The Medium Obscures the Message

Jon Day

One of the most striking things about yesterday’s student protests, culminating in the ransacking of Conservative Party HQ at Millbank Tower, was not the numbers involved (50,000 or so), or the violence (sporadic and not very serious), but the shiny and sterile quality of many of the images of dissent we’ve been offered in today’s papers.

Window smashing

This iconic moment of window smashing was a gift to the Daily Mail, but doesn’t exactly justify their description of ‘militants from far-Left groups’ who ‘whipped up a mix of middle-class students and younger college and school pupils into a frenzy’. The phalanx of photographers at the back clearly outnumber any militants or frenzied schoolchildren in the shot.

In other photographs the whole thing appears incredibly sanitised, as though it were part of a fashion shoot or music video. Here the protesters look more like members of a boy-band than violent revolutionaries:

This picture was on the Daily Mail site, too, but they’ve taken it down, presumably having realised that it doesn’t quite tell the story they’d like it to, though it surely doesn’t tell the story the protesters would like it to either.


  • 11 November 2010 at 4:56pm
    willharwood says:
    Perhaps more to do with the difference between pictures hurriedly taken on 35mm film and those shot with a DSLR? Expensive kit does tend to give the well-lit look of a fashion shoot.

    • 12 November 2010 at 9:54am
      Jon Day says: @ willharwood
      And the fact that everyone has a camera these days, so these perfectly timed photographs are far more common. That the Mail, however briefly, used the shot is what I found interesting,

      It reminded me of a shoot Vice magazine did at the Parisian riots in 2007:

      Their conclusion:

      'Rioting used to be something you did because you were starving or to stop the government from stealing your land. But in 1968, students in Paris made rioting chic. Those French rioters look pretty lame now, in their wannabe beatnik, throwback (even then), style. Sure, Berlin's rioters can work punk at a protest, but it's the hated riot cops who always look best.'

      Sad, even though tongue in cheek.

    • 13 November 2010 at 7:01am
      conflated says: @ Jon Day
      The superb quote seems to be from another vice post:

    • 13 November 2010 at 9:53am
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ conflated
      Demonstrators should have access to disco riot gear.

    • 13 November 2010 at 10:11am
      conflated says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      Well, when demand is shown ...

      ... or they could always assemble some sort of DIY steampunk-style riot gear. Imagine Ned Kelly meets Daniel Cohn Bendit, but without the armed robbery that would have resulted from a real meeting of that kind.

    • 13 November 2010 at 11:01am
      Jon Day says: @ conflated
      Yep, my mistake, thanks conflated.

  • 12 November 2010 at 2:35am
    rpmcmurphy says:
    Sorry Jon, but the most striking thing isn't 'the shiny and sterile quality of many of the images of dissent'.

    Nobody cares about photos in the papers - it's the youtube clips that matter.

  • 12 November 2010 at 1:15pm
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    I think you're on to something here, Jon Day. I love the "iconic moment" picture, it reminds me of this highly-aestheticised photograph of Palestinian protesters taken by James Nachtwey. They're both wonderful pictures, in their own way. In the Mail's, who placed that back-lighting? And look at someone's little face inside in the hole in the glass at top left. The one single policeman's helmet is all that's necessary to establish what's going on. And by the way, I think the glass-smasher is a woman, for what that's worth. It's almost Helmut Newton without the sex, but with the violence.

  • 12 November 2010 at 4:32pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    Do they work in teams? There are dozens of people snapping the ballet of breaking the glass, while his or her mate (you could be right AJP) is briefing the crowd on the background. Maybe he's the press secreatry of the Student Union.

  • 12 November 2010 at 4:41pm
    Jon Day says:
    Here's a wider, uncropped view of the same scene:

    • 12 November 2010 at 5:38pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ Jon Day
      Heavens. That's not at all the same message. For the full absurd impact you have to get up another window and put the two photos next to each other.

    • 12 November 2010 at 7:50pm
      Geoff Roberts says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      Right! There are at least twenty cameras pointing at the window, with two coppers watching passively from a convenient distance. Could this have been an agent provocateur, posing as an angry student? The tactic has been used in other places as a way of inciting violence and to justify a 'clamp-down' as it's called in Sunspeak - i.e. stomp all over the demonstrators. Looks like a set-up to me.

