photograph as document # 1 – eyewitnesses?

“Find some examples of news stories where ‘citizen journalism’ has exposed or highlighted abuses of power. How do these pictures affect the story, if at all? Are these pictures objective? Can pictures ever be objective?” – Context and Narrative Coursebook

I will use the reporting around the death of the newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson (1) at the demonstrations against the G20 summit in London in April 2009 as my main example here.

On the first of April 2009, there were large demonstrations in London focussed on the start of the second G20 summit which was to take place the next day. Policing of the demonstrations featured “kettling”,where large numbers of people are held within a rigidly maintained police cordon (the image here is of hot water, held – and possibly even brought to boiling point – in a kettle).

Ian Tomlinson, a newspaper vendor, collapsed and died within the cordon. At first there were strong official denials that he had been in contact with the police before he collapsed; indeed papers such as the Evening Standard (2) maintained that, “Police [were] pelted with bricks as they help dying man” – a headline juxtaposed with a standard, wide, illustrative demo shot printed over two pages, taken from behind the police line. This photograph was not taken at either the place or the time that Tomlinson died; instead it was of a later phase of the protests when police cleared a squatter camp in another part of the city. Smoke hangs in the air; the police – outnumbered in the photograph by demonstrators and with their backs to us – ie we are protected from the violence by them – wait, braced against possible violence from the protesters.

This is an almost perfect example of the established media backing up the discourses of authority and could be compared with other deflections of blame from heavy-handed policing onto the people being policed, such as the Sun’s front-page claims that Liverpool supporters at the Hillsburgh “urinated on police, pick-pocketed dead victims and prevented brave PCs giving the kiss of life to some of the victims at Hillsborough” (3, Guardian, 7/7/2004).

The circumstances around Ian Tomlinson’s death were exposed much more quickly than those pertaining at Hillsborough. A still photograph published in the Observer prompted 4 sets of pictures, taken on a variety of devices to be made public. These pictures, recorded at the time of his death by people who were in the area from a number of viewpoints, all contributed to a single narrative. Tomlinson walking in front of a line of advancing policemen; a single policeman charging forward, pushing Tomlinson to the ground and hitting him with a truncheon; Tomlinson hitting his head as he fell; Tomlinson lying on the ground and then being helped up and walking away, with timestamps establishing that this was very shortly before his final collapse and death. All of this was placed in sequence by digital timestamps, and the appearances of the various picture sources in the other sets of pictures.

The constable who pushed Tomlinson was identified as a result of this, tried for manslaughter, found not guilty, and dismissed from the police force for gross misconduct; official investigation into policing at the G20 summit made recommendations for changes.

At first glance this would appear to be a fairly clear example of citizen journalism, with “the truth” being exposed, not by the actions of the media but by evidence made public by individuals involved in the events. However, I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that.

While the Evening Standard fits neatly into the role of right-wing/pro-establishment-line traditional media organ, the “counter-truth” still required traditional media  – the Observer/Guardian, fulfilling their stereotype as a counter to the official account of events – to make its evidence widely known. This is not a case of something “going viral”, or “citizen journalism”, instead it seems closer to the BBC’s internal description of content sourced in this way – “User Generated Content”.  It has been filtered through the normal channels for news and current affairs rather than providing an alternative network to them. The message it contains fits comfortably within the spectrum of accepted positions on the policing of demonstrations and the relationship between the police and the public.

Also, not all the pictures were taken by “members of the public” – the initial video (published 7/4/09) sent to the Guardian (5) was taken by a US investment banker, in London on business, but attending the demonstration out of interest and the fourth video (published 21/4/09) was taken by an anonymous bystander, but the other two videos (8/4/09, Channel 4 news; 9/4/09, Guardian) were taken by a Channel 4 news crew and a freelance journalist respectively; the still published in the Observer (4) on the 6th April was also taken by a freelance news photographer (who had already reported the incident to the Independent Police Complaints Commission) and not a member of the public.

The difference between “now” – a time when the electronic dissemination of digitalised information, including pictures, can happen almost instantaneously using the almost invisible/unowned service of the internet – and “then” – a time when analogue representations required huge amounts of infrastructure to transmit them to much smaller, geographically limited audiences is not that these pictures have only just started being made – there are almost endless examples of stills and film footage of historical atrocities dating back to the birth of both mediums – is primarily the ease by which individuals can share their point of view with other people likely to agree with them.

It is not about persuasion – readers of the Guardian are perhaps more likely to entertain the idea that the police mistreat peaceful demonstrators; readers of the Daily Mail are more likely to believe that the police are protecting people like them from the actions of violent anarchists – but about confirmation of the reader or viewer’s existing beliefs. Barrett’s final question from his list of questions to ask when describing the content images “Does it change my view of the world?” (Barrett, 42) is almost always answered I would say with a “No”.

However hard we try to suppress the predjudices (literally, “pre-judgement” in the sense that we are each a court of our own opinions and beliefs) we bring to a picture , we are not very good at it.  At this point, I should of course point out that my position here is certainly hugely determined by my status as a Guardian-reading, left-leaning, university-educated individual who works in the media and took part in peaceful demonstrations, during the 1980s. My “natural” inclinations are not to view the police actions in a case like this as strictly neutral, for example.

