- By Ed Thompson, Photographer
- 1 comment
On the 15th of October 2011 people from diverse backgrounds came together to dispute the culture of greed that exists in the current financial system. The protestors planned to 'Occupy' the London Stock Exchange (L.S.X), however, they fell short of that goal and ended up occupying the space outside it, on the edge of land between the L.S.X and St Pauls Cathedral.
I’d photographed protests in London for 10 years before covering Occupy, and I’d always employed the same aesthetic: reportage-style, photographed on a 35mm SLR (later a digital SLR). Emotions, banners, drumming, horses, closed roads, police lines, kettles, tension, apathy, release. On the first night after I left OccupyLSX, I was looking at my photographs from the day and I knew they seemed the same aesthetically. I felt they deserved something else, something better. I’d previously had success photographing a series on rescued battery-farm hens, the crowning shot being a chicken wearing a jumper, what I like to call a “sucker-punch” photograph - it’s odd and before you realise what’s going on, I’ve brought you into the story through the aesthetic of the photography. As I sat on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral the next night and watched the bulk of tourists and news crews go home, I knew I had an opportunity to photograph Occupy London in a completely different way. Most protests end, they either finish their march and have a speech or they get kettled, and then, after hours of detainment, leave. Occupiers don’t leave: they occupy, they stay, and they stay all night. And if they were going to stay all night, then so was I.
One thing that makes photographing protests difficult is the chaos; they are a clutter of people, signs and signifiers where often there is very little room to manoeuvre to compose. By shooting at night and spot-lighting certain areas I was able to guide the viewer of the photographs to look at certain areas within the compositions. I’ve always been a fan of the lighting in Caravaggio’s paintings, for want of a better word, they seem filmic to me. The majority of the photographs in the first chapter of the book were all photographed in the first three nights, when the tension and expectation was at its highest, the dramatic hard lighting and strong shadows hopefully captures the drama and conspiratorial nature of the beginning of Occupy London.
The problem with covering news stories as a documentary photographer is how to get the work published. Although the picture editors I freelance for liked the series the story had already been covered by thousands of press photographers making it very hard to pitch to their editors. I had to find a way to get the story out because in November 2011 a number of newspapers claimed that no protesters were in the camp at night, I’d been there every night since it began so I knew this wasn’t true and my photographs proved they were. I made a multimedia piece with poetry by a young occupier I recorded in his tent outside the Cathedral and with the help of OccupyLSX, Occupy Wall St, Anonymous and a host of photography websites/critics/editors/bloggers it was shared to over 500,000 people in a week.
Six months after Occupy London started I had a large body of work and that with the help of occupiers’ statements I could tell their story. I embarked on trying to make a small self-published photography book via crowd-funding.
I will be giving lectures on the series at the Brighton Photo Festival 6.30pm 17th October:
And in London as part of Photomonths Radical London series on 2.30pm on the 3rd November
See more of Ed's work on his website