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More photography = more democracy?

June 15, 2007

The advent of digital photography and the increasing number of people having access to it have, if anything else, given rise to hopes for a new process of democratisation (see for example one of my links to The Democratic Image blog). Although we should be very careful not to associate too easily the issue of greater access to visual representation (itself limited and fragmented in practice) with any greater access to political power and processes of decision-making, one area that seems to get a benefit from all that is the production and distribution of news. People are given new opportunities to visually record events, and as a new kind of independent reporters, or so called citizen journalists, to challenge the mainstream flow of news by corporate media and give voice, or, better to say, view to the own stories.

It is also a rather shared understanding, and certainly one I became convinced of since the public dissemination of Abu Ghraib photos, that photography has a powerful impact on society and the interpretation of reality.

I’m writing about all this, as I was recently informed of an incident in Hyde Park, the student area in Leeds. The police brutally and unnecessarily attacked, as it is claimed, some peaceful house party-goers in order to disperse them. The incident seems to be under investigation by an independent body now. But what grabbed my attention from the start was the relative quality and mainly the importance of photographic documents which were shown to me in order for those in the party to support their claim of officers lashing dogs and baton charging against them with no adequate reason.

Photographs such as those below gave me a graphic feeling and general indication of what was going on (photos by Callum Barker, Jess Woodall, and Nicky Crompton) :

Police in house party by Jess Woodall Police in house partyPolice in house party by Nick Crumpton


The most striking picture was the following (photo by Callum Barker):

Police in house party

Whereas a more artistic tone is captured here (photo by Evan Harris):

Police in house party

The way that people will interpret the above story, despite these or any other pictures, may not change in the end. Stereotypes of students and vague ideals of law and order may be too dominant for some people when they judge things. However, I think the ability of the people there to capture those photos, just with their mobile phone cameras, enhanced their chance to have their complaint heard, both officially and publicly, as they attracted more attention and credit. I believe this story would have much less chance, if any at all, to find a place in the news or even to have a fair non-biased (but from both sides) representation, without its visual recordings. And if in the end it succeeds to strengthen accountability, it reinforces democratic processes too.

(For more details and photos, there is this facebook link: Survivors of the peaceful party on 19 Hessle Terrace and 20 Hessle Avenue)

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