Thursday 1 December 2011

Nine points learnt photographing the Cambridge Public Sector Strike Action March

The 30th of November promised to be the largest Public Sector strike action for a considerable period in Britain and a direct reaction to austerity measures and revised pension plans in this sector. In the current economic crisis, it could be pivotal – either in being the start of a future change in British economic policy or as the swansong of resistance to the reduction of the public sector.

At this moment in time, I had an opportunity to see and record such an event in the shape of the local marches planned in Cambridge. Not having done this before, it was a new photographic challenge and learning experience. Consequently, I did not sleep very well the night before! I learnt and applied nine principles to improve my chances of success.

I had checked out the potential Cambridge events online and decided to start with the feeder march starting at Shire Hall, Castle Hill, apparently starting at 10am. The route to Parker's Piece was not given.

I arrived early (9:30am) and introduced myself to the police, making clear that  I was participating as a photo exercise.  No problem. The police also gave me information on the planned route and were approachable throughout the event.

I then introduced myself to the union stewards marshalling the event, again removing any concerns on my part re being able to participate as a photographer and getting some additional information.

Protesters started arriving in dribs and drabs initially. They represented a range of unions, from the NUT to Unite, Unison, ATL, UCU and AWS. Again they too were open and friendly as conversations began. The overall atmosphere was a positive festival air. I was surprised at the diversity of unions present. This was due to the revival of the Trades Council Cambridge over the past year, which organised and coordinated the days event with all the different public sector unions.

I had brought along both my SLR and an SDR camcorder, with the aim of taking both stills and video if possible. When the march got under way shortly before 11am, this proved to be a good choice as the video could capture the movement of the procession and the sound. The stills photos could be to pick out details, faces, features etcetera in-between.

The atmosphere of the march and the conversations that I had during it with police and protesters were very positive in tone through-out. This meant that I was comfortable with photographing and recording from both within the march and without. As a PC had stated, the pace of the march was quite leisurely, so I could get ahead, take pictures or video, wait for the march to engulf me and then go to the side for more recording, join in walking and talking with members of the crowd afterwards. I did not express opinions and remained impartial, but interested.

It was in this way that I also learnt of the real diversity of people there – of course primarily from all parts of the public sector. But there were also ex patients, families or others who felt a strong affinity with the objectives of the marchers. Children had been brought along too, from those in push chairs, to 6 to 12 yr olds, to one or two politically aware teens.

When the feeder march reached Parker’s Piece, there were speeches and the wait for the Addenbrookes feeder march to arrive. Then the combined mass that had swollen to several thousand set out to march through the centre of Cambridge and then back to Parker’s Piece for the last set of political speeches. This meant that I was constantly either recording or looking for photo opportunities during the full 5 hours, with little opportunity to check what I had taken.

I was therefore grateful that I had pre-prepared my SLR such that it could either be used on automatic setting, or on fixed aperture pre-set at f8 or on fixed shutter speed at 1/400s. I left the ISO setting on automatic. I did not have to think much and could just point and shoot. Since it was a sunny day, light was not an issue for exposure, however there was a risk of glare or burning of highlights on faces at some points along the route.

It was only when back in the office that I could take time to look at the material and select what to keep, how to edit and what to discard.

Watching TV reports on other demonstrations in larger cities made me realise that following the Cambridge event was a good move. It was large enough to have an atmosphere but manageable enough that I could for example get close to the speakers on Parker's Piece.

The nine take home messages from this exercise were:

  1. Check out the event in advance as best you can
  2. Prepare your photographic equipment in advance for fast shooting
  3. Arrive early at the event and talk to the police/marshalls/officials/participants about the event
  4. Treat people with respect
  5. Be impartial.
  6. Be prepared to move away from trouble quickly, should it arise.
  7. Take notes of names and participants if you can, to add value to your work..
  8. Where possible, record views from both outside and from within the demonstration.
  9. Take lots of pictures to optimise the chances of success.

You can see the photographs here:
And the video here:

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