Archive for June, 2015

Harmondsworth Sunday

Sunday, June 28th, 2015

The Village Green at Harmondsworth

The day after I’d photographed the End Immigration Detentionn protest at Harmondsworth’s immigration prison, I got off the bus at the same stop, but instead of walking the few yards towards London turned the other way and took a pleasant footpath alongside the Duke of Northumberland’s River and up to the village of Harmondsworth. It’s a pleasant enough path, but one with a constant reminder of Heathrow, not just in the continual noise from take-offs and landings but also because the path is in the landscaped grounds around ‘Waterside’, the headquarters of British Airways.

The river looks natural now, but was created around 500 years ago in Tudor times to take water from the River Colne at Harmondsworth to the River Crane at Feltham to give a more reliable supply to the watermills on the Duke’s property at Isleworth. Not much else happened to change Harmondsworth until the Colnbrook Bypass was built in the late 1920s, with the Road Research Laboratory set up here (where the prisons now are) in 1930 and a few businesses in the next few years, including Penguin Books, here until the 1990s.

The area south of the Bath Rd changed dramatically after the RAF it took over with the hidden intention of making it into London’s new civil airport after the end of the war. Plans to take over much of the area north of the Bath road were defeated, and aside from a little new housing, Harmondsworth Village remains a small Middlesex village, much as it was when my father cycled around the area before the war.

Great Barn interior (image for personal use only)

It has kept its small village green, with a fine church and two pubs (though a third is now a private house.) Take the footpath from the back of the churchyard and across a couple of fields you reach a bridge across the M4, but the fields are still farmed, and just to the west is the Colne Valley Regional Park, with pleasant walks (and bordered by the M25 and its huge junction with the M4.) But most importantly of all it has kept its huge tithe barn, Grade 1 listed, built in 1426 and described by Sir John Betjeman as ‘the Cathedral of Middlesex’ and the largest surviving medieval all-timber building in Britain.

A giant mural where the proposed airport boundary would be, just yards from the Village Green with a polar bear and four general election candidates all opposed to the expansion.

A local campaign led to the barn being bought by English Heritage in 2012 and one of those who led that campaign was local MP John McDonnell (wearing a tie above), who was among those at today’s events, aimed at preserving the area against the latest expansion plans by Heathrow. The report of the Davies Commission was always expected to recommend that Heathrow be allowed to grow yet again, despite that possibility being ruled out a few years ago after massive protests in the area. And even more massive protests can be expected if a further attempt is made. Politically it remains very doubtful if it can ever happen, and perhaps the report will be shelved as have other rather more sensible proposals before it.

It was a very pleasant afternoon, marred only by the feeling of impending doom. I had taken two Fuji cameras, the X Pro-1 and the X-T1 along with a few lenses, and the bag on my shoulder seemed almost weightless compared to the normal load.

It wasn’t however an entirely satisfactory exercise, as I kept finding both cameras were not working exactly as I expected. I’m just not familiar enough with how they work, and it wasn’t until some weeks later that I managed to sort out one or two problems. Somehow I had managed to lock in an incorrect white balance setting on the XT-1, making everything rather pink (though of course I could correct this in Lightroom) and all too often I still find the fastest way to get either camera to respond to a shutter press is to switch it off and then on again. Batteries as always were a problem, and I’ve now disposed of a couple (one genuine Fuji, another a cheap replacement) that  didn’t seem to recharge reliably. But the X-T1 still sometimes seems to run through batteries very fast, and sometimes gets noticeably warm.

I missed a few images when I had to turn the camera on and off, and sometimes focus was just too slow, but most of the pictures were fine. The 10-24mm which I’d recently bought seems to be an excellent lens, as is the 18-55m which I kept on the X Pro-1 all the time.  With the X-T1, as well as the 10-24mm I also took a few images on the 8mm Samyang fisheye.

Photographing the Datchet Border Morris dancing inside the Great Barn did present some problems, with movement and relatively low light levels. The light inside the ban was also very uneven, coming mainly from the large doors and some post-processing was needed to even things out. By increasing the ISO setting to ISO6400 I was able to work wide open on the 10-24mm at around 1/100s, enough to stop at least the slower movements in a wide-angle view – the lens is at around 18mm, giving the equivalent of a 27mm view on full frame.  A faster lens would not have helped, as I needed to use f4 to give sufficient depth of field – and another half stop down would have been even better.  Had I used the 18mm lens at f2.8 the beams would have been noticeably out of focus.

English Heritage have done a fine job in restoring the roof of the barn, which had been neglected for years; it lies just outside the boundary of the expanded airport, but it would be no pleasure to visit should the expansion go ahead (which I think is very unlikely, though it will be a fight to prevent.)  The tiles on the roof have been replaced, the new tiles having been specially made for the purpose to the same pattern as those used previously. Photography is allowed on the site, but only for non-commercial use, and you can see quite a few more pictures of its interior – and an exterior view – at Heathrow Villages fight for survival.

