My son Ned is a University photography student in London. His photographs shown here document protests close to his heart during the pandemic, including The Remain Campaign, Climate Action and Black Lives Matter. As a photojournalism student he realised there was an imperative to record the spirit of these protests. Ned’s approach to shooting at a protest is to immerse himself in the action (wearing a mask), taking Robert Capa’s maxim about proximity to heart, “If the photos aren’t good enough, I’m not close enough”. Good examples are the photos of the woman lying down in front of police horses.
His preference is shooting film, a mix of Kodak ColorPlus 200 and Gold 200, processed and scanned by Photographique in Bristol. Cameras used were the tiny Olympus 35RC rangefinder with a small on camera flash to make the images ‘pop’, an Olympus OM10 single lens reflex and a Fuji GS645 rangefinder. Lenses used are 40mm or more usually 28mm focal length.
The COVID-19 pandemic meant the UK faced restrictions not seen since World War II. Despite sacrificing much to preserve lives, more than 125,000 died. Losing one’s life or the life of a loved one throws into perspective the inconvenience of not being able to meet friends at the pub for a pint and a packet of pork scratchings, yet the country remains divided on the necessity for social distancing and self-isolation. This is partly through a lack of knowledge of severe coronavirus disease, but also due to mistrust of government and fear that restrictions of civil liberties, ostensibly to fight COVID-19, were also possibly for more nefarious reasons.
This week saw the second reading of The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill in Parliament. Parliament passed the Bill giving Police draconian powers to crack down on the right to peaceful protest. As I write, we don’t know whether it’s going to be passed by the House of Lords, but it’s most likely, given the government majority despite opposition, spurred by London scenes last weekend. Apparent heavy-handed police repressed a vigil for Sarah Everard who was allegedly kidnapped and killed by a police officer in the armed diplomatic protection squad. The reason given by police was that the vigil flouted COVID regulations. Before these events the opposition were going to abstain in the vote on the Bill.
The BBC did not report the Commons passing the Bill. The only notification I received on my phone was from the foreign news agency Huff Post. The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph (to which I subscribe), remained eerily silent. Interestingly The Telegraph, hardly a bastion of liberalism, today ran a column raising grave concerns about some of the more worrying and restrictive measures and powers the Police may have at their disposal.
The right to peaceful protest is a human right of every free country. We look on in horror at foreign totalitarian states crushing protest. Iconic photographs recording protesters being trampled, facing down a line of tanks, a student sniffing a flower in the face of a rifle mounted with a bayonet, a priest waving a white flag as soldiers rain down bullets, inform our view of how authority crush dissent. These are not images we associate at home where citizens’ rights are founded on sacrifices and blood of those who fought for representation, equality and freedom. This is not who we are. This is not who our children should become!
The world does not stop because of a pandemic. Sarah Everard’s killer was not deterred by the threat of COVID-19, Black Lives still Matter despite coronavirus, the environment needs safeguarding now as much as it did a year ago, if not more. All these causes have been protested legitimately worldwide, but all have been met with apparent hostility from the government and by Police. They have also been met with opposition from sections of the public who seem happy to express objection, often in what seems a bigoted way on social media.
If passed by the Lords, the Bill will curtail our freedom. Junior doctors marching for safer contracts, children protesting about climate change, environmentalists protesting about CO2 emissions, tweed clad pensioners wanting to watch foxes being hunted, women demanding an end to living in fear of attack, BAME people protesting against systemic racism, anti-war protesters, unions standing outside hospitals demanding fair pay and working conditions will potentially all be illegal. This ought not to happen in a modern democracy. This feels like a slippery slope towards repression of individual to have their voice heard, i.e. totalitarianism.
Much of our knowledge of changes in social welfare, freedom, and democracy in the last hundred years is informed by the work of documentary photographers and photojournalists. Equally, much of what we know about suppression of rights has been brought to us by professional and amateur photographers like Ned. The image of a young petite red-haired woman, Patsy Stevenson, on the ground with two police officers’ knees in her back may become a defining image of our time. My son Ned’s photo of protesters toppling the statue of slave trader Edward Colston may be another. This Bill sees that protest punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment. 30 years of prior correspondence and peaceful assembly about that statue had fallen on deaf ears.
It fills me with hope when I see Ned and other youths taking a stand and showing the world what is happening. The Bill however makes dissent far more difficult and will dissuade all but the most strident. Arguably, stifling peaceful protest may make violent protest more likely. An individual with a megaphone now faces a fine of £5,000, a protester in a camp £2,500 or 3 months in jail, public nuisance 10 years in jail! These are worrying developments. If anyone thinks I’m being melodramatic, the Bill also seeks to criminalise Trespass including wild camping and off-road riding. It appears as a transference of power to the already powerful. Responsible, law abiding citizens risk being criminalised for exercising hitherto democratic right and raising legitimate concerns. The Chartists, The Tolpuddle Martyrs, The Suffragettes, those at Peterloo; many died for these freedoms and so that we can enjoy them. This Bill takes us back 200 years.
COVID-19 has tested our mettle; we have endured restrictions placed upon us, largely with good grace. We have put society before self. For us to stand idly by and allow those who we elect to lead us to use those restrictions to draft laws that suppress our freedoms, in areas other than the safeguarding of health, seems a disaster. Totalitarianism does not crash in through doors of power with a rifle in one hand and a tank for support. History shows us that it can also come about stealthily.
Remember, one person’s protest is just as valid as yours. Perhaps more so. Use your cameras to find truth and record it for posterity. The rendered image is one of the most powerful tools we as citizens have to protest. As we hopefully come out of the COVID-19 crisis don’t sleepwalk into another more sinister calamity.
Editor’s Note: Words by David Collyer, Documentary photographer and healthcare professional. See www.davidcollyer.wordpress.com, Instagram @david_collyer_photographer, Twitter @nedsoldman
Photographs by David’s son Ned Collyer, a first year Photojournalism and Documentary Photography student at the London College of Communication. Instagram @nedcollyer
The views expressed here are the author’s and not those of the RPS.
Other blogs in this series: