For me, photo journalism has always been concerned with addressing the constraints of the state and the confrontation between state and citizen. Photographing protest is a visually exciting way of exposing the issues of power and inequality that photojournalism has always been concerned with. The interface between opposing forces of protest illuminates both the nature of the change being called for and the nature of the state opposing it. The photographs I produce are intended to make these forces visible to a wider group than just the participants and in that way to democratise protest so that all of society is to an extent involved in the issues that relatively few bring to the streets.
My work in documenting protest began shortly before Thatcher became prime minister and looks likely to end with Cameron in that office. Both Tory governments, but while Thatcher believed that there was no such thing as society, Cameron sees a “Big Society” at the heart of his policy. That these apparently opposite views of Britain share a common desire to suppress dissent with ever increased levels of social control shows just how superficial they are. It is no more than a different coat of PR paint to cover the same dogma: ‘We are the government and society is what we choose it to be’.
The promise of photography was that by making a problem visible we could shame society into resolving it. This was certainly true 120 years ago when Jacob Riis documented the slum tenements of New York. His pictures were new, unique, shocking and scary. They changed the way people lived.
That promise may still have held up in the ‘70s when I was documenting (as a participant) the squatting movement and the failure of inner city housing policy.
At that time it was widely believed that showing society its own image, exposing us all to our reflections, was a necessary catalyst for social change. The documentary photographer was a technician in the formation of a tomorrow, deconstructing society by extracting fragments that could be shared and analysed later and at leisure. Only still photographs, packed with data and produced quickly, cheaply and by fast moving individuals could achieve this. Film and TV were too slow, expensive, clumsy and tightly bound to the status quo.
The still image, reproduced in leaflets, newspapers, books and magazines gave a direction and helped maintain an activist self-image, like a Mr Punch of social change - “that’s the way to do it!”
Unlike many commentators I don't see protest itself as having changed nor do I recognise the emergence of any new culture of protest. Instead I see a continuum going back to the '70s. We still have flags, placards and banners; crowds walking from one symbolic spot to another;lightly-armed police constraining, directing and sometimes disrupting them; news-gatherers working the same formula of long shot with a compressed perspective on large numbers of people, and close-ups documenting contexts and police actions.
The change is within the medium. Much of the change that has taken place in protest photography, its use and its content, I see as driven more by economics and technology than by new modes of thinking or new ways of working together for social change.
Photography no longer has much of an organisational role. TV and new media have displaced it. There is no longer any possibility of finding a sense of direction in the chaos of choice we are offered.
New media platforms have opened the floodgates. Images that call for action by shocking the viewer are now so common that they establish social evils as the norm, as permanent features of life. The capacity of new media to absorb and make available such images is limitless. No image is so shocking that we can’t find another, worse, in five minutes on Google. Incomprehensibly large numbers of images are available, the vast majority of which are unattributed and stripped of embedded information. Even carefully annotated work is rapidly duplicated and disconnected from its source. The ‘democratising’ effect of new media has proved damaging and dangerous.
The volume of social issues photography has increased but the total influence on society wielded by such imagery is no greater. Divided between a larger and larger number of images, effect becomes more diluted, with each individual image carrying less force and leaving less of an impression.
The new media platforms that seemed to offer so much by way of broadening the audience and democratising access have proved to be hollow. Indymedia and Demotix are two very different examples of such platforms that promise democratic access, but neither has much of an audience. Worse still, the image-maker simply doesn’t have a place in either model. What is on offer is open access only in the sense that anyone can put pictures into the system. This may be labelled ‘democracy’ but real democracy would allow the contributors a role in shaping the audience and the context in which the work is presented.
Indymedia’s raison d’être is covering ‘the movement’, offering ‘democratic access’ to creators, but those who create its content have no role in determining policy or in presentation. Its left perspective leaves it unable to deal with right wing input. The volume of work that passes through these platforms is far larger than anyone can absorb. Editing this is an avoidable expense for the distributor, and this lack of quality control results in good work being rapidly drowned in the flood of mediocre. Demotix, like any agency, is looking for a route to profit. Social effect is low on their list of priorities (while being totally below the radar of giants such as Getty Images). Income is derived from the mainstream media, whose audience is typically looking for easy confirmation of existing beliefs. Although some of their suppliers are serious and skilled professionals there is no investment in them, none of the support and career development that traditional agencies provide.
The paradox is that it’s open access agencies such as these that are providing the last remaining life support for independent street photographers. Photographers who try to find a wider reaching alternative in mainstream media discover that their chances of publication are minuscule and that the rates paid are so low as to make development of a photographer’s career impossible for all but a few.
Shorter deadlines and lower skill requirements mean more people produce more pictures with less professionalism. Publishers drive down costs by playing one photographer off against another. The highly skilled workers move into a different field or even out of the industry altogether. With the reduction in payment, those left need to be ever more productive, leading to more images being published but a lowering of standards..
When I began working as a photographer a single publication fee would keep me for a week. Now it keeps me for perhaps three hours. In 1980, I could spend days on an idea, and if it only produced one or two pictures I’d be ahead of the game. Today, to make a living, a photojournalist needs to produce two or three saleable images a day. This leaves no possibility of spending serious amounts of time getting deep into a project. A photojournalist needs to go in, grab a dozen easy, superficial pictures, get out, edit, distribute and start the next job in less than a day. Anything that doesn’t fit that protocol is best left for the dentist with his latest model Leica. The speed and pressure of work today makes most photographers into interchangeable image capture accessories feeding a stream of files to a remote distribution mechanism.