Harmondsworth Saturday

Thursday, June 25th, 2015

Many asylum seekers come to the UK from countries where being gay can be life-threatening

Harmondsworth isn’t far from where I live, but it isn’t a place I visit often, but in April I found myself there two days running.

I don’t avoid it because of the place itself, but the journey there is off-putting. As a kid I used to cycle there along back lanes in the Middlesex countryside, from Cranford, a short distance from where I lived. But sixty years later things have changed rather, mainly because of the impact of Heathrow and the tremendous amount of road traffic that this generates, which new roads like the M25 and M4 have also added to.

Now I live a little to the south and the route between reservoirs and around the side of the airport is along unpleasantly busy roads and dangerous junctions, large roundabouts with with lorries revved up from or anticipating the motorway. I don’t often cycle that way. Fortunately there is a bus which, having made an extensive tour of the suburb to the south of Heathrow makes its way from Terminal 5 to Heathrow Central and will drop me off just a few yards from the immigration detention centre, where protesters were arriving to call for an end to immigration detention.

Most of those coming to protest there have a longer journey, from central London to the end of the Piccadilly line for another bus, or by coach from Birmingham, Sunderland or even Scotland. For many it is still a short and easy journey compared to coming to this country, for many of those taking part in the protest are asylum seekers or those who have been granted asylum here. Many have suffered being held in detention centres like Harmondsworth (now renamed Heathrow Immigration Removal Centre) or Yarl’s Wood, imprisoned with no fixed length of sentence and facing the treat of deportation at any time to the countries where they left to escape persecution.

Support for the protest from Shoreditch Sisters WI who call for an end to immigration detention

The name is significant. This is an ‘immigration removal centre’. It isn’t concerned with investigating the truth of their claims for asylum, but intent on removing these people from the country. Our immigration system starts from the assumption that they have no right to asylum, and locking them up makes it harder for them to prove their case, while the fast-track system recently found to be illegal by our courts ensures they don’t have time to do so. The whole thing is a travesty of justice, a turning upside down of the rights we see as the cornerstone of our legal system.

The protesters aim to make a loud noise so the prisoners inside can hear that people care about them

The fight for an end to detention and fast track and for a proper and just system for migrants to this country has been led by the Movement for Justice, a group which grew in the 1990s after racist attacks in London, organising protests against fascist groups, deaths in custody and racism. This protest was one in a long series against our racist asylum and immigration system, now going back twenty years. The event in April was the seventh in a series of protests there (some months their have been protests at Yarl’s Wood instead) since the Movement For Justice began a new campaign around a year ago in solidarity with a mass hunger strike in the prison.

The two immigration prisons at Harmondsworth (Harmondsworth and Colnbrook, now both run by Mitie as Heathrow) stand on either side of a short private road leading from the main A4 which runs along the northern edge of Heathrow. The whole site is government property, having been long ago the site of the Road Research Laboratory. Except for a range of tall buildings along the front of the site, the prisons are enclosed by a very tall fence and at some earlier protests, the protesters were allowed to walk along the track around this. Since Mitie took over running the prison at the start of the year, organised protests have been confined to a pen at the front of the site, with police and security present to ensure they stay there.

Shouting “Detention Centres, Close them Down” in front of the Harmondsworth Administration block

Photographically the event and its problems were similar to those I wrote about at the end of my post Surround Harmondsworth 6, and I’m afraid the pictures are perhaps rather similar too. It’s difficult to think of an entirely different way to approach the event, though the liveliness of the protesters makes them a delight to photograph.

Although the protesters still had plenty of energy after a couple of hours of shouting and dancing in the warm April sun, I got tired and decided to leave, keen to get on with processing and then uploading the story, and I crossed the main road to catch a bus. As I climbed to the top deck ten minutes later, I looked out of the window and saw the protesters emerging on to the main road, and marching along.

Protesters march along the Bath Road in front of Harmondsworth (left) and Colnbrook immigration prisons

(It isn’t a good picture, and the bus windows were none too clean and with a slight tint and as well as the normal reflections there was also some odd colouration like ‘Newtons Rings’, all of which I’ve worked to reduce.) It was too late to jump off the bus and join the marchers (the next stop is a mile or so away in Terminal 5 and the service infrequent) but had I known this would happen I would have sat down to rest and waited. They were on their way to protest at the back of the Colnbrook prison where a public footpath runs to a park and then on to Harmondsworth village, and I was sorry to have missed it. I should have checked with the organisers before leaving and had failed to do so.

More on the protest and more pictures at End Immigration Detention.

The Great War?

Wednesday, June 24th, 2015

The Great War on Photographers: A Dispatch From The Trenches is another interesting article on PetaPixel in which Randall Armor looks at the work of street photographer Karl Baden and a problem he encountered in taking a photograph from inside his car in a shopping centre car park, moving on from there to the problems faced more generally be street photographers.

Later in the post, Armor looks at a CBS local ‘hatchet job’ on a pair of street photographers working in a shopping area of Boston, and he comments on it: “I would have crossed the street if I saw one of these guys coming, and I’m a street photographer!”

Me too, and I think that we do need to think about the way other people see us and the way we work. However we see ourselves, it doesn’t give us the right to invade other people’s space in a way that many would find threatening or offensive.

There are photographers who have made a career and a reputation for themselves by doing so, and I feel very uneasy at looking at the work of one or two well-known photographers.  Perhaps those images made by pushing a camera (and often a flash as well) into people’s faces may be powerful, but I’m not sure we should reward them for doing so. It seems to me to be using people rather than photographing or recording them. It makes me feel a bit soiled looking at it.

Of course we should be able to photograph people on the street, and there is a great tradition of work – some of which Armor mentions – of doing so. Truly the world would be the poorer without it, and it is something that is under threat.

I’ve been able to watch a number of fine street photographers at work, and also to see videos of others, and they really don’t look like the guys in that film. Of course it’s possible to edit and select when making videos, and the commentary certainly does them no favours, but it still looks pretty creepy to me. With most good photographers they kind of blend in and few of those they are photographing or the people around notice, well a few making it so obvious and confrontational that

I’m not at all sure how we should go about fighting this war, but perhaps we might start by being less confrontational rather than imagine ourselves fighting with the infantry.

When I’m challenged about why I’m taking pictures I try to be pleasant, smile, be friendly and explain and avoid argument. Having a press card can be an advantage (though it can make things worse and I sometimes keep it in my pocket, remembering the example of the great ‘Eisie‘ telling people on the streets he was ‘just an amateur‘.) Handing out my business card has sometimes helped.

When I did work that was more ‘street’, I used to carry a small album with some of my pictures, much easier than trying to explain in words. Nowadays it would be easy to make a little book on Blurb or some similar site, and a thin 18x18cm publication would take up little space in most camera bags and perhaps be a little more impressive.

But I’ve occasionally met disturbed men (and women) too, and situations have got a little out of hand. I’ve sometimes just walked away, other times offered to call the police, and a couple of times been very relieved when the police have arrived.

But your opinions and experience are – as usual – welcome, though if you have not commented on this site before they may take a little while to appear.


Police and Protest

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015

Police seemed almost pleased to see Class War as they turned up for the weekly protest outside the ‘rich door’ of One Commercial St. In general these events are a fairly easy and straightforward part of their job, just standing around in front of a doorway, and the protesters are generally little problem. The door wasn’t in use, and the entrance foyer seemed empty and in darkness; presumably the wealthy residents had been told to leave and enter by another route, perhaps through an interconnecting door with the hotel or another of the businesses with a ground floor entrance on one of the three roads around the block. Not however through the ‘poor door’ in the alley, although they can normally enter or exit through this if they choose. At least one resident uses it when walking her dog!

The protesters provide the police with a little entertainment – and sometimes a little fairly gentle ribbing, reminding them they are class traitors, protecting the interests of the ruling class who have, the protesters remind them, been attacking police pay and conditions.

One of the protesters was wearing a sweatshirt with the message ‘proud to be Working Class‘ and the protesters appealed to the police to be proud of their class origins and come and join them in the protest, but it surprised none of us present they did not take up the offer.

The officers were perhaps disappointed when the protest ended early – as one of the organisers pointed out they would get less overtime. But Class War had received a request for support from the two groups, Squatters and Homeless Autonomy and Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians, occupying some offices in St James’s Square, empty for some years after having been used by the Institute of Directors, who were being illegally harassed by bailiffs, and I was invited to accompany a group of them who were making their way there.

The laws on squatting are quite clear. In non-residential properties trespass is not a criminal offence, and there are proper procedures that property owners should employ to regain their property, including going to court to get a possession order.  Usually these give squatters 24 hours notice to leave, after which staying in the property is a criminal offence, and police can aid bailiffs in a properly managed eviction.

Other laws protect the rights of occupiers of property (whether squatters or not) giving them the right to leave and enter the property. There are also laws against assault, and governing the actions of security guards.

Clearly when we arrived, several of these laws were being broken. People were being prevented from entering the premises by men dressed in black. And by not wearing visibly their SIA licence these security guards were committing a criminal offence under the Private Security Industry Act 2001 which should result in their losing their licence; it’s an offence punishable by up to 6 months in prison – nd/or a fine of up to £5,000. When people attempted to enter, they were also clearly being assaulted by these men.

As in many other cases, the police generally seem to be choosing not to apply the law against these illegal activities by security guards, employed by companies that boast of being able to get around the delays of legal evictions. The same company that these men were working for have also been employed by Southwark Council to work in a similar illegal fashion on the Aylesbury estate.

