With key talks being held in the upstairs performance theatre, and a range of smaller discussions taking place in the breaks in smaller conference rooms around the building, the range and depth of speakers was overwhelming. My first ever NPS, it definitely encouraged me to add this event to my list of must-attend events.
2011 is Liverpool’s year of Social Justice, with the tag line of a City of Radicals. The Look11 photography festival also carries the theme, A Call To Action? And it is perhaps therefore rather fitting that key themes discussed at NPS 3 included social justice, legislation over orphan works and photographing civil protests, and how the internet has changed the game for collaboration and photo-sharing in recent years.
The popular Symposium kicked off on Friday afternoon, with a discussion about surveillance featuring guest speakers Sara-Jayne Parsons, Gary Austin, and David Hoffman. Hoffman has been photographing demonstrations and riots in Britain for over 30 years, and is an excellent public speaker on these issues. If you missed the event, you can hear him on the subject here along with viewing some of his images from the course of his career. Hoffman has observed how policing tactics over the years became increasingly brutal, with police taking to the street in plain clothes, using kettling tactics to incite violence, and being suspicious of journalist reporting of events. This stance has since been modified by the introduction of the FITs (Forward Intelligence Team Police – I still can’t figure out if that is meant to be a description or a command…Forward Intelligence Team! Police…). The FITs routinely use camera and video technology to document public disorder events, essentially compiling dossiers of “evidence” on those in attendance.
And it is important to put “evidence” in quotation marks here, because anyone even vaguely familiar with this technology knows that camera can and does lie. It is limited by the frame, by the moment captured, by the general lack of context. I know myself that I have photographed at a public demonstration where a minor scuffle occurred between police and protesters. I photographed that, but in my photographs the incident appeared wholly different to the event that I witnessed. I had to use my personal judgement and integrity to exclude it from the work I have shown publicly. I have a duty to do that, and all journalists should feel similarly. But it is questionable whether the FITs have the same sense of obligation to unbiased reporting, especially given the lack of transparency inherent in the institution’s design. The reliance that the police have come to have on such a perspectival piece of technology is really quite worrying, and it was interesting to hear David’s account of how it has become ubiquitous with their policing tactics at demonstrations in current times.
Photographs can have multiple uses, and this multiplicity of function was further elaborated upon by Sara-Jayne Parsons, who discussed the images of Gertrude Bell and the idea that she was a spy in the World War. It is questionable whether Bell ever actually committed to undertaking such work, and yet her photographs contained enough information to prove highly useful when used in this manner.
Gary Austin discussed his work as a surveillance photographer, training to make photographs specifically for that purpose. He was also critical of the importance that this tactic had been given, especially considering the costs involved in training and equipping officers in light of constant talk about cuts and budget limitations.
The talk was followed by the official launch of the Look11 festival, with a particularly emotional speech by Chair of Look11, Colin McPherson, who fondly remembered Liverpool photographer Tim Hetherington who, as reported on ST84 Photo, was recently killed while documenting the civil unrest in Libya. Rest in peace, Tim.
This was followed by the Look11 launch party at Novas CUC. From here, a few of us took off to Bumper for good tunes and great dancing (yup, Paul, I’m looking at you here…). The relaxed socialising was reminiscent of the excellent vibe created at Format Festival back in March. As the official scouser among the photographers at CUC, I volunteered Bumper as a good spot to spend a few hours, but the invitation was open to all, and a strong group convened for some impromptu partying.
Stay tuned for the Saturday review….