Across one weekend in early June, I attended and documented two Black Lives Matter protests here in the UK. As a white man, I might not be able to fully understand what black people specifically have gone through as a result of decades of systemic racism but I can listen and learn from their experiences and try to help share their stories.
Well, here I am.
The first protest I attended was in Hitchin, Hertfordshire on June 6th for which approximately 550-600 people turned out. We stood with each other, talked, read poetry, told stories and we all participated in a nearly nine-minute kneel. It started with the playing of Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ and it was here where I took this photograph: ‘Our Black Children Matter’.
Some of the stories being told were difficult to hear and they weren’t limited to experiences of younger generations. The older generation, those who came to the UK in 1948 on the HMT Empire Windrush (the first large ship to transport West Indians to the UK to help rebuild the country after WWII), had to endure the colour bar: No Irish, No Blacks.
No Irish, No Blacks
Signs like this were common, even just 50 years ago in the UK, and were often seen in windows advertising jobs and properties for sale or rent. Other stories we listened to involved racism on the streets; being spat at and being verbally abused. Yet other stories involved racism at work. Some people spoke about how they were prevented from getting a job due to their skin colour and then when they did, it was menial work.
The stories resonated with those who had themselves experienced the same treatment, as well as those of us learning about them for the first time. Tears flowed as a result of hearing pain that had been caused – and for many there, from reliving their own experiences through the words of others.
Speaking purely as someone who focuses a great deal of his attention on street photography, it’s times like that when it can be difficult — or inappropriate — to invade someone’s privacy simply to get a photo. On the one hand, there’s the desire to capture what is obviously a powerful moment but you have to exhibit a well-practised sense of restraint and respect.
I was there to document the event as somewhat of a distanced observer. However, that became impossible. It was during moments like this that I couldn’t help but think, ‘What have we done?’
…and perhaps more constructively, ‘How can we heal?’
The second event (June 7th) was at the US Embassy in London and started at 2pm. It would be substantially larger than the previous day’s gathering. I decided to bring my Nikon F2, 50mm f/1.4 lens (my go-to combination for street photography), three rolls of ILFORD FP4 PLUS film and a roll of Lomography’s Potsdam 100 film (not shot).
It may seem obvious but it needs to be said: if white people do not change, then nothing changes.
I planned to arrive early, travelling from Hitchin to Vauxhall station by way of the overground and Tube. As luck would have it, I arrived earlier than planned, giving me extra time to scout the area for the best lighting and angles before everyone else turns up. I wouldn’t have time to do this later on and there were already a few people there.
The first thing that struck me, was the relatively young age of the people protesting. That and the multi-racial mix. There was a significant proportion of white people there which, to me, meant attitudes were changing. It may seem obvious but it needs to be said: if white people do not change, then nothing changes.
Walking down to the embassy I noticed people were lining both sides of the road. I set to work. I don’t shoot as much as you might think. I try to take my time, looking for interesting people, different angles and generally getting a feel for what’s going on. This last part is important, as even a friendly and peaceful protest can change quickly. You need to be aware of that.
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At that moment in time it had a relaxed atmosphere, thankfully that didn’t change as more and more people turned up. And boy, did they. I estimated we numbered in the tens of thousands of people that day. As an aside, I later heard 65,000 people had turned up.
Racism still exists.
I always seem to end up in the middle of a march and this one wasn’t going to be any different. At first, the crowd walked past the Embassy before turning down a side street. On finding our way blocked, we halted, turned, and kneeled. Perhaps a minute later, we were off again but heading back in the direction we came from.
And so, we walked, and kneeled and walked again, stopping from time to time. It was at this point that I shot some of the quieter, more reflective shots of those either in the crowd or standing to one side. The purpose of these was get more of a mix of the people there.
Occasionally, I would stop and move to one side to view things from a different perspective and, after gathering my thoughts, I would re-join the throng as we set off again. The crowd did not stay at the Embassy for too long, returning to Vauxhall station before crossing the Thames, it was at this point that I took the photo titled ‘Impassioned’.
This lady was standing on the metal barrier in the centre of Vauxhall Bridge. With the crowd flowing past she was talking to them and encouraging them on.