The police (or their political masters) should not be allowed to chose which laws to enforce and which to ignore in this way. On this particular occasion, Class War were able to help the protesters to persuade the police to act, if only in a fairly desultory fashion. The officer who eventually turned up – I think following a complaint by someone from Class War did listen to the protesters and did make some attempt to sort things out, but was unable to get the security guards to comply with the law. There were no arrests, no people facing prosecution for their illegal actions, but eventually the security firm was persuaded to call off their action after getting a phone call from the police station. They left smiling and returned the following morning to illegally finish the job with the help of police.

When it comes down to it, we do have one law for the rich, which generally overrides the interests of the 99% and the niceties and fair dealing that Parliament has decided in its legislation.

It isn’t always easy to photograph at events like this. There are people who don’t trust the media and their lack of trust is unfortunately often well-deserved, with protesters often being treated very unfairly in print and on screen.  Though it’s normally by editors and journalists who were not at the scene rather than by photographers. But I had been invited by some of those present, and knew a number of the others present, at least slightly, from other protests that I’ve taken pictures of, and had few problems.  The protesters too had the law (if not the police) on their side, and it was others that were breaking it.

I’d set both cameras (Nikon D700 ande 800E) to ISO 3200 on the tube journey, as the light was beginning to fall outside, and when I started taking pictures, I was getting exposures around 1/250 at f8; by the time I left it was down to 1/30 f3.5, and it was getting too low to work sensibly as people were moving. I don’t really have any fast lenses for the Nikons, partly to cut down weight; nothing faster than f2.8, and the only f2.8 lens I had with me was the 16mm fisheye, which I didn’t use. The 16-35mm is an f4 lens and the 18-105mm is f/3.5-5.6, getting rather slow at the longer end. Towards the end of the time I was there I was feeling the lack of something faster. I had some problems with subject movement during the few scuffles too, with shutter speeds of around 1/125 causing some images to be blurred.

One problem – but also something that made many of the pictures possible, was that the doors which were being blocked were glass. It meant I could see through them, but also that at times reflections in them limited what I could do.

Photographing the people inside them through the glass was possible, but the glass was rather dirty – the building had been out of use for some years – and also got wet in places when some water was thrown from an upper balcony.

The light fell off very rapidly away from the doors inside the building, but I was able to take a few pictures with the lens held close to the glass to avoid reflections, using a hand to block some of them.

More pictures at Class War keeps up Poor Door protests and Illegal Security blocks St James occupation.

A Political Arrest

Friday, June 19th, 2015

D700: 19mm

One of the more noticeable aspects of the long series of protests outside One Commercial St have been the various changes in the police response. At a personal level, relations between police and protesters have usually been cordial, with the protesters and police sometimes greeting each other on arrival as old friends. Though good anarchists with a firm belief that the police are an arm of state oppression and often expressing the view summed up in the acronym ACAB, they perhaps see the individual officers as duped members of the working class rather than the real enemies – the rich. “You should be on our side” they often tell the bill.

Class War’s protests are largely theatre, and many of the police at times show considerable evidence of being amused by them, more often obviously trying to suppress this.

But the most obvious aspect of the police response to the protests is inconsistency. I get the feeling that this is a result of political pressure on the police coming both from the complaints of the owners of the building and their influential political friends (the current owner is a Texan property tycoon and friend of Prince Harry), and also, since Class War entered the party political arena by standing candidates for the General Election, from high up the in the government.

A woman officer approaches Lisa McKenzie and tells her she is being arrested. D700: 16mm

It’s beyond belief that what happened outside One Commercial St on April 2nd was not a result of Lisa McKenzie standing for Class War against controversial government minister Iain Duncan Smith in Chingford.

D800: 93mm eq

The political sensitivity over this was something that led to the ridiculous over-policing of her election launch visit there in March, where a van full of police sat waiting in the station car park half an hour before they arrived and followed their every move around town until they all came out of the pub and took the train out of town. Even a single bobby on a bike would have been something of overkill.

There is no other explanation other than the political for the singling out of McKenzie and her arrest by a large snatch squad that took place towards the end of the protest on April 2nd. Police stated at the time of her arrest that it was for putting stickers on the window of One Commercial St (which they say is ‘criminal damage’) during the protest two weeks earlier.

Police put the handcuffs on Lisa McKenzie and take her away. D700: 20mm

Certainly people did put stickers on the windows at that protest, but Lisa was not among the perhaps five or ten who did so. If she had done, I would have taken a photo showing it, as I too was paying special attention to her because of her Chingford candidacy. No other person was arrested.

They are still charging her with placing stickers, alleging that this caused £50 of criminal damage, but have also added two other charges, of using threatening / abusive words / behaviour or disorderly behaviour and displaying a poster with intent to cause harassment / alarm or distress. The poster in question is an old Class War one, used at many protests and base on an old magazine cover, a graphic showing crosses in an extensive graveyard leading away to the distance, with the text ‘We have found new homes for the rich.’

It may – like most other Class War posters and banners – be thought by many to be in poor taste, but I find it impossible to see it as personally threatening and likely to cause distress. It will be a very sad day for freedom of speech in the UK if any court comes to a different conclusion.

D700: 20mm

Lisa McKenzie has been refused legal aid – something that few people can now get in the UK – and set up an appeal on a crowd-funding site, Lisa Mckenzie’s Campaign: The Right to Protest, to get the money to fight her case. It used – without my permission – the image from the head of this post on it (for once I don’t have any problem with this.) The appeal reached its initial goal within about a day, but more cash is still welcome.

D700: 19mm

Probably the hardest thing about taking the pictures at this and other arrests is keeping calm. I don’t always manage it. There was quite a lot of jostling and quite a few of the images I took were unsharp. Quite a few were obscured by police helmets or protesters.

D700: 22mm

Things also happen fast – from the first picture as police officers approached Lisa to her being thrown into the police van took 83s.

There were other people – including quite a few of the protesters as well as several photographers – also taking pictures of the arrest. The important thing is perhaps to keep thinking and keep anticipating. I was in the right place when they rushed with her towards the police van because I’d stopped taking pictures and moved there before the police did.

All of the images except one were taken with the 16-35mm on the D700. I didn’t really have time to change cameras and didn’t need to, but there are small differences in the zoom focal length, perhaps showing I was thinking about framing. A few of the pictures are cropped slightly, so I didn’t always have time to get it right, but the best are with the full frame.

You can see more of the sequence of 11 covering the arrest in order in Chingford candidate arrested at Poor Doors, along with images from the other 58 minutes of the protest.

Four More

Tuesday, June 16th, 2015

From the protest at Annington Homes at the end of the previous post, I took a bus to Trafalgar Square to follow up an e-mail I’d had from one of a group of protesters who had occupied the Admiralty Arch, an Edwardian building (1912) by one of the leading architects of the day. Sir Aston Webb’s building – a memorial to Queen Victoria which acts as the entrance to the Mall, leading to Buckingham Palace – shows perhaps the best and the worst of that era, a rather ponderous, over-fussy and grandiose Grade 1 listed white elephant.

It’s also something which rather reflects the state of our nation. Built to demonstrate national pride and as a fitting part of headquarters of the largest and most powerful navy and empire the world has ever seen, the address of the First Sea Lord, it was reported in 2012 as having been sold off on a 125 year lease to a Spanish property developer to become a luxury hotel. Although planning approval was obtained in 2013 and completion expected for 2016, work does not yet appear to have been started on the conversion.

I’d been very surprised earlier that morning to get the e-mail telling me that occupiers had entered the building by the roof in the night, and inviting me to go there. I wasn’t sure if I believed it, and wondered what the guy had been smoking, and hadn’t dropped everything to get there fast. In any case, it would have taken me an hour to get there, and other photographers closer to the spot were likely to be there well before me. So I took my time.

The story turned out to be true, with banners on the upper levels of the building clearly visible as I arrived. I walked around the building with another photographer, taking pictures of the rather odd and surely spurious ‘Notice to Vacate‘ posted “On behalf of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government” at intervals around the outside of the building, wondering what to do. We met only a couple of other journalists there, who told us that they had photographed people putting out the banners earlier on, but nothing else seemed to be happening, with just a few security guards outside some of the doors.

We stood waiting and wondering what to do next, trying a few phone numbers to contact the occupiers inside without success. Then a door opened, and a man emerged, carrying a large torch, and we went to talk to him. He was rather suspicious of us, didn’t want to be photographed, and appeared to have been drinking, but after a while offered to take us inside to take some pictures. Unfortunately when he turned to do so he found that he had locked himself out!

I was just a little disappointed as I’ve never been inside the building and it might have been interesting to see. But I was also just a little worried that I might have got stuck inside as there were other things I was on my way to starting shortly.

When finally he managed to phone other occupiers and get them to let him back in and they told us we could only enter if we brought them some cigarettes and drink, I decided not to bother. More pictures at Admiralty Arch Occupied by A.N.A.L.

We took a bus to our next location, for Free the Palestinian Children outside the London HQ of G4S, the company that helps run the Israeli prisons in which they are held and tortured, and sometimes sexually abused. This was one in a whole series of regular protests against G4S by the Palestinian Prisoners Campaign, but included a speaker I hadn’t seen at previous events. As well as talking about those people, particularly young children such as the boys from Hares, picked up after a story was made up by an Israeli settler, and still held without charge over a year later, she told how while going to visit Palestinian prisoners she had been forced to remove her clothes and stand naked for inspection in public.

