Yarl’s Wood 13

This was I think my 12th visit to Yarl’s Wood, but the 13th major protest there organised by the small left-wing political group Movement For Justice.

The protests they have organised here and elsewhere have done much to bring our terrible racist immigration detention system to public attention, and have given many detainees the courage to fight against the system, knowing they are not forgotten and that others outside know what is happening and support them.  MfJ bring a powerful public address system to their protests, and those who speak are mainly former detainees – and they also give people inside a voice over mobile phone link-ups.

So though the story told by a former active member of how she had been treated appalled me (though I realised I was only hearing it from one side) my overwhelming thought was that it was important that, whatever else, the campaign to close down these shameful prisons should go on.  The story didn’t actually surprise me – and some of what were presented as revelations were common knowledge, though some of the more personal aspects seem disgraceful. But much of it was exactly what might be expected of small left wing groups.

I’m not a member and would not consider joining such a group, or larger groups such as the SWP (which have also had their share of not dissimilar controversies.) I’ve always thought of myself as part of a much broader left movement, willing to support various campaigns I sympathise with, while still maintaining a professional distance and adhering to documentary and journalistic standards of integrity.

Perhaps some good has come out of the controversy, in that other groups have now also taken up the organising of protests against Yarl’s Wood, which before had been largely left to the MfJ. So far they seem to be on a much smaller scale but hopefully a larger movement will eventually grow. At the March protest they worked separately but alongside the MfJ, but since there has been at least one separate event. MfJ’s next protest there is on July 21st.

The most important of the other organisations is I think ‘Detained Voices‘ which publishes the messages of the women inside the prison. After the March 24 protest one of them began her comment with “We want to thank all the protesters who were here today, and I hope we made our presence felt even though we are oppressed.”

I tried hard to take pictures of the women inside Yarl’s Wood (and there are a few men too in the family units. Only a small proportion of them are able to reach the windows visible from the field where the protests take place, though others in the prison will hear the protests.  Outside we can hear them shouting through the narrow gaps the windows open and see them waving and holding up signs.

Photographing the women at the windows presents several problems. Obviously you need a long lens, and something a little longer than I have would help. Most of these were taken with a Nikon 70.0-300.0 mm f/4.0-5.6, but working in DX mode which effectively makes it a 105-450mm, and most are at the 300mm end. Even then the windows only occupy about a third of the width of the frame, and some images are fairly severely cropped.  Obviously you need a fast shutter speed to avoid shake, and typically these were taken at 1/500s or faster. The aperture also matters, although there is little depth in the subject, but stopping down a stop from maximum aperture to f8 certainly helps to tighten the lens performance. To get those kind of exposure values I needed to work at around ISO 1000, not a problem with the NIkon D750, where this is hard to tell from base ISO.

A faster lens would help here, as you have to take almost all pictures through a mesh fence, and a wider aperture would put this more out of focus and so less noticeable. But a significantly faster 300mm would be large, heavy and expensive. The fence is also a rather better target for autofocus than the windows, and almost all these pictures were taken using manual focus.

The protesters pose another problem. They have come to shout and wave banners and placards at the women inside the prison, and in doing so often make it difficult to get a clear view of the women at the windows. It’s also difficult to get good images that show both the protesters on the rise and the women at the windows because you see the protesters from the back when trying to do so.

And of course I also want to photograph the protesters as well as the prisoners. You can see some of the results on My London Diary at Shut Down Yarl’s Wood.  And a couple of days earlier I had photographed a protest in solidarity with their hunger strike by people outside the Home Office: Support for Yarls Wood strikers.

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