Noni Stacey – Photography of Protest and Community

Photography of Protest and Community brings together archival material with writing and interviews produced by Noni Stacey across almost ten years of Masters and PhD research into the radical and non-hierarchical photography collectives operating in London in the 1970s: The Half Moon Photography Workshop, Exit Photography Group, the Hackney Flashers, North Paddington Community Darkroom and the Blackfriars Photography Project. As well as examining the strategies and approaches of these groups, the book surveys the ongoing social and political ferment of a decade that saw the emergence of the Women’s Liberation Movement, National Front marches and counter marches, the Grunwick Strikes, the Winter of Discontent, and the thorny endgame of the Vietnam War. The 1970s also saw a range of UK government acts on equal pay, race relations and sexual discrimination which spoke to the pressing concerns of the time.

Photography of Protest and Community could be considered especially pertinent in the context of today’s culture of protest. The last ten years have seen a surge in street activism, mobilisations and collective organising building steadily from the Occupy movement of 2011 and reaching a crescendo in 2020, which was an extraordinary year for global dissent and union militancy considering the simultaneous restrictions on freedoms necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic. In recent weeks, the murder of Sarah Everard and the proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill have once again brought the issues of police brutality and freedom of expression into sharp focus in the United Kingdom, sparking protests nationwide. Indeed, the widespread and ongoing resistance to the PCSC bill is perhaps indicative of a generation that understands the act of protest as something embedded into their daily lives.

All of these collectives rejected the space of the art gallery as a site of engagement, preferring to show work as close to the site of its production as possible, or in comparable contexts further afield.

In this context, a book titled Photography of Protest and Community might be expected to offer some historical counterpoints to our present moment, and in some ways it does. However, the book features only a handful of images of street demonstrations; the “photography of protest” in the book’s title refers not to photographs of or from protests, but the production and circulation of photographs as protest, or protest as a language or function of photography. Nor is the book a study of broader national networks of radical collectives throughout the 1970s: the central questions of the research concern operational strategies of London-based photography collectives, all but two based in the East London boroughs of Hackney and Tower Hamlets. Beginning and ending with an appraisal of the work of the Half Moon Photography Workshop (HMPW) and the magazine that emerged from it, Camerawork, Stacey deconstructs associated practices of socially and politically engaged photography that sought to reject the paternalistic gaze and “class tourism” of much social documentary of the time. For these practitioners, the politics of representation had a Marxist thrust and was inextricable from the democratisation of the means of production – cameras, darkrooms, tape recorders and the printing press – and access to independent media outside of the mainstream.

Stacey’s study is framed by the “Statement of Aims” of the Half Moon Photography Workshop, presented to the readers of Camerawork No.1 in 1976, which resolved to ask not “Is it art?”, referring to the practice of photography, but rather “Who is it for?”. This provocation served as a lodestar for much of the initial research – “Who photographs, who publishes and who encounters the image?” Many of the photographers involved in these collectives (and it’s important to note that there was much crossover, with collectives sharing multiple members) were influenced by the concept of “history from below” championed by Raphael Samuel, social historian and founder of the History Workshop movement. Emerging tangentially from the concerns of the Communist Party Historians Group throughout the 1950s, the History Workshop recognised the place of women’s history and non-academic oral histories alongside a leftwing populism that looked beyond labour movements and towards the home, the street and the everyday experiences of ordinary people. That so-called “ordinariness” was paramount over the individual heroic acts of great men so commonly prioritised by history in the singular. It is not conclusive, but a passage in Photography of Protest and Community suggests that Terry Dennett may have hosted a History Workshop at HMPW; nevertheless these gatherings were commonplace across Britain throughout the 1970s and informed much social justice activism and political activity.

Half Moon Photography Workshop jumble sale in Morpeth School, Bethnal Green, 11 March 1979. Photograph by David Gordon

“History from below” is referenced frequently by Stacey in Photography of Protest and Community, noting the collectives’ desire to make local communities the primary authors, subjects and audiences of the work produced. Ron McCormick and Chris Searle’s 1973 project Stepney Words I & II saw photographs of the East End streets overlaid with poetry written by the schoolchildren Searle taught at Sir John Cass secondary school. Exit Photography Group applied the framework of collective film-making to photography projects on inner-city deprivation, inviting academics, charity workers and politicians to contribute, and circulating prints among local people. The Hackney Flashers sought to bring images of women, the workplace and family life into community centres, trades councils and schools, creating critical debate around women’s roles as homemakers, consumers and objects of sexual desire; not as art but as agitprop. The community darkrooms in North Paddington and Blackfriars brought photographic practices and techniques into existing spaces of community activism, promoting the camera as a revolutionary tool. All of these collectives rejected the space of the art gallery as a site of engagement, preferring to show work as close to the site of its production as possible, or in comparable contexts further afield. These encounters with the image were crucial as the political power of photography only intensified in the circulation of photographs throughout communities and outside of the mainstream media.

‘Paddington by the Sea’ Community Festival, The Factory, West London, 1978. Photograph by Philip Wolmuth

Key to this approach was the development of touring exhibitions mounted on laminated panels – a technique borrowed from the portfolios of advertising photographers, which was used regularly by the collectives. Highly mobile, lightweight and robust, the panels would be produced in London and then transported at low cost using the Red Star parcel distribution network which operated on what was then British Rail. Packaged in laundry boxes, the panels travelled to galleries and community venues across the country, disseminating historical material on social struggles, contemporary socially engaged projects, political photomontage and statistical data. It was these touring exhibitions that most successfully synthesised the political aims of the collectives with their operational and practical means; involving ordinary people as both the subjects and practitioners of their own history, situating photographic production, and enshrining the radical potential of media and publishing as, in the words of John D. H. Downing, “agents of developmental power, not simply as counterinformational institutions”.

There were tensions between the concerns of political image makers and the community workers operating at street level, and an emerging theory of photography within the field of cultural studies percolating from institutions such as the Polytechnic of Central London and the University of Birmingham. In a memorable excerpt from an interview with Jo Spence, she recalls receiving an essay from Victor Burgin commissioned for Camerawork No. 3 that neither she nor other members understood: “I went back to collect the piece, and it was wonderful, and I said to Victor: ‘Oh, this is a wonderful piece of writing […] Could you write it for five-year-olds now?’” Burgin was resolute however, responding: “Why should I want to do that, and demystify myself and put myself out of a job? And anyway, it would take five times as long.”

Tensions also existed within the collectives, and between the political intent of the work and its transformative efficacy within marginalised communities. At the conclusion of Photography of Protest and Community, the question of “Who is it for?” ultimately feels slippery and difficult to resolve. It’s an unavoidable detail that the majority of the photographers involved in these radical collectives were not in fact from, or even living in, the communities they worked with and represented, and many came from more comfortable, middle class backgrounds. Stacey acknowledges this in the book’s final pages, noting that the focus of her research shifted over time from the relationship between the communities being represented and those doing the representing, to the interrelations between the different collectives and the internal community dynamics within those networks. Whilst attempts were apparently made to contact local people who may have engaged with these projects, worked in the darkrooms or appeared in the photographs, their voices feel sadly absent from the book.

For these practitioners, the politics of representation had a Marxist thrust and was inextricable from the democratisation of the means of production – cameras, darkrooms, tape recorders and the printing press – and access to independent media outside of the mainstream.

Stacey’s monumental effort in collating primary research by way of interviews with key participants is both a blessing and a curse; testimony is contradictory, sometimes ambiguous, and, as would have been in the case in organisational meetings of the collectives, certain voices dominate. Accusations are made, and an unsavoury atmosphere of “he said, she said” surfaces throughout the final chapter covering the fractious demise of Camerawork. The organising principles and editorial strategies of many media and publishing collectives of the time were derived from the informal methods developed at small-scale feminist consciousness-raising meetings at the outset of the women’s liberation movement, and there were successes and drawbacks to these approaches. I’m reminded of Jo Freeman’s widely circulated 1972 essay “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” in which she claimed that, rather than a bona fide method of non-hierarchical organising, structurelessness and informal communication – for example a lack of chair, agenda or fixed objective to meetings – often reinforced elitist and exclusive practices.

Whilst it is a shame that the many reproductions in the book feel flattened and stripped of their material qualities in tight crops (Samuel Bibby has noted this elsewhere in terms of the unique format of Camerawork), it’s a treat to be able to view what is now extremely scarce material, largely held in personal archives. The extent and thoroughness of Stacey’s research is commendable, and it has resulted in an important book that is as culturally complex, paradoxical and visually distinctive as the collectives it evaluates, and the febrile decade in which they worked.

Noni Stacey
Lund Humphries, 2020

Workers assembling on an engine line, Luton, in the book Carwork, with text by Sarah Cox, photograph by Robert Golden

All Rights Reserved: Text © Lillian Wilkie; Images © various/Lund Humphries