After she had finished speaking, another protest came walking towards us along Victoria St, going through the Palestinian protest. This was a peace protest, a Stations of the Cross Pilgrimage led by London Catholic Workers around locations in London connected with the arms trade. I’d hoped to catch up with this at some point on its route, but instead it had caught up with me, and I went with it to its next two prayer points before returning briefly to the Palestinian protest.

It was only a brief visit because I had another engagement in my diary, due to start in a few minutes a short bus journey away – and the bus stop was next to the protest. When the right bus came along the street I jumped on it, and was taken to Piccadilly Circus, close to the Le Meridien hotel in Piccadilly.

I don’t go much to hotels in Mayfair, and had never noticed this one before, and can’t tell you much about it now, except that it is a part of the Sheraton group, who have luxury hotels around the world. The protest was organised by the Hotel workers branch of Unite the Union. Most of the hotel workers in the UK who do the housekeeping, act as porters and work in the kitchens and restuarants are from overseas, and are one of the most marginalised groups of workers in the UK, and many are exploited because their English is poor or non-existent. They may work in luxury hotels, but often their conditions of work – employed by various outsourced contractors – fail to meet even our basic UK standards. Unite is at last having some success in organising them to stand up for their legal rights, although many can still get sacked for joining the union.

This strike was not however about their own conditions, but in solidarity with workers at Sheraton hotels in in Ethiopia and the Maldives who have been sacked for union organising. Pictures from here and outside another Sheraton hotel in Mayfair are at Shame on Sheraton – Hotel Workers.

My day was still not finished, with one more protest to cover. But that I’ll leave for another post.

Spontaneous Images

Monday, June 15th, 2015

I’ve little idea exactly how many protests I’ve photographed about the continuing shame of Guantanamo, and of the incarceration and torture there of innocent prisoners, particularly of London charity worker Shaker Aamer, held there since its early days over 13 years ago. At the moment we are hearing encouraging rumours about his possible release, but there have been hopes before that have come to nothing. Both US and UK security services are thought to be hoping he dies in captivity rather than emerges to give evidence that would severely embarrass them about his own torture and that of others, and he is still being subjected to regular beatings and other mistreatment.

The London Guantanamo campaign have been holding a monthly protest at the US Embassy for over 8 years, and although try to attend any special protests they and other groups arrange, I only cover these regular protests if I’m going to be in the area for other reasons. They are generally rather small events, just a handful of people, with perhaps one or two in orange jumpsuits and black hoods, with a few posters, but mainly that there is little to photograph that I haven’t already done and done again. It’s a very worthy cause, but one that it is hard to make news.

As you can see from the small set of pictures at Shut Guantánamo! I didn’t stay long at the April protest, and didn’t find a great deal to photograph. I do rather like the one at the top of this post, because it presents the major elements that were present – the Obama mask, the Obama quote ‘We tortured some fo..’ (I hope most people will supply the missing ‘lks‘) and another poster about rendition with images and text ‘No Impunity for Torturers‘, and I think it does so in a lively way, with an extra hand at right holding out a card and at first glance Obama almost looking convincing.

Of course it isn’t a great photograph. There are a few things I would like to have been just a little different (including that hand which obscures the ‘lks’). If I’d been directing a scene the second take would probably have had the messages on the cards visible too. But this has a spontaneity that would be lost in posing.

The second protest I was on my way to was a short walk away outside the offices of Annington Homes, the company that is evicting people from Sweets Way in North London. The company hopes to make millions from these ex-military properties it bought on the cheap by knocking them down and redeveloping the site. It’s something that is happening all over London, cheap housing, often social housing being redeveloped into ‘luxury’ flats, usually with little or no regard for the people who live there either from developers or the local councils.

The great shortage of housing in London has led to huge increases in house prices and market rents. We need a huge growth in council housing to house the people we need to keep London running who can no longer afford even the so-called ‘affordable’ rents, but instead what is getting built are expensive properties for the wealthy, including many who will not even live in them, but own them as investments, cashing in on the ever increasing prices.

Again this is a picture I like for its spontaneity. The gestures and expression of the man holding the banner (and of course the child at the other end.) The deliberate cutting off of the cyclist at left. Taken at 16mm I was very close to the bike. You can see at Sweets Way at Annington Homes a few of the series of pictures that led up to this one.

It was a protest I enjoyed photographing, with plenty of movement and different situations, although the street had enough traffic on it to make it difficult to always be at the right place without getting knocked down.

The pavements are fairly narrow, and most pictures that I took required me to be standing in the road. Fortunately in these fairly narrow streets the traffic was normally slow-moving, and I was in little danger.

This was a long and busy day for me, and I’ll perhaps write about some of the rest of it later, after I get back from taking some more pictures.


Celebrating Magna Carta

Saturday, June 13th, 2015

This weekend, everyone in Britain and quite a few others around the world are celebrating Magna Carta. I’m not quite sure why, unless you happen to be a Baron, as it was really only a couple of years later in 1217 with the Charter of the Forest that ordinary people had much to celebrate, and even that applied only for Freemen, not to the serfs from which most of us are descended.

Of course, over the years, some of those rights awarded to the wealthy and powerful have kind of trickled down to the rest of us in countries like the US and the UK, though there is still very much one law for the rich and another for the poor.

One group that wanted to celebrate Magna Carta were the residents of the Runnymede Eco Village, founded three years ago this week when they set up camp on a long-disused area of woodland overlooking the area where Magna Carta was signed.

Diggers meet at the Runnymede Memorial and agree to celebrate Magna Carta in 3 years time

I sat with them on 16th June 2012 at the Runnymede Memorial erected by the US Bar Council as they discussed their land occupation and the idea of them hosting a celebration of the 2015 anniversary was put forward and agreed with enthusiasm. That’s my camera bag and coat in the foreground left there as I moved back slightly to frame the circle.

The first camp at Runnymede Eco Village in June 2012

I hadn’t really expected the Runnymede Eco Village still to be there three years later, but it is, and greatly expanded from the few tents that were there then, with many residents having built low impact off-grid homes in a variety of styles from materials mainly recycled from skips and demolition sites. Various court proceedings have meant it having to move a few yards down the hill to a wooded area on the slopes of Cooper’s Hill (incidentally the view from which inspired the first British poem about landscape, by Sir John Denham in 1642.).

The Eco Village has enjoyed good relations with its neighbours with many supporters in the neighbouring ‘village’ of Englefield Green. That one of the first things they did was to clear several skip loads of illegally fly-tipped rubbish from the area got them off to a good start.

Luke (right) a trained forester, stands in front of the home he built almost entirely from material in skips and demolition sites

Yesterday I arrived at the Runnymede site for the first day of a four day festival celebrating Magna Carta and three years of settlement by the Eco Village, and was warmly welcomed and shown round. As well as various musicians, the festival events included poetry, workshops and a number of distinguished visiting speakers who were to talk and lead discussions.  The Festival For Democracy should have been starting in earnest today, and continuing until Monday.

Unfortunately our authorities seem to have decided to do their worst and not to allow it. They started by pressuring the owners of the site to try and get the occupiers evicted, but an attempt to steamroller this through the courts was blocked by a judge who decided that the occupiers seemed to have some kind of agreement with the owners to occupy the area and adjourned the case to give the Eco Village more time to prepare their case.

It is unlikely to be a co-incidence that a few days ago the date for the court appearance was set as this Monday, 16 June, the last day of their festival and when the official celebrations at Runnymede (two miles away according to the BBC, but for those who can walk rather than drive, around half a mile distant) reach their peak.

A woman plays guitar for the TV crew to use in their film and others listen around the fire outside the Long House at the Runnymede Eco Village.

Police and some residents stand at the main entrance, where police are refusing entry to somee. Across the road Phoenix negotiates with police to let the Festival For Democracy – Land, Freedom & Community continue.

But apparently that wasn’t enough for the political taskmasters of the police, and a little after noon small groups of officers appeared around each of the entrances to the site, and began to stop people entering. They claimed to be allowing the site residents to enter and leave freely, but were stopping others. A couple of weeks previously a rumour had been put out that there would be an illegal rave taking place on the rugby field adjoining the Eco Village, and this was being used as a pretext to issue an order under Section 63 of the The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994  which allows police power to restrict access, remove people and issue exclusion orders.

There appears to be no real evidence of any actual attempt to hold a ‘rave’, and the programme for the Eco Village’s festival clearly demonstrates that it would not be in breach of Section 63 (which applies only to ‘amplified music’ played during the night.)  The rumours are suggested by some to have been promoted by the authorities to justify the draconian police action.

As I wrote yesterday:

As I left it was unclear if the free festival, with its long and distinguished line up of speakers, poets, singers and performers will be able to continue and in what form. It would indeed seem a travesty if  at a time when we are celebrating 800 years of freedom under the law against the arbitrary power of the state achieved at Runnymede, the authorities should abuse the law by using those arbitrary powers to prevent a people’s celebration of freedom.

Perhaps rather than celebrating Magna Carta we should all now be out on the streets and demanding a new charter for the freedoms we thought had been won 800 years ago.

More pictures from inside the Runnymede Eco Village in my feature from yesterday on Demotix, Magna Carta celebration at Runnymede threatened by police. And from the initial gathering at the Magna Carta Memorial on My London Diary. That meeting was attended by just one friendly police officer.

Abir Abdullah on Nepal

Thursday, June 11th, 2015

On Shahidul Alams‘s ShahidulNews you can see Resilience and Reasons, with some large colour images made by Abdullah immediately following the Nepal earthquake, along with text by another photographer, Syed Latif Hossain. It’s a rather more positive view of the country and people after the quake than those in the Western press.

