Mass photography at demonstrations is in danger of becoming an unwitting agent provocateur

Over the last few years the rise in relatively cheap, but professional standard, digital cameras, and free and cheap publication of images on the internet has fuelled the evolution of the freelance/citizen/amateur photojournalist. Some would say that this has liberated people and given them an outlet to express their creativity, others would say that it dilutes the profession of the few who have spent years developing the craft. Whichever is valid, the genie is definitely out of the bottle, and the casual photograph has become severely commoditised. With commoditisation comes mass production of undifferentiated goods.

The UK has a healthy tradition of mass demonstrations as the people air their political views seeking change. Some of these are coupled with outbreaks of serious violence. All of which makes for great photo-opportunities which inevitably inspire and excite the emerging photojournalists. The more that they get involved, the more they seek further opportunities to get that special picture.

In recent years a number of major demonstrations have given rise to great expectations of photogenic violence, which has brought out the hoardes of photographers to witness and observe those moments when the “few” clash with the police.
The G20 demonstrations in April 2009 which resulted in some of the earliest examples of “kettling” was also memorable for the banks of cameras waiting and watching for the “few” to take some form of action. The crowds of photographers swelled the numbers considerably, undoubtedly, making the policing effort more difficult. The finely balanced stand-offs between Police and protestors were met by calm in the crowd – there were no pictures to take. As the smallest provocation led to an altercation, the crowd pushed, and shoved and swayed as the cameras lurched forward to grab the shot. The lurching caused more altercations, and more provocation, that led to more shots, and more violence, What started it all is difficult to tell.

Through the student riots in the winter of 2010, and a variety of smaller, but “promising” direct action activities, to the “Black bloc” violence on March 26th 2011 the photographic artillery is ever present and , in some cases, outnumber the protestors. The photographers wait expectantly, with the impatient hope of a sensational act; the activists feeling “encouraged” by the audience – a perverse form of fame.

On June 30th 2011 in London, the strike day for the teachers and public sector workers, once again, the oppportunity existed for the Black Bloc to repeat their “successes” of March 26th and delight the photographers. After the main event, a handful of black-clad youths appeared on Tothill Street. Armed with a small ghetto-blaster one angry, vocal youth moved towards Parliament square followed by a few tens of other activists and the accompanying band of photographers. This moved peacefully past the peace camp, and on to Whitehall. A few tried to outrun the police only to met by others waiting for them. The paltry numbers were well-matched by the hungry cameras and as each black-clad youth was snatched by the police, there was a rush of photographers chasing these morsels of action, surrounding the police vans.

The sight of a few bored kids sitting in Whitehall with minimal political aim was a lesson in pointless and fabricated protest, only matched by the desperation of the photographers to get excited by any faint sign of disorder. As the day wore on the police were getting fed up with the disruption on Whitehall and a bit tetchy with the togs who continued to mill around still searching for the promised carrion.

As a participant I reflected on the day. The main event had finished hours ago, and I began to wonder about the journalistic integrity of this situation and to what extent excitable youths were egged on by the lure of the camera lens. The National Press Photographers Association code of ethics warns about consciously contributing, or influencing events, and encourages all to strive to be unobtrusive in dealing with subjects – this code draws a very fine and difficult line to adhere to in these situations.

I ask myself whether the line has been crossed yet, if it hasn’t, it’s certainly not far away….

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