The limits of what we may take from pictures is greatly limited by the extent of the network that is distributing them. “The media” portrays one range of views and not the full spectrum; groups that form through “social media” occupy a different network and as such can portray a different range of views and beliefs which may overlap with those of the conventional media, but they may very well not.

Facebook pictures from Tahrir Square in Cairo taken during the Arab Spring may well show a very different range of truths compared with the official media and their intention is less likely to be to analyse events  (or give a view sympathetic to the authorities) and more likely to be to inspire (or incite, depending on your point of view).  Whether we believe those truths largely depends on who we are when we see them and how likely we are to accept the channel transmitting them  as truthful.

I am unlikely to chance across an Arabic language social media site (or bits of facebook that are in Arabic for that matter) but the very fact of their existence online, means that I am much more likely to see pictures posted there (and to be able to translate what the surrounding text says) than I would have been in the days of purely physical media. But while I would never have found a stash of photocopied samizdat documents exposing the wrongs of the post-1968 Czechoslovak government, let alone be able to understand them.

I can easily find pictures from Cairo, or from Independence Square in Kyiv or any one of a number of other places round the world where news is happening and people are at odds with their rulers. Indeed, if I stumble across something I feel the world should be aware of I can take pictures and have them online in minutes without the need to send them to a specific media outlet. This is the difference between citizen journalism and the mass media of the past, rather than there being any great distinction between the pictures taken then or pictures taken now.

It is also worth saying that the result of the exposure of what happened on the 1st April 2009 in the city of London, was that an individual policeman was tried, acquitted and dismissed. Recommendations were made about the general behaviour of the Police towards public protests;  censure was restricted to an individual, low-ranking participant, not the people who decided the general course of the operation to police this, and other demonstrations. It takes more than photographs of individuals behaving badly, or isolated incidents even, to build up a picture that will be acknowledged to be institutional by anyone close enough to the institution in question to get something done about it.

Likewise, the Abu Ghraib photographs resulted in the conviction of low-ranking people involved in the detention of people in Iraq and it was a single marine who was convicted of manslaughter after head camera (and therefore ‘neutral’) footage of him shooting a wounded Talib in Afghanistan was found by the authorities. By concentrating on individual ‘true’ incidents, the overarching system is able to regulate itself by dealing with individual “rotten apples”; wider, more general truths about systematic wrong-doing require a different treatment of evidence and facts. The Nuremberg defence of “Just following orders” quite rightly is not accepted in court, but to root out and confront  the people who actual gave the orders and to change the system that allowed the orders to be given in the first place requires a much wider and far-reaching process of investigation.

To conclude, since this is a course about photography while this post has probably wandered off into territory more normally associated with philosophy or politics,  it should be noted that almost all of the pictures produced by people at the scene were stills taken from more general video footage of events; the fact that they were not originally intended to show exactly what they later were used to show (ie in the Channel 4 footage, the incident happened behind the ostensible subject-matter of a journalist doing a piece to camera)  makes them less  about the photographer’s intentions (ie subjective) and therefore more capable of providing a view which can be perceived as objective of an event which just happened to occur while they were filming.

Taking individual still images implies a much more deliberate process of selection (editing) on the part of the photographer; finding the right frame to show what actually happened and then finding other frames to corroborate it in other pieces of footage is about constructing a truth from verifiable evidence. What that truth should be is the result of the needs of the person doing the constructing. Those needs are determined by the viewpoint of that person.

As Barthes set out nearly 55 years ago in The Photographic Message (Barthes, 15-31) , all photographs (providing they have not been manipulated after being taken) are a record of something that happened in front of someone with a camera. This provides them with some Indexical/Denotative content that is absolutely linked to something occurring in the real world. However, the meaning of that Denotative content is instantly interpreted through the set of Connotations it activates in the mind of the viewer (and has been taken through the filter of the connotative material in the head of the photographer). Som it conceals that initial kernel of reality beneath a mass of subjectivity determined by positions in play at the time of the pictures creation and its later viewing. Thus, depending on where we are positioned historically, we look either at a picture of a terrorist or a freedom fighter, an act of state-sanctioned violence or an act necessary to protect society from those who oppose it.

However hard we may believe our view is untainted by second hand connotations, we are unlikely to be totally objective about anything other than the most plain facts. And while this is illustrated well in this advert (for the Guardian of course, since it’s me writing this) its argument could always be extended again and again as more and more viewpoints and their contexts are added to the three shown here…


  1. Wikipedia Overview –
  2. Facsimile of Pages 6-7, Evening Standard 02/04/2009 (Internet Archive):
  3.  What the Sun said 15 Years Ago (Guardian, 7/7/2004):
  4. Police ‘assaulted’ bystander who died during G20 protests (The Observer, 05/04/2009):
  5. Ian Tomlinson death: Guardian video reveals police attack on man who died at G20 protest  (The Guardian, 07/04/2009):
  6. Criticizing Photographs – An Introduction to Understanding Images – Terry Barrett (McGraw-Hill, 4th Edition, 2006)
  7. Image-Music-Text – Roland Barthes; trans. Stephen Heath (Fontana, 1977)

All links were accessed 31/10/15

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