and brought inequality, tax dodging and the fat untouchable friends of the political class into public debate and into mainstream politics. Images have been central to the coverage and public discussion. Without photographers and videographers covering those events the few thousand organised protesters would have had no effect.
Our "democracy" gives us almost no grip on the nation's politics. We get to vote for one of a couple of very similar parties every five years. If we live in the wrong place or vote for a party other than Labour or Tory our vote is unlikely to have any effect at all. What does have influence is the media portrayal of politically relevant events. New media - Facebook, Twitter etc use a massive number of images. They have become a large part of most people's lives. Even traditional media, while still putting their own political spin on the words, have a great thirst for images. And images are harder to spin than words.
Protest photography is much more than extreme street photography. Coverage of protest forms our social memory, it creates a permanent record for history, spreading the ideas behind the protest and fertilising social change.
There's something very Zen about protest photography. Caught on the fly, seen and recorded in a fraction of a second, protest photographs are truths. Not an explanation of the truth. Not a commentary or an analysis.
They are about as unmediated as a record can be. This is why Photoshopping things into or out of photographs is seen as such a serious breach of trust and of ethics by photojournalists.
Without the photos and video the student protests of 2010 would have passed without comment. Those images brought the betrayal of the LibDem promises to the forefront, undermining and discrediting the coalition. The likely electoral crushing of the LibDems in the forthcoming election stems directly from the visual coverage of those protests. Perhaps seeing the political power wielded by those protests is why the police made such efforts to discredit them by attacking them with such force and cunning.
Public protest is so potent a force that the state puts massive resources into subverting and undermining it. Undercover cops act as agents provocateurs as well as spies. TSG (the Territorial Support Group - the hard cops) provoke protesters so that FIT (Forward Intelligence Teams - the small groups with cameras) can film and photograph them to add to the police databases. Police tactics are often designed to smear the causes rather than to keep the peace.
Remember that "abandoned" police van left in the middle of Whitehall on one of the 2010 student protests?
The police said that this was because the van had broken down and the police had had to abandon it in fear for their safety. But they were just 30 metres from several thousand other police officers, there were few protesters nearby and all was peaceful at the time. How come these scared policemen left all their protective equipment in the van when they left it? If they were genuinely fearful they would surely have stayed safely locked in until help arrived. They'd hardly have left their shields, helmets and stab-proofs behind and walked through the protest which is what they did. And it was a suspiciously old and rusty van. All the others were quite new and shiny.
I believe the van was placed there for two purposes. To provide film and stills of vandalising by protesters for the media to make the demonstrators look like angry thugs. And to tempt activists into disorderly and illegal acts that the FIT teams (there were two teams with long lenses and video cameras carefully placed in advance watching that van from a distance) could use for later arrests and adding people to their database.
Cast your mind back to the Poll Tax riots of 1990. Again, the police tactics appear designed to provide pictures that could be used to show Poll Tax protesters as no more than greedy looters.
Hackney - police drove angry protesters north into the shopping area of the Narrow Way, they could have been sent south where there were no shops to attack.
Islington - police drove angry protesters south into the shopping area of Upper Street, they could have been sent north or west where there were no shops to attack.
Brixton (twice) - police drove angry protesters south into the shopping area of the High Street, they could have been sent north, east or west where there were no shops to attack.
Trafalgar Square - police drove angry protesters north into the shopping areas of Soho and Leicester Sq, they could have been sent down towards the river or into the park where there were no shops to attack.
Sometimes it's only later that the meaning of the events captured becomes apparent. Patterns appear. Reasons lying behind police action become visible.
The Custard 7 staged a peaceful anti-Olympics protest in Trafalgar Square. They were arrested on the basis that the custard they used in their piece of street theatre was a "noxious substance". The reality was that they were arrested, not for what they did but in order to impose restrictive bail conditions banning them from all Olympic venues as well as Trafalgar Square and Hyde Park for the duration of the Olympics. Then once the games were over the charges were quietly dropped.
We're seeing the same tactic now with the current Occupy protests in Parliament Square with wardens telling people to leave for no apparent reason. This gives the police grounds for arrest when they don't leave. The real purpose being to disrupt the demonstration and avoid images of the protests appearing in the media. If you find that hard to believe ask why, at each one of these demos, the police were instructed to prevent photographers and film crews from getting anywhere near the (again peaceful) protest.
A few minutes before Millbank Tower - Tory Party offices - was attacked in a 2010 protest I saw three van loads of police guarding it being pulled out, leaving it defended by just a handful of ordinary uniformed officers.
The police had decided that Millbank was a target, hence the vans. Why did they pull out? Why did they take so long to respond when the building was predictably attacked as soon as they left? Could it be because there had just been a Home Office decision to cut police budgets and an example of how much the politicians depended on police protection was thought desirable?
We are now seeing a far more insidious and organised police/state attack on protest photography with photojournalists being added to the national domestic extremist register.
Then that database is used to show their faces and identify them at police briefings. Those photographers and videographers then find themselves excluded from events. They are targeted and sometimes physically attacked by police. A colleague of mine had his arm broken at the G20 protests in 2009 and here's a clip of me losing five teeth at the hands of a very large TSG Inspector that same day.
It's not all gloom and doom though. Our police remain far less oppressive than those in most other countries and they are not immune to the pressures that we can exert. A group of six of us, all NUJ members, are taking legal action in the High Court against the Met in an attempt to force them to open up the secret databases documenting journalists and defining us as domestic extremists.
The Met chief, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe is no friend of protest. He's now preventing a climate change protest by forcing the organisers to pay for private security firms to police their marches. Just this week we've seen a peaceful group of housing campaigners dispersed under threat of arrest using powers designed for serious violence.
A number of professional organisations - EPUK, the NUJ and BPPA among them - are intervening. We have had meetings with top level officers. We have had successes such as the introduction of Media Guidelines which set out the relationship between police and journalists. We have made progress on the display of officer identification numbers. We have had some useful input into police riot training. Meetings taking place at the moment seem likely to give photographers a significant input into police training.
There is much that has been achieved and while there is plenty more to be done I'm confident that protest photography is strong and healthy and will have a central role in shaping our future for a long time to come.
David Hoffman’s Tradecraft
- Dress quietly, don’t wear badges or slogans.
- Maintain a polite and co-operative demeanour – especially when badly treated. The police will try to provoke in order to arrest.
- Remain clearly separate from participants and from police.
- Look after your kit. The most important item is your body. Take a helmet, good boots, shinnies, water, cereal bars and barley sugar. Wear cotton. Synthetics will melt and stick to your skin if burned.
- Good boots! Something that will protect you from broken glass or sharp pieces of metal and will keep their grip on slippery surfaces. I like Magnums.
- Know the area or at least have a copy of a local map. Try always to have at least two ways to get out.
- Study police tactics, see how they move crowds, form kettles. Get to know the rank badges.
- When things get rough, your colleagues are your protection. Stay in sight of them. Watch out for each other.
- Carry a small, amateur looking camera. If it really kicks off put your pro gear away - or better get it out of the area - and work with something unobtrusive. No flash!
- Learn basic first aid, carry a small kit.
- Join a professional organisation such as the NUJ.
Text © 2015 David Hoffman
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