Photographing the police

I once told someone in London that everybody in the North of England had a small coal mine at the bottom of their garden. 'Really?' they said. 'Well no,' I replied, 'Thatcher closed them all.'

Even though I was a young boy at the time of the miner's strike, and I didn't even live in a mining community, the effect that Thatcher's class war had on the north of England went a long way toward helping define the attitude of a lot of the people who lived and grew up there in the 1980's.

I have met a lot of admirers of Thatcher over the years and each and every time I hear the phrase 'She did a lot of good for the economy.' I feel like throttling the person. Sure, I think, she broke the unions, pushed the Labour party further to the political right and collapsed heavy industry, helping to turn us all into desk bound money grabbing opportunists, taking out a few communities along the way. She claimed there was no such thing as society and went about viciously making sure that society complied with being non-existent. Everything that was supposed to be great about post World War II Britain (The welfare state, the NHS, Pension funds, nationalised transport and education, public spending....) was swept away in favour of individualism and free market economics. Great if you have cash. Not so great if you don't. And plenty of people don't have cash. At least her policies provided me with a few derelict houses to play in.

In any case, the history is complex, and I am perhaps romanticising a bit. I am definitely over simplifying the issue.

The point of all of this is that I have watched as England has become more and more of a Police State in thrall to big business. I have watched as those in favour of greater socialism in British Society and Politics have been pushed out and marginalised.

Tony Blair was elected in 1997, ending 20 odd years of Conservative rule and then promptly became the enacter of more Thatcherite policies. I know plenty of people who voted for him then who were loathe to do so in the following years - myself included.

I have seen how demonstrations and picket lines have dwindled as law after law is passed to contain, prevent and control. We've had the Criminal Justice act, counter- terrorism legislation and expansion of the police powers to detain without charge.

10 years ago I was photographing a demonstration outside of Downing Street when I found myself - quite by accident - on the 'wrong' side of the barricades. I continued to photograph the police from behind their line until I was spotted and escorted - or should I say manhandled - by a police officer to the 'correct' side, with the protesters, where I continued to take photographs. Without further harassment I might add.

Protest against the U.S. bombing of Iraq, Whitehall, 1998.

If that event were to play out today, I may well find myself under arrest under section 76 of the Counter Terrorism act, which prohibits eliciting and publishing information - including photographs - of Police Officers or members of the British armed forces if that photograph may be used for the purposes of terrorism. Though you can defend the right to take the photograph in a court of law, this wouldn't stop the police from arresting you in the first place and as we all know, photographs often have a tendency to take on a life of their own and can end up in the hands of almost anyone, to be used for a variety of purposes.

As such, photographers in the UK are being harassed more and more. So much for freedom of speech, let alone freedom of the press.

All this brings me full circle.

At the miner's strike in 1984, photojournalist Don McPhee took this now iconic photograph at the site of one of the worst battles between police and protesters, Orgreave.

Paul Castle (far left) and George ‘Geordie’ Brealey (right) at Orgreave in 1984. Photograph: Don McPhee

Under today's laws, this photograph might not be possible. Police usedto virtually ignore photographers. Not any more.

An article on the two people in this particular photograph is the subject of this article, which makes for interesting reading.

You can also read more about the the events and protests taking place regarding the harassment of photographers in various articles and on blogs, including the BJP and on >Re: Photo.

Let's just hope that the majority of police use these laws sensibly and refrain from preventing journalists from doing their job.

Happy Birthday Kim Jong-il

The leader of North Korea celebrated his official birthday yesterday. My alternative caption to this archive photograph would perhaps be:

Kim Jong-il - 'Is that Dick Cheney with a shotgun over there?'
Minions - 'We cannot tell from this distance oh great leader'
Kim Jong-il - 'Go find out or I'll have you shot.'

If anyone can think of a funnier one (shouldn't be too hard!) I'd love to here it.

November 17 2004: A propaganda picture shows Kim Jong-il standing in a wheatfield

Photograph: KCNA/Corbis

Sri Lanka

On the 8th of January this year, Lasantha Wickramatunga, the editor of Sri Lanka newspaper the Sunday Leader was assassinated.

A few days later, the paper published his final article, which included premonitions of his own death and even hinted at who would be responsible for it.

It was reprinted in the New Yorker where you can read it in full here. It is quite remarkable.

If you don't feel like reading, the BBC asked the actor Bill Nighy if he would read the article for the Newshour program, which is where I first heard about it. Listen to it here.

I have to confess I know little about Sri Lanka, or the Civil war between the Sinhala dominated government and the Tamil Tiger rebels. I know that the island is sometimes referred to - perhaps appropriately - as the tear of India. I also know that the conflict between the Sinhalese and the Tamils dates back to the time of the British Empire, when Tamils from southern India migrated in ever increasing numbers to Ceylon (as it was then known) to work on the coffee and tea plantations.

