Crossing the thin blue line

4 May

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Crossing the lines.
A transition from the lines of the police, to the ranks of the british press.

Through the 1990’s I was a Police constable in the South Yorkshire Police Force. As well as the day to day community policing I was called upon to take my place in the thin blue line at a number of public order incidents including demonstrations. This inevitably put me in the front line and sometimes in contact with the press. Now I think its safe to say that at the time my attitude toward photographers and reporters was one of them being a necessary evil and to be avoided or removed from the scene when possible. I was subject to orders from above to prevent any of the press getting close to a scene and of course under no circumstances was I to speak to the press as this may have been construed as a statement and taken as policy so I was effectively gagged by my bosses. I often felt that the way to deal with these annoyances was to be intimidating and whilst never physically aggressive I could be very threatening in my manner and use of language. This was probably having a worse effect than physical violence in many ways. In 1999 I made a career move and joined the RAF as a police officer spending the next 11 years serving in the gulf and around the world. Carrying out just the same duties as I had as a civilian police officer but this time with the military discipline required and very often carrying and using a fire arm. Again I was brought into contact with the press as they transited in and out of war zones and whilst they did their job in theatre. Once again I was given to believe that these reporters were an annoying distraction and I was very dismissive of them and often obstructive.

Before going any further I think its right to point out that my opinions reflect the work we as photographers and journalists do in the legitimate public arena.

So you have got to be reading this and asking how on earth this guy ended up writing a piece for “I’m a photographer not a terrorist”? Well without going into to much detail I was medically discharged from the RAF and as part of that process I came to see that my attitudes and thinking and personal beliefs were contrary to the established thinking of the services and that I needed to regain my own views and opinions which had been repressed and shut away for almost 20 years. Thanks to a number of people and publications giving me my chance to get a break and get published I was to take a big step down the road to recovery by joining the NUJ and finding freedom to express myself.

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I recently discovered how threatening it must have been to face me at an accident on the streets of Lincoln UK when I was faced with a police officer at the scene of an incident I had intended to cover. I say intended as it became very clear very quickly that I was not going to get the pictures I needed to cover the story of a road accident. I had arrived after the people involved had been transported to hospital and the forensic examination was underway whilst the vehicle’s involved where still in situ. I approached the scene and snapped a couple of wide establishing shots then moved closer, remaining on the pavement which was not closed or restricted and along with other members of the public looked on at the scene. A couple of people had, of course taken out their camera phones and were snapping away. The very moment I raised my Nikon Pro camera a PC indicated to his Sgt and I was approached by the Sgt. I of course identified myself as a member of the press and a conversation began which basically involved the Sgt telling me that should any of these pictures be published ANYWHERE on the net or in a paper that I would be visited and I would be made to explain to the grieving family why distressing pictures had been published. So I was made to feel emotionally blackmailed and whilst there was no attempt to confiscate my camera or images this course of action was far more effective for the officer than any kind of physical assault. When I reviewed this incident whilst writing this I can recognise a lot of the actions I had taken in my previous life and having now had a sample of my own medicine I can tell you its horrid. I had gone into my journalistic photography with a thought that my previous police and military experience would be an advantage when covering stories. I have soon come to realise that how I did my previous job and how I was expected to do that job goes totally against the rights and freedoms that we have come to expect in our society. I have gone on to cover stories and I was even photographing the recent student protest in parliament square from within the police lines and photographing into the student protestors from the view of the police. My experience of police tactics was invaluable for staying safe in that situation but I still had the feeling that I was in the way, a distraction & an annoyance.

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So I write as a photographer who has been on the thin blue line but couldn’t continue with the restrictions, the suppressing of views and opinions, the intimidating of the press and the continued aggression in public spaces. I write as a journalist who has a view, who has an opinion, who see’s injustice and intimidation on our streets and has felt its touch whilst out in the public arena. I fully support what this group of professional photographers and news gathers stand for and are striving to achieve.

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