    • 15 November 2010 at 1:53pm
      danny says: @ Geoff Roberts
      Maybe. However a photographer acquaintance who was there on the day (I can't see him in the uncropped photo though) reckons that the relatively few police officers there were probably prepared to allow the damage to be done - and be captured by the many cameras (and CCTV) present - and then arrest the rioters later rather than try to physically intervene at the time and risk escalation. Sounds plausible to me.

    • 16 November 2010 at 5:22pm
      Geoff Roberts says: @ danny
      I guess you're right on this, Danny, but aren't the police supposed to prevent crime, rather than stand and watch it happening? I still find that figure with his back to the camera a little unnerving - what's his role in this scene?

    • 17 November 2010 at 6:59am
      pinhut says: @ Geoff Roberts
      This completely depends on the wider aim.

      Sometimes, stopping violence is the 'right' thing to do, in terms of the narrative. Sometimes violence needs to happen in order to facilitate the next move.

      At the same time Cameron was speaking about the release of Aung San Suu Kyi's release and 'freedom of speech, democracy and human rights' there was a story emerging of meetings with defence contractors eager to plug 'a gap' that would prevent a repeat of this week's protest and included deploying the AfPak drones in UK airspace.

      Please note also that Merseyside police have already deployed a drone.

    • 17 November 2010 at 1:12pm
      danny says: @ pinhut
      Very interesting comments both.

      Geoff - you're right of course, and I guess the police's desire to avoid escalation by making their arrests at a time and in a manner of their choosing doesn't exactly conflict with their satisfaction with spectacular pictures of rioters that serve to feed the law enforcement mill. I doubt the rank and file was very happy about the fire extinguisher though.

      Pinhut - the Merseyside drone sounds pretty scary. There's a report here though which has it grounded because they didn't get a licence from the Civil Aviation Authority which I think is pretty funny. I guess licences may flow soon enough ... but I wonder if the operation of a drone like this at a protest could be disrupted in a non-violent way - by, say, the strategic use of balloons? I'd like to see an attempt to outlaw balloons.

    • 17 November 2010 at 2:37pm
      pinhut says: @ danny

      The question is: should we not live in a society where the state does not deploy such drones. Is it our country or not? Not what tactics should we adopt to counter them after the fact.

      Look at the issue of control orders, brilliantly written about at the LRB by Gareth Peirce. The Tories said they would end them. We now have a situation where MI5 is lobbying publicly and privately for their retention. This is a posture that keeps repeating, the performance of party politics encountering the reality of the state's demands.

      Similarly, these payouts to the Guantanamo men, the money is a blood price on changing the law to ensure, not that UK citizens are not maltreated/tortured in the future, but that they never receive compensation of this sort as, ultimately, the aim will be to stop them ever having a day in court (just as the US has used state secrets privilege to avoid giving any chance of redress to its victims). So, I'm not really celebrating that one, either. Justice in those cases would involve the trial and conviction of those responsible, within the intelligence agencies and up to and including Mr David Miliband.

    • 17 November 2010 at 4:09pm
      Geoff Roberts says: @ danny
      I don't know whether you have a link to this blog, but here it is:-
      One or two interesting insights here!

    • 17 November 2010 at 5:53pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ pinhut
      That Merseyside drone reminds me of The Prisoner, I think it's totally scary. It's no good just declaring them illegal in Britain; I agree with Danny, someone's got to figure out how to simply and safely make them ineffective.

    • 18 November 2010 at 12:40am
      pinhut says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      "An MI5 officer at the heart of allegations surrounding the abuse of British resident and US detainee Binyam Mohamed will not be prosecuted."

      On cue, as predicted.

      "Simply and safely"?

      Whatever method you use will be deemed an act of terrorism.

    • 18 November 2010 at 12:45am
      pinhut says: @ Geoff Roberts
      Only one of those covers is the actual uncropped shot (position of the right arm).

      And one of those covers is certainly *not* like the others...

    • 18 November 2010 at 9:24am
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      “Simply and safely”?

      Whatever method you use will be deemed an act of terrorism.

      I just meant that even if they were illegal in Britain, there would be plenty of other places that they'd still be used; so rather then outlawing them in just Britain (not that there's anything wrong with that) it would be best to make them unusable world-wide. An example would be tipping pots of paint over them, something that disabled them without endangering anyone.

  • 12 November 2010 at 5:58pm
    scoeman says:
    Noticed that the BBC News website was encouraging people to send in their images of the demo (without the courtesy of forewarning them that the images would be handed over to the police on request, as usual).

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