Theatre of Protest

The Lung Theatre ‘E15’ march to BAC was a slightly unsettling event, both protest and theatre, in which I was both photographing an event and playing a photographer photographing an event, along with protesters, most of whom I knew at least slightly, and some I had photographed before at many events and among them the performers from Lung Theatre.

Lung Theatre’s ‘E15‘ is ‘verbatim theatre‘, using the actual words of housing protesters, largely from Focus E15, but also from Sweets Way and elsewhere in a theatre performance, and their run of several weeks at the Battersea Arts Centre was beginning that evening.

The ‘protest’ was an opening event – and I suppose could be called a ‘publicity stunt’ though there were protesters there handing out leaflets about housing in London and publicity for their future protests. It was perhaps a little displaced as these were not in Battersea  but across the city in Stratford, but similar things are happening in all the boroughs across the capital – and indeed in other cities.

All protests – and perhaps in particular those organised by groups like Focus E15 – have an element of theatre, and this certainly looked and felt and was a protest as it handed out leaflets (including those about the theatre performances), held banners and spoke and chanted about housing issues outside Clapham Junction station (which is of course in Battersea) before the short march up the road to the theatre. And like all the best protests it took the road for the march.

I did have some problems taking pictures. The street outside the station is very crowded and rather dark where the protesters had chosen to stand,  though with quite a lot of light of various colours spilling from some shop windows – and in some areas of the protest this was useful. Lavender Hill up which they later marched seems very poorly lit for a major road.

For the static protest I worked without flash at ISO6400, I think mostly on auto-ISO with the limit set at that ISO. I was working in Shutter priority mode, setting speeds mainly of 1/100 or 1/125th, but my usual finger fiddling problems meant I made a few exposures at higher shutter speeds – like 1/500th or even faster –  which at full aperture resulted in several stops of underexposure and a few of the noisiest images I’ve ever used – perhaps exposed at ISO51,200.

Lightroom can do a reasonable job at producing an image out of more or less nothing, but there are limits. When you push images you also get the shadow changing from black to a deep mauve which needs a little local application of a tint to try and neutralise. And in lighter even areas such as the grey of the road surface you can see some purple patches. Mostly I just deleted these vastly underexposed images, but in a  few I felt the problems gave a strong graphic effect and retained them.

Once the march started, I had to switch to flash as there was just too much movement. Again I kept to high ISOs to record some of the street further from my flash.  As so often, I had problems with flash; Nikon’s flash system is great and always works when I test it, but somehow in the heat of the moment it sometimes refuses to play the game properly. It’s probably me rather than the machine, and just shows that while the system is great it isn’t foolproof!

Although I was invited to see the show that evening I was keen to go home and eat and work on the pictures, and it was not until a couple of weeks later that I actually did so, having been invited to sit on a panel discussion at the end of the performance about the role of the arts in protest, along with fellow panelists, theatre director Max StaffordClark,  Guardian journalist Dawn Foster and comedian Jeremy Hardy.

I seldom speak in public, much preferring to write where I can consider my thoughts at greater length and try and chose the correct word, but I was more on my home ground that the others and my stern critic in the audience felt I had done pretty well, though Jeremy did get more laughs.

Lung Theatre ‘E15’ march to BAC


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