The New York Times Lens Blog published an interview with Abdullah about his project ‘Death Traps’, a project on the disastrous fires in Dhaka in 2012, with a slide show of 17 pictures.

Abir Abdullah (b. 1971)was one of the first batch of students at Pathshala, South Asian Media Academy in Dhaka and later a vice principal at the academy. Still based in Bangladesh, he is now a photographer for european pressphoto agency.

You can also see more of his fine work on his own web site.

Capa’s Story

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015

I continue to be amazed at the revelations about the ten or so exposures that Robert Capa made on Omaha Beach on D-Day in the huge series of posts by A D Coleman and various guests on Photocritic International.

The series having disposed more than adequately of the legend about the darkroom mishap and the myth of the missing negatives that never were, the latest two-part contribution by military historian Charles Herrick, a former officer in various roles in the US Army and a military contractor shows convincingly that the caption and almost universally accepted interpretation of a couple of the photographs was incorrect. It’s a conclusion that also must alter our evaluation of the remaining images.

Capa himself must have known what the people he photographed were doing, but sent no information with the film. As Herrick points out, “Captioning the images was therefore left to those who had never witnessed an amphibious assault, much less the Omaha Beach landings.” The caption they wrote was to fit the story they wanted to illustrate and bears little relation to what the image actually shows to the trained eye of Herrick.

Capa had gone back to Normandy immediately after giving his film to a courier and by the time he became aware of the misleading caption, he would also have been aware of the impact the image had made, and a correction would have spoiled his story and blemished LIFE’s reputation. But it would be hard to believe he didn’t discuss it later with his picture editor in the London office along with the rest of the story when next they met.

As Herrick points out, the picture is used on an official US Navy Seals web site with a the correct interpretation. Rather than people struggling to shore in the second wave sheltering behind the obstacles on the beach under heavy fire, Capa photographed a dedicated team of engineers at work rather later in clearing these obstacles. Dangerous work that was made possible by this being “a stretch that was under relatively light fire.

Capa was fortunate to have landed on a part of the beach where the relative lack of opposition had enabled the first waves of the invading forces to make considerable progress – and the engineers were clearing the way for further troops. Working unprotected to remove the obstacles was a hazardous job – of the 175 engineers working on Omaha beach, the Seals web site states  that  31 were killed and 60 wounded, but this section was where the most progress was able to be made.

Herrick’s interpretation makes sense of some things I had been unable to understand about this image – if the soldiers were under heavy fire, why were they not more clearly sheltering in the lee of the obstacle, and what were the ropes that were clearly visible. I’d thought that perhaps they were wires that were in some way a part of the defences, though it was hard to see in that case they had not been cut through.

Herrick concludes:

What a travesty, then, that these very men who made decisive contributions to the success of the campaign, despite every danger and hindrance, should have become poster boys for lack of resolve under fire.

And all as the result of a caption in LIFE magazine that told the wrong story.”

He perhaps should have added “and those who knew the right story – the photographer and presumably his editor – failed to correct it” – and so it became a legend.

My own conclusions are also about the failures of much photographic criticism. As I’ve often found myself having to comment, it really does need to start by looking at the pictures carefully and critically. Whereas all too often it starts from false assumptions and the lazy repetition of what others have said. Most fail to consult what are after all the primary sources.

As this case demonstrates, it often also needs some specialist knowledge of the situation , enabling the recognition of the helmet markings as those of US Navy engineers and of those ropes or wires as Primacord detonation cord.

But in this case, perhaps more than anything else it needs the courage to think out loud the unthinkable, that people and institutions that have been revered for years have been deliberately repeating a lie.   Or in this case, perpetuating lies and a mistaken interpretation.

It isn’t of course unusual for photographs to be deliberately used in a misleading way, though the initial incorrect captioning was almost certainly made in good faith in this case. Regularly pictures published on social media (and often picked up from there in the mass media) alleging to show something are shown to have been taken elsewhere at a different time or place or to have been digitally altered.

M. Scott Brauer wrote an article on his dvaphoto site on 8 June with the lengthy title Bellingcat’s conflict crowdsourcing: analyzing photos and video to learn more about war. Bell¿ngcat is a web site which crowd-sources specialised information of every type from people around the world to provide a detailed analysis that has been able to produce a remarkable level of previously unknown information about some conflict images that those publishing them wished to hide.

Sensibly, Brauer concludes with a warning that you shouldn’t believe everything that you read on the web.

One wrong click and you’re down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole where there’s a political motive behind every photo, all of which are staged.

Articles like that by Herrick and the whole series by Coleman and his other guests are convincing, in part because of the experience and obvious expertise of those concerned, but also because of the careful and precise building of their case and the presentation of evidence for it. Coleman’s work has already been recognised by the 2014 Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi (SDX) Award for Research About Journalism and being nominated for two other awards.