Failing to Shoot a Riot

NB : This is not a discussion of cause and effect, nor potential remedies. It is merely the ramblings of a young photographer who wants desperately to learn

All of us saw the disturbing scenes broadcast last week. I am sure, then, that the images below are not new, nor are they at all comprehensive. There is little of the flame and fire and unfortunate episodes of looting that have so aptly characterised the UK riots. These omissions frustrate me for now the following images show nothing of the ‘Broom army’, vigilantes, politicians nor those who have lost homes, businesses and cars. They are two hours and two hours only.

Last week’s episode ducked and dived at an extraordinary pace. Keeping up with events was a nightmare; respected news outlets were finding the same difficulties. Twitter had turned into a bird bath of uncensored and, in some cases, rather inflammatory rubbish. According to some tweeters, the Olympic Stadium was engulfed in flames, and to others, the relatively ‘normal’ sound of sirens meant only death and destruction and rioting. Making sense of such public hysteria was made increasingly difficult by the the number of actual flashpoints across the city – and their distance from each other. A car or motorbike was needed and I have neither – yet.

Another facet of my failure – and this is of the greatest significance to me – was the ability to immerse oneself into a seemingly merciless environment. One slip could lead – and in some cases did – to a rather swift and brutal relinquishing of hard-earned equipment. Perhaps even a bashing would result. In any case, the weighing-up of what you hope to achieve by shooting in these environments would always be contrasted against what you are willing to endure. A far more extreme example can be found amongst servicemen and women; neither wish for disfigurement or death but all are willing to take that risk – knowingly or not (?) – in the pursuit of dreams, aspirations and excitement. This was my first ‘dangerous’ environment and I, selfishly or not, wanted to test myself – to see if I could still work under duress.

I arrived on the north side of Hackney Central at 1600. My house is 10 minutes up the road and I have lived in Hackney for three years now. I am very fond of the area. On Monday it was neither homely nor accessible. Initially, I followed a group of riot police about 25 strong. They were understandably anxious and a little on edge. Having realised that I wouldn’t get onto Mare Street, I doubled back and headed towards Clarence Road. It was bizarre. Up the road was a largely balaclava-clad mob that had set up a series of barricades to hinder police movement. They were gearing up for the troubles soon to ensue.

Within 15 minutes of arriving, I bumped into another photographer who appeared more experienced than myself (a simple task in this situation). I followed him to shoot a few photos of fortress Clarence and its occupiers. We moved to within about 20 metres of the burning bins and immediately received a volley of missiles. I dashed to take cover behind some riot vans only to find myself quickly moved away by police. I got back on Clarence Road and there I remained for two hours or so. Had it not been for some very worried friends, I am convinced that I would have stayed. I chose to shoot with a small 50mm and wore scruffy clothes. In light of the obvious atmosphere towards photographers, it was clear that discretion and timing were necessary to avoid a bashing. It was a risk I felt compelled to take and my premature return to safety left me restless, frustrated and slightly on edge. Next time…he says.*

* There is so much to be said about ‘why’ you would or wouldn’t want to watch or simply be around the destruction of people’s livelihoods and outbursts of primal rage. There is most definitely something to be said about witnessing history in the                                                                making – however nauseating that expression can be. These riots are significant. Perhaps something positive can result – or at least be better understood.

What played out in Hackney and other parts of the city and country last week was extreme. It had to be covered and I hope that the images and videos recorded will remain and remind.

Some interesting links:

Jonesblog – a great blog 

All That Life Can Afford – photo essay

The Psychology of Looting – Guardian piece

Dave Hill’s blog on the riots – Guardian

Riot police make their way to Mare Street, Hackney

A father and son watch riot police rush to Mare Street. (re-edit)

North end of Mare Street, Hackney.

Clarence Road, Hackney. This was taken 10 minutes before the chaos

Residents, Clarence Road, Hackney

Hurling a bottle at police about 15m away

The police are only 15m away - and 10-or-so in number

“If you want to understand democracy, spend less time in the library with Plato, and more time in the buses with people.”

Simeon Strunsky

Guardian photo coverage

The riots

The clean-up

The aftermath

Police raids and politicians 

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Filed under freelance photographer, london, news, photojournalism, Uncategorized

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