The violence has been escalating recently as the government of Sri Lanka claims it has the Tamil Tigers (or the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) cornered. This civil war has of course, claimed many civilian victims and as in so many places, young children have been swept up in the affairs of adults.

A few days ago this photographylot blog got a mention on the Duckrabbit blog. Which was a pleasant surprise. There I read about a project by David White on ex-child soldiers of the LTTE.

A young ex LTTE child soldier hides his face to protect his identity at a secret camp run by Unicef, Jaffna, Sri Lanka.

With Lasantha Wickramatunga's article fresh in my mind and precious little in the mainstream media about the current situation in Sri Lanka I was particularly drawn to these portraits. While I was considering a bit of reciprocal posting, the Duckrabbit team went ahead and produced a multimedia piece on the subject.

You can watch it at a decent size on their portfolio page here or on their blog here.

These photographs also address one of the debates that has been surrounding photojournalism of late - that of modes of representation. There are photographers who claim that photojournalism's aesthetic and approach to social issues is outmoded. I personally wouldn't go so far as that. I think that there is not only plenty of room for all approaches but that there is a neccessity for these different working methods. The flak jacketed bullet dodging journalist, the in-depth social reporter and the contemplative fine art photographer should all be allowed the space to show us the different ways a situation can be represented. Futhermore, there is more crossover in the work than some would care to admit. And after all, are we not supposed to be on the same side, working toward that ever elusive goal of a better tomorrow?

More on Gaza

The BBC's Jeremy Bowen has recently traveled to Gaza and Israel to investigate the aftermath and effects of the recent assault on Gaza by Israel. It is an excellent report.

Listen to it here.

There is also an update of work from the area on Moises Saman's website.

As a minor aside, I have seen some of these images in the New York Times. Some of them were published in colour. Seems like a lot of photojournalists are preferring black and white these days.

Favourite Album Covers #1

I dug this out of my record collection to show a friend the other day...

Photo by D.K. James

...and the music is damn fine too - this album was a favourite in the shared house I lived in in Peckham, South London and accompanied more than it's fair share of messy late nights...

Momento Mori

A curious thing happened to me not too long ago. I was in a small village in Korea, photographing the rice harvest. It was a beautiful Autumn afternoon with a clear sky and a warm sun. After the field was cleared of rice I asked for the family of the farmers to pose for a portrait just outside their house under a persimmon tree in a shaft of golden sunlight. I was enjoying the day immensely. After the family had posed for a shot I was asked if it would be possible for me to take a portrait of the grandfather on his own. Of course I happily obliged. He sat in a chair on the road and I took two pictures.

It was then explained to me that the reason they wanted this photograph was that due to his age and general health they feared he was going to die soon. They had no photograph to display at his wake.

He must have known this. It was a strange feeling for me. I felt both honoured and disturbed at the same time. It is a reminder of our own mortality and an indication that photography is a way of recording that which will eventually disappear, a way of holding onto memories of a person, a time and a place. Eventually even the recordings too will become swallowed by time.

I have another photograph of him, or I should say I have another photograph with him in it.

I took a shot of the landscape surrounding the farm. In it he appears as a tiny figure, following a track down to the freshly harvested field at the end of the day, no doubt inspecting his son's handiwork and turning over thoughts and memories in his mind.

He passed away in his sleep this weekend, aged 92.

Gaza Aftermath

Danish Photographer Christian Als has just updated his website with photographs from Gaza as people begin to asses the damage and try and rebuild their lives after the devastation wrought at the start of the year. Check it out here.

I particularly liked the image above, with everyone in the picture focusing on different things amid the ruins of a house and the young girl pointing to the skies, the Star of David in the graffiti on the wall appearing to float at the tip of her finger.


In recent days, the fragile ceasefire in Gaza has been broken by both sides. This is not unusual. Asking who shot first in this part of the world is like asking which came first – the chicken or the egg.

I did raise my eyebrows ever so slightly when I heard the other day that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called for a deliberately disproportionate response from the Israeli Military. Seeing as there is a general consensus among the International community that the recent offensive against Gaza was already disproportionate and given that many aid agencies and International bodies are calling for War Crimes investigations, this statement seems to indicate not only a complete disregard for the Palestinian civilian population but an amazing arrogance on the part of the Israeli government. He might as well have taken the floor at the U.N. and given everyone the finger while telling them to go fuck themselves.

I wonder what this child’s parents would think about Olmert’s call for military action.

La Repubblica, Italy. Unaccredited as far as I can tell.

