Whitechapel Murders & ‘Banners’

It wasn’t quite in Whitechapel. I’m not quite sure what to call the area on Cable St where this violent attack by Jane Nicholl of Class War, witnessed by police, was taking place. A hundred years or so ago it might have been called ‘Wellclose’ or ‘St. George in the East’, but today we’d probably call it Wapping or Shadwell, though historically it lies on the wrong side of The Highway. But the bloody massacre was taking place on Cable St, where local communities fought police who were trying to force a way for the fascists to march into the East End, a battle commemorated by a fine mural around 600 yards to the east.

Class War were protesting with others, including fourth-wave feminists, outside London’s tackiest tourist attraction, the Jack the Ripper so-called museum. A whole industry has built up over the years to obfuscate the case, but the police at the time were I think convinced that the vile murderer was Montague Druitt, whose body was fished out of the Thames on December 31, 1888, and no other convincing suspect has emerged, despite the many books and articles devoted to the subject. The murders attracted great attention at the time, largely because of the gory dissection of the victims, but to revel in this so long after is surely pathological.

As many have pointed out, there is a great history of working class women in the area, and the Ripper shop got planning permission as a museum to display this, rather than the gory details of an ancient crime against women. More pictures and text about the Ripper and the event at Bloody Murder at Ripper ‘museum’. Fortunately the ‘blood’ this time was washable.

The few nights later I was out again with Class War, though only with a couple of them (I’d expected more), Ian Bone and Simon Elmer, on Bermondsey High St. 
When I first went to Bermondsey it was a resolutely working-class area, though the industries that had kept the people working had largely disappeared. London’s docks had moved out east to Tilbury, with larger vessels being unable to make it to the Pool of London, and containerisation replacing older and less efficient methods of cargo handling, and changes in technology and globalisation killed off most of the smaller industries of the area.  Workshops were now empty, or occupied by artists and the process of gentrification was beginning – and is now almost complete so far as Bermondsey St itself is concerned.

One large site is now home to the White Cube Gallery, and there a show was opening by Gilbert & George. I imagine Class War see them as parasites rather than artists (and I’ve never been a fan, regarding their trademark suits as practice rather like the Emperor’s New Clothes, but lacking in much interest – part of an Art World money bubble) and certainly would detest their political views,  but here it was their exploitative appropriation of political slogans in the show ‘Banners’ (and I think any actual political banner is really worth more than their feeble images in the show with their childish signature), as well as the whole elitist nature of the gallery that I think was more the target – and made the show a suitable launch pad for a new campaign against gentrification.

The two protesters stood quietly holding posters on the large yard outside the gallery – an empty paved space worth hundreds of thousands at London property prices, and although it was rather dark I managed to take a few pictures.

Their presence of course attracted the attention of the gallery security, who came and talked with them and were told they were a part of the act as it was a show about protest. One security man then went inside to consult the gallery staff, while another stood watching to see the two behaved themselves.

A woman came out from the gallery staff and talked with the two protesters, but asked me to stop taking pictures. Since I had already taken enough I didn’t argue, and after some discussion she agreed the protest could continue for a few more minutes so long as the two didn’t interfere with those attending the opening and then left quietly.

I sat on the wall and waited to see what would happen – and perhaps was a little surprised that nothing did, and after a short while the two rolled up their posters and walked out. We walked together up the street to another space used for temporary community displays at the rear of a supermarket. There was a little more light, but it was almost all from inside and I had to use flash to avoid making the people and the posters they were putting up silhouettes.  But the main technical difficulties were non-photographic; it was a gusty night and Blutak wasn’t strong enough to hold the posters in place on the glass.

Finally we walked back up the street, pausing briefly in front of the White Cube, but on the street. Without flash I could photograph the people inside the gallery with the two protesters standing in front, but they were very much underexposed. Given enough time I could have added just the right amount of flash, but the two moved on before I’d got it quite right, as you can see in Class War at Gilbert & George ‘Banners’.

Finally the pair decided to hold up the posters to be photographed in front of several estate agents – who they see as the villains of gentrification, though in reality they merely make excessive profits from it, rather than really driving the process. And as a bonus they found the Fashion and Textile Museum, Zandra Rhodes’ baby.

Working with just two protesters made it rather difficult to maintain my normal non-intervention in events, but I was careful not to suggest or tell the pair what to do. If some of the pictures appear posed, it was because they posed, and not because I directed them, though of course I reacted to their actions. And had I not been there they would probably have gone directly home (or more likely to the pub) after their initial protest outside the gallery.  Or had they walked along the street perhaps one of them would have been able to photograph the other holding up a poster. Certainly my presence changed what happened considerably, and much more than is normally the case when I photograph protests.


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My London Diary : Buildings of London : River Lea/Lee Valley : London’s Industrial Heritage

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