After crossing the river, the crowd seemed to be making its way to Buckingham Palace. Google Maps seemed to indicate that their final destination would be Parliament Square. By this time it was 4:30pm and I didn’t stay too much longer, as I was running low on film and energy.
You realise pretty quickly how small your view of such a large event can be.
When I returned home, I heard that 27 police officers had been injured. I didn’t see any of that. In fact, I saw no violence whatsoever. Other than a few choice words that was about it. You realise pretty quickly how small your view of such a large event can be.
What did I learn from going to these protests? Racism still exists.
It might not be as in the open today as it was in the past but it is still here. If someone thinks they can get away with it, they will likely try. As for myself, I may think myself open-minded and anti-racist, but I still have old, learned, hidden biases that I need to examine.
When Gil Scott Heron sang his song, he was talking about the revolution in our minds. I may only be one person who wishes to change their way of thinking and acting, but if we all do it then real change does happen.
Thank you for reading.
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all lives matter
Agreed. However stating that in this context is like saying all houses matter when your neighbour’s is on fire and then watching it burn.
Indeed you are correct, all lives matter. But I think they are saying ‘black lives matter too’ rather than ‘only black lives matter’.
Thank you James for the words and pictures. While I’m sure that racism here in the UK is not on the same scale as it is in the US, it is here. In the last couple of weeks I’ve heard some comments about the Chinese, French and Germans which I had to respond to as they were to me just blind prejudice. Then last week talking to an ex serviceman was pretty disappointed at his response to the throwing into the canal in Bristol that statue of the slave trader Colston. He said you can’t change history then proceeded to go on about the A-Rabs and how they started the slavery thing then the other Africans who were involved, pretty well saying it was their fault and the English were not to blame. I am still annoyed about it. I wish I’d thought at the time to mention that in Germany they’ve banned the swastika and there are no longer statues of Hitler. I did argue that while we can’t change history, that we don’t have to celebrate scumbags by keeping their statues in public places, including that of cecil rhodes in Oxford.
I suppose I’m saying that you don’t have to be black to be indignant at the ignorance and prejudice. What you’ve shown is that you are willing to put yourself out to be part of these amazing protests.
M y wife is black and our son and daughter are of course of mixed heritage. Fortunately our family has not had to deal with racism personally.
Keep it up James, it’s much appreciated.
Thank you very much for your reply. I agree about the scale of racism being different here than the US, but as you say, we are not exempt from it. History is also a difficult subject, do we hold the past up to our standards? Well, no, because it was different then. In two hundred years time we will not be likely to live up to their standards, whatever that may be. I’m not saying it was okay. Slavery is never okay and that was a massive business then. I do agree that we should no longer ‘celebrate’ these people with statues in public places. Good to hear that your family has not had to deal with racism. I hope more families, all families, have the same situation in years to come.
I have been doing some of this documentary work as well. I have to say, your images could have been taking here on the west coast of the USA. Same language reflecting the same issues. Nice work.
Hi Paul, thanks. I had hoped to go to another demonstration last weekend however it was moved last minute due to a potential clash with a counter demo by the far right. These are very momentous times indeed.
James, thanks for your words and images. They are powerful, indeed. As a mid-50s white man in the US, who has also taken up the cause of civil rights and equal justice in the US Courts, I am all too keenly aware of just how bad it is over here. I confess, based upon my work I understand how poorly the “system” treats any person of color or who is different than the non-existent “average American.”. While, I certainly will never truly “live” the struggle, I at least can try and be mindful of it. Nevertheless, I never knew how bad the UK’s struggle with racism has been and how in so many awful ways it seems at least as bad as here. Thank you for bringing this forward in such a sensitive and meaningful way in both words and images.
Thank you for your kind words. I have to admit I had a little bit of help from the great man himself (I’m talking of EM, of course) who helped push me in the right direction. I may be in my early forties but I have seen race riots in the UK and when it gets to that level, you know it is bad. I think one of the worst cases, at least in the public eye, would be the murder of Stephen Lawrence followed by the subsequent Macpherson Enquiry. I won’t add too much except to say that it pretty much destroyed how the Police looked to the public.