If that doesn’t turn your stomach, there is more.

This photograph was taken by the Palestinian co-ordinator of the International Campaign to end the siege on Gaza. She has titled her photographs: 'Gaza Terrorists'. 'In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends'. These photos are one set of the photostream of the Free Gaza movement:

I have been thinking about the massive military offensive against the already oppressed people of Gaza a lot recently. Of course, much has been said about this conflict and the debate over who is right or wrong, guilty or innocent often gets in the way of the fact that over a million people are suffering unnecessarily. I don’t pretend to know all the details, but I do know that when I see photographs of children killed by the military, there is something deeply abhorrent about that military’s methods.

Among the many photographs of dead or wounded children this one stopped me in my tracks. Not the most explicit of pictures, it is instead a very calm if morbid scene. My initial reaction was that this may be a hospital so overstretched that this man has to lay his wounded children on the floor of a room also storing shrouded corpses. It is only when I read the caption, stating that these small children were killed in Israeli attack that it hit me. The serenity of the scene, and the fact that the man’s face is hidden, concealing from us any grief he might be displaying while bending over his children is more unsettling than any bloodied body being rushed by on a stretcher. Even more disturbing to me is the fact that the boy in the middle is wearing an outfit almost identical to one my son owns. My boy is not yet two years old, and many of his clothes are a little oversized on him, just like the two boys in this photo. For me, this image became one of the most haunting of the whole conflict. If I was living there – I thought – that could be me

5 January: Magdi al-Samuli mourns over the bodies of his children, killed by an Israeli tank shell

Photograph: Mahmud Hams/AFP

The press lapped up pictures of wounded or dead children. As the ones above clearly demonstrate, they are emphatically powerful. Picture Editor Sophie Batterby from the UK newspaper The Independent opened the debate up to readers. She defended the images they had published, while also stating that some images they received were too graphic to be used. As I was in the UK for a time during the attacks, I thought I’d post a few sample pages from The independent and also The Guardian – both of which are fairly liberal papers.

Both papers – and indeed other sections of the British press and the main television news – seem to be of the opinion that what Israel was doing was not right. The Independent even labeled the conflict ‘This Shameful War’. I got the distinct feeling that the sympathy of the reporters lay with the Palestinians (though not Hamas, which is an important distinction the Israelis appear to be unable to make).

This led to accusations of anti-Semitism on the part of the British Press. There were also those who thought the reporting was pro Israeli. From what I saw and read I can’t see how either claim could be true. The reports were definitely not pro Israeli and to say that reporting on a military offensive that kills civilians has anything to do with religious prejudice is ridiculous.

As Peter Wilby succinctly put it:

Not that the results of any journalistic investigation would have been acceptable to both sides. One side's context is the other side's lies and distortions. As any journalist knows, attempts at fairness and balance in the Middle East are doomed. Allowing the drama of visible events to dictate the coverage is probably the best course after all.

The article this paragraph is lifted from is called 'Why we have to let pictures tell the real story' and was accompanied in print by this photograph.

It shows photojournalists taking pictures of Israeli troops just outside of Gaza, because the Israeli government has banned journalists from entering the territory. Obviously, they didn’t want the international press taking pictures of the civilian casualties they caused. Unfortunately for them, these pictures came out of Gaza anyway. Israel denounced these images as Hamas propaganda – stating that Hamas controls and is responsible everything that happens in the Gaza Strip, even the civilian casualties themselves.

Even if this were true, it doesn’t change the fact that the Military action in Gaza caused the deaths of many hundreds of civilians thanks to its indiscriminate bombing campaign. Propaganda or not, that is a crime.

Some people, however, did not see these actions as crimes, but as something to be celebrated.

6 January: Orthodox Jews dance with Israeli soldiers at the Gaza border

Photograph: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

Perhaps these Israelis were unaware of what the military was doing. Perhaps they thought the only people dying in Gaza were Hamas militants, the same ones who had been lobbing rockets in their general direction for years. They are on the Israeli side of the border, miles away from where the bombs are falling. What do they know?

Consider this bucolic scene. Watching the war unfold from a distance (though not as far away as the likes of myself, sitting more or less comfortably in a chair halfway around the world) these Jewish gentlemen may be discussing all manner of things. They could be saying how wonderful it is, or how awful. We shall never know. As a juxtaposition to the chaos undoubtedly unfolding at the base of that plume of smoke they are considering it strikes me as a startling comment on how far these neighbours are apart from each other, metaphorically speaking.

January 6: Orthodox Jews watch smoke rise above the northern Gaza Strip

Photograph: Pavel Wolberg/EPA

Some more images from the Israeli side of the border – including damage done by Hamas rockets - can be seen on Eduardo Castaldo’s website.