If a photograph can be a lever to move society, it is the publisher who can choose where to place the fulcrum. The street photographer cannot both control use and have an income. To control use, one has to move out of the reportage/newspaper/magazine world and into the world of art. This is the path taken by photographers such as Simon Norfolk, Martin Parr and Edmund Clark. Such a shift provides sufficient income to produce good work, but as art this work never reaches a mass audience.
The consolidation of publishers, suppliers and finance has driven a market for homogenous, focus group-approved products. As with political parties trying to home in on the median concept, the process prohibits discovery, leaps of imagination and inspired leadership. It is at this point that photography begins to resemble politics rather than provide opposition. It constantly seeks to reaffirm median societal values. Instead of showing the breadth of society, photography is increasingly narrow, regressing to the mean of both aesthetics and meaning, converging on the bland.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, at the same time, we have the forces of the state subverting and hijacking the reportage photographer with a variety of tools and techniques. The police use their organisational ability to control and direct protests and to set up situations “for the cameras”. Police officers are thought to have covertly intercepted transmissions to access journalists’ work and have sequestered it overtly through the use of court sanctioned production orders. In addition, police frequently block photographers’ views, dictate from where they may work or remove them in order to prevent coverage where they feel that this is in the interests they serve.
From the Poll Tax riots to the May Day marches and the student demonstrations of 2010-11, we have seen many examples where the police have not just provided an opportunity for a demonstration to get out of control but have set the situation up to that end.
Since the 1981 riots, newspapers have been keen to publish “shop a rioter” pictures after serious disorder and have published photos for that purpose. These are mostly obtained via the police and sometimes from employed staff photographers who have no rights in their own material. Although police attempts to obtain such material from independent freelancers have mostly been successfully resisted, there is no distinction made in the mind of most participants.
As a consequence there is a greater mistrust of all media, a greater fear that a photograph can harm an individual protester or a wider cause. This is a quote from a leaflet issued during the student protests in 2010:
A serious lesson is that we have to stop news photographers taking pics or videos of people doing stuff. They are basically putting people’s liberty at risk! They must be told to fuck off, be blocked and moved away from the any actions. If, after being told to move, they refuse they should be physically confronted (in whatever way seems fit). The pics they take could put you in jail!
And this is the opening paragraph from Climate Camp’s instructions to photographers wanting to cover their public protest:
Media wanting access to the camp will be invited to come on site between 11 AM and 12 noon. All visits will be over and journalists off site by 1 PM at the latest. Journalists will be given a tour of the site, accompanied at all times by two (or more) members of the media team, who will carry a flag to make the journalists/photographers identifiable.
The expectation that the media will report fairly on an event has all but disappeared. Protester attitude has changed from welcome through mistrust to aggressive rejection. This is not just an issue of age. Young photographers also get the same threats, jostling and on occasion serious beatings with kit smashed. Protesters increasingly see photographers as ‘spies’ for the police or as propagandists for an unloved and mistrusted press. The irony is that the police view photographers with similar suspicion, and thus those photographers trying to record the process of social change are put under pressure from both sides.
Those photographing and sharing information by way of new media see the same methods employed against them, with police photographing and sharing that information with businesses and other agencies on their own network of databases. A great deal of time and energy goes into monitoring and mining Facebook, internet fora and other media. While new media might be seen as being at the heart of both protest strategies and police responses, the difference is that the latter is aided by the massive budgets of the state, and civilian technology companies with techniques such as face and gait recognition and a constant thoroughness of purpose. Dissent, protest and terrorism are being deliberately blurred together to justify the building of integrated and sophisticated hi-tech systems collating disparate information streams to identify, track and document citizens and their interconnections.
Police attacks on working journalists are attacks on democracy and on society’s ability to make informed decisions. Showing these processes in action is all too often seen by police as criticism and an attempt to constrain their activities. The police have targeted photographers, who have found themselves watched and stopped, harassed, and assaulted, with their activities logged on secret databases by special units within the police. My work as a photographer has earned me several arrests and even a record on the Domestic Extremists register held by the National Public Order Unit.
The state has, like a living organism, developed resistance (allowing it to take more protest without being affected), antibodies (the police) and even immunisation (state surveillance). With the police becoming more involved in shaping protest it thus becomes even more important that their actions and behaviour are openly reported.
In the future, those photos taken today will have their own, as yet unknowable, effect on perceptions of the past and will carry their influence far into the future. Although we can’t predict the effect they will have, it is necessary that the photographs exist in order to play their role.
Whether or not the kind of documentary photography in which I have been involved will still exist in the future is not clear. Economic constraints may extinguish the craft of making powerful, socially relevant images for mass circulation, just as so many other crafts have vanished into history. The demand for free products, the desire of mass publishers to maximise profits without regard to the preservation of the committed group of skilled suppliers, and the corrosion of the visual language that follows from the avalanche of unconsidered amateur photos leave very little room for the photojournalism of the 20th century to survive.
The photographer’s ability to use public events to build images that act as catalysts for social change requires a foundation, chiefly an economic underpinning. The ecosystem that once maintained those creating socially relevant work is all but gone and it’s far from clear what, if any, new support mechanisms might take its place.
Photojournalists are an endangered species, their numbers shrinking, and once extinct they cannot be replaced.