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Friday, 22 May 2009

Adrian Arbib on Solsbury Hill and Thought Crime

"I guess I've always been interested in it since I was 16 when I was given a Nikkormat by my grandfather. A wonderful piece of solid machinery that was as much a mark of being a 'grown up' as anything else.

I did a Foundation Course in Art and the camera was always there. As I became more politically aware I realised how powerful ' the image' was and rather grandiosely set about trying to use it for social change. It was at that point I decided to go to the London College of printing (LCP) to do the BA course in film and photography.

To be honest it wasn't really that helpful for me and at that time the Inner London Education authority was being savagely cut back by by the government. Marxist based courses like the one at LCP were particularly affected.

I left the course after two years and went to work as an assistant for a London advertising photographer, a New Zealander called Russell Falkingham. Russell was a great teacher.

I also worked as a freelance assistant for a bit. Plus I also worked as an R type colour printer for a London lab called Presentation Colour in Hatton Garden. I then went travelling with my Nikkormat. I backpacked my way through Africa and when I got back I took a selection of pictures to Tony Stone (now Getty Images ) who immediately started selling my images and sending me cheques for the sales - there's nothing like that for encouraging a young aspiring photographer. I fear that sort of climate, sadly, doesn't exist these days .

I have known the Guardian columnist George Monbiot ever since I was a teenager and we used to plot together about how we would change the world for the better. How mad is that ?

He'd been working for the BBC wildlife unit in Bristol and getting a bit frustrated with things. He rang me up one day and said would I'd like to do an investigative travel book with him in a remote province in Indonesia called West Papua. The publishers needed pictures and would pay our expenses. I jumped at the chance.

I returned after a gruelling but inspiring year of traveling . The pictures were published in a book called Poisoned Arrows and in the UK broadsheets and in Holland and Germany.

I then worked with George again in Kenya a couple of years later on a book called "No Man's land' about about how the traditional herders were losing their land at the hands of agencies like the World Bank. Again this was more work centring on the environment.

I also worked and wrote a story on the San bushmen in Namibia ( working for Christian aid and Associated Press during the 1989 elections there). A bit later I worked for Christian aid and Reuters in Sudan. Nearly all the stories had an environment connection.

So when I returned to the UK in 1993 the road protest movement had just started and it was about the most interesting thing happening in this country at the time.

( Over the years the majority of my work has been with aid agencies on issue based worked - so I suppose that work could be called "environmental" - in fact for clarification it could be said that for environmental photography read social documentary. It's a pretty fine line between the two.)

I then got involved with the Solsbury Hill road protest. I think my pictures might have been the first in the national press on Solsbury Hill . Twyford Down had happened just before it and I guess the news media were quite excited to have a new "issue" to report on.

It was the most interesting thing going on at the time in the UK. Having seen all the chaos in Africa and Indonesia largely due to global capital investments asset-stripping countries in the guise of development - or " globalisation" as it later came to be coined, it was refreshing to see a group of people on the protest sites who appeared to know what was going on. And were at least doing something about it.

I guess I'm sounding a bit partial here. It should be made clear that the level of mistrust of the press by the protesters was quite a significant hurdle to get over. I had rocks thrown at me at Twyford Down.

The truth be told it's taken me 15 years ( the time since I took the pictures) to achieve a level of trust that makes me feel comfortable to actually publish them in book.

I don't remember the police being that involved. It was generally the private security that were the ever present force and the ones that did the removing of protesters from the site, often violently.

The police generally cared not to get involved, even when someone was injured.

It was the protesters and security guards that didn't want their pictures taken. Of course when things became heated people didn't care about having their pictures taken so quite a few of my images are from the thick of it eg a protester being dragged off site.

I always think the quieter moments make the better pictures - but that's often when people say " don't take my picture". I guess I became pretty obsessed with getting the story so I spent probably in the region of three months on and off site . Living up the trees and on the ground I became a more familiar face and consequently was trusted more by the protesters. I hope that is reflected in the images.

I suppose I am still involved in environmental photography, but more by accident than anything else.

I worked as La Repubblica's photographic correspondent in London for over six years trying to get away from protest because it was making me physically ill with all the stress .

Not just the stress of the actual actions but the stress of selling the pictures and getting the stories into the media. A media that was becoming more and more celebrity orientated by the day.

However when I moved to Oxford I did a story for the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph on a community canal boatyard that was being sold off by British waterways to to be turned into luxury investment properties.

And then I got very involved in the campaign to save it (www.jcby.co.uk). That was six years ago and I'm still at it. We've been through and won 2 planning inquiries and now were are hoping to buy it back for the community.

Also I was covering a local story for the Guardian and BBC wildlife on Radley Lakes where N Power were filling much loved wildlife lakes with waste fuel ash from their power station at Didcot . Masked security guards and lawyers issued me with an injunction to stop me taking pictures. This was subsequently taken up by the NUJ and I ended up on Channel 4 News

Yes things have changed. It's all got very Orwellian these days and security is one of the largest growth industries that we have in the UK.

They film everything and we're not allowed to take pictures anymore. Police are obsessed with evidence gathering. You go to any demo these days and the police are filming everything. And one wonders when they get the time to look at it all.

The recent demos at the G20 in London were responded to with incredible force once the media had left. The police stood by as the RBS bank was smashed up, I'm sure this was allowed to justify a violent response later.

This was all within weeks of the report on policing and protest from the Government select committee on Human rights. It was a flagrant and arrogant dismissal of its findings ( which in themselves were pretty weak) .

The key environmental issue in the UK at the moment is climate change. As we all know world leaders consider this to be the greatest threat to mankind yet those who protest against government inaction are being locked up as criminals.

I understand that currently the trend is for arresting people for "conspiracy to commit" a demonstration. i.e. thought crime.

The mere thought of an "action at a coal-fired power station" is enough to have you locked up overnight and possibly /probably face a custodial sentence. The argument that you are doing it to stop a greater crime no longer cuts any ice in the courts... and of course if you were a photographer covering this you would also be arrested and have your camera equipment confiscated."

But it's not all "climate change" there's also been an ongoing sustained undermining of our communities for profit at the hands of a broken and corrupt planning system ie loss of pubs , loss of shops, loss of community space . Anyone who stands up against this is seen as a domestic extremist.

Things are changing now that that economic model has faltered. The political parties are talking about "communities" now. Perhaps it's just talk but it's certainly our job to make sure that they stick to their promises.

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