If the images of Israelis rejoicing while the slaughter continues are just as unbearable to you as those of murdered civilians, Max Blumenthal’s video report from a pro-Israeli rally garnered some opinions that may be shocking but not surprising, including calls to wipe out all Palestinians. In light of this, we can only assume that some of those Israelis who are celebrating are doing so because of the Palestinian deaths, civilian or otherwise. One other thing; calling for the extermination of a people? Surely that is genocide no? And shouldn’t the Jews – above all – know the horrors of what that can entail?

There were many other protests around the world, both in support and in condemnation of the Israeli offensive. I was too busy with other things to get out and photograph the London protests myself, but here is how some of them in the UK were reported, again in The Guardian and The Independent.

You can find some photographs of protests in London on Peter Marshall’s ‘London Diary’.

Opinions on this issue are clearly divided.

The standard line in this whole sorry affair is that Israel is just defending itself against a terrorist group bent on its destruction. This may be the case, but in responding to that perceived threat, Israel is actually committing mass murder, indiscriminately bombing civilians and militants alike. By the rule of law, international law, this is a crime. Whether Hamas is committing a similar crime in its untargeted rocket attacks on Israel – which it is - is completely irrelevant to the fact that Israel has committed war crimes and should be held accountable. I cannot believe there is even a serious debate on this issue.

The Israelis have frequently stated that any nation would respond in the same way. This is patently not true. Imagine if the British had responded to IRA bombings by destroying Ireland with Airstrikes. I’m not going to debate the morality of what the British actually did do in Ireland – plenty of which was criminal, but you get my point. What if Spain decided to Carpet bomb the Basque region in order to target the separatists there? I can’t imagine that would go down too well either. The truth is, Israel cares not what any other country or people think. The only opinion that counts is their own, and that of the United States, for it is the U.S who is the biggest supporter of Israel in terms of Military grants and financial backing. It comes as no surprise to me then that the U.S. media has on the whole rarely questioned the legitimacy of the Israeli attacks.

The following article on Al Jazeera’s English language site highlights how much of the reporting in the U.S. focused on support and justification for Israel’s actions.

That said, there has of course been some excellent reporting on what is a difficult situation. Whatever you write or photograph regarding Israel/Palestine you will encounter criticism from both sides, often arguing that you are being biased towards the other. This just demonstrates to me how tangled the whole problem has become. Take this recent article for example:

Typically, the Israeli military claims it never targeted civilians while the Palestinians claim they saw unarmed civilians murdered in cold blood. Who would you believe? I guess that depends on whose side you are on…

As far as proportionality goes, the destruction wrought by Hamas rockets is minor when compared to the Israeli attacks. Consider the statistic regarding the death toll: 13 Israelis (4 of which were soldiers killed by their own side) against 1300 Palestinians. That is a 100 to 1 ratio. As illustration, consider these two images in regard to the comparative firepower of the two sides in this conflict.

January 6: Israelis scramble a street after a rocket from Gaza hit Sderot

Photograph: Anja Niedringhaus/AP

Beit Hanoun, 22 January, 2009: Palestinian children on donkey carts ride past houses destroyed during Israel's military offensive

Photograph: Patrick Baz/AFP

It is not just people who lost their lives. Animals were killed, crops and farms were destroyed, Gaza’s power station was bombed and the infrastructure was severely damaged.

Members of Hamas prayed in front of a ministry building destroyed in the offensive.

Photo: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Those who have survived this offensive will have to deal with the aftermath. There are never enough photographs of this. I am guessing a burned out orchard is not as visually arresting as a wounded child, but it is certainly an important and often overlooked aspect of war.

That this conflict will continue for a long time to come I am sure. As long as Israel and the U.S. continue to negotiate only with Fatah while condemning Hamas as a terrorist organization, as long as Israel lays siege to Gaza while destroying its people and infrastructure with weapons paid for by the U.S., as long as Hamas militants fire rockets, as long as Iranian extremism continues to support militant groups in the middle east, the hatred and violence will continue. The problem is complex, the solution is simple.

Boys placed a Palestinian flag atop a destroyed house in Jabaliya.

Photo: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Stephen Ferry - The Missing.

I once took a weekend workshop with photojournalist Stephen Ferry, who was very insistent on examining photographs intensely until you had pulled out every possible meaning from the scene depicted. I enjoyed it thoroughly. His book, 'I am Rich Potosi' is an excellent volume.

He has recently been working on a project 'to communicate the horrors that paramilitary groups - the "United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia" - inflicted, and continue to inflict, on Colombia.'

To learn more, follow this link.

A PDF article from newspaper the newspaper El Tiempo can be downloaded here.