After the killing of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich the media has been completely swamped with images, news and comment about the event. It was of course a tragedy and there is no way of getting away from that. The backlash against the Muslims of the UK is also a tragedy and there is no getting away from that either.
The men who killed the poor man had seemingly seized on Anders Breivik’s concept of attempting to bring about change through the shock of terrorist acts against random victims. Breivik, who of course famously boasted of being an ultranationalist, murdered his victims in a very public spectacle and on a scale almost unheard of since the atrocities perpetrated by the fascists during the 1940’s. He calculated, wrongly as it turned out, that his actions would be the spark which would bring about a mass revolt against what he called multiculturalism in Norway. Anders wanted to be seen as sane so that his actions wouldn’t be dismissed as those of a lunatic and said that he acted out of “necessity” to prevent the “Islamization” of his country. He got that wrong since his actions in murdering 77 men and women simply horrified the world and led to many in Europe questioning the apparent leniency of the 21 year sentence imposed on the man by a Norwegian court. Breivik continues to make headlines by disseminating his ideas from his prison cell and has recently tried to register a political association which lists amongst its aim’s the “democratic fascist seizure of power in Norway” and the establishment of an independent state.
An abiding and powerful image from his trial is the one of Breivik in the dock with one arm raised in a neo fascist salute reminiscent of those, hopefully long gone, days of National Socialism.
In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte, who was at that time a mere general in the French army, invaded North Africa landing near Alexandria in early July and entering Cairo on 24 July. He took with him a group of artists who had the task of not only recording the Egyptian artefacts and buildings which they came across, but also portraying Napoleon’s victories and conquests on the Nile Delta and at the Battle of the Pyramids. Ultimately, the campaign came to grief and some revisionist historians might even consider it a complete disaster. The French fleet was utterly destroyed by Nelson at the Battle of the Nile in Aboukir Bay and a combination of local resistance from the Mamelukes plus the intervention by the British meant that the French adventure in Egypt was virtually over by September 1801.
Not one to boast about failure however, Bonaparte returned to France with his war paintings and diaries portraying great and heroic victories. This was well very received and by 1804 he was able to crown himself Emperor of all France. The rest is history as they say.
The advent of the portable camera in the early part of the 19th Century enabled the propagandist’s of the world to use images in much more powerful ways. Instead of heroic paintings of charging soldiers or victorious generals on horseback, images could for the first time reflect reality. The American Civil War, the Crimean War and the Boer War were amongst the first photo documented conflicts. Although the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson is often credited as being the first photo journalist, this is almost certainly not the case. His images are sharp, his composition is tight however, somewhat like Napoleon Bonaparte, his marketing skills may have led some folk to this rather dubious conclusion.
Roger Fenton photographed the Crimean battlefields in 1853 long before Bresson was even a twinkle in his parent’s eyes. Balaclava, Lord Raglan and the Light Brigade were amongst his subjects as he toured the battlefields in his horse drawn “photographic van”.
Mathew Brady photographed the American Civil War. At the beginning of that war, in 1861, Brady organised his employees into groups, in order to spread them across the war zones and provided them with horse drawn carriages, which were in fact rolling darkrooms, in order to develop the photographic plates into pictures. Almost killed by shell fire at the Battle of Bull Run, Brady through his many paid assistants took thousands of photos of American Civil War scenes. Much of the popular understanding of the Civil War comes from these photos.
The Boer Wars (Afrikaans: Vryheidsoorloë, literally “freedom wars”) were two wars fought during 1880–1881 and 1899–1902 by the British Empire against the Dutch settlers of two independent Boer republics, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal Republic. There are literally thousands of images taken during the war by dozens of photographers including a few of Winston Churchill in his pre-glory days.
Things have changed in recent years however. The boundaries between the professionals and the amateurs have become quite blurred. Anyone with a few dollars and a strong shutter finger can record events. Facebook, Youtube and Flikr will host most images and comments. Sky News, Al Jeezera and the BBC encourage the sending in of anything remotely newsworthy in the hope of a scoop.
The photo journalist is not quite dead, although many have indeed died getting that shot. These days though, everyone is a taker of images. The mobile phone and social media allow news, comment and images to span the world in seconds. All of us are now citizen photo journalists and when the issues with smart phone image quality are solved, as indeed they will be, there will be little need for the professional.
However who today has made the connection between extreme events and the use of social media via the “smart” phone which can make us all promoters of the extremist segments within our midst. The Woolwich terrorists, if that indeed is what they are, are indebted to folk like Steve Jobs and that man from Microsoft. The images on the front of the tabloids and the footage streamed into our living rooms following the murder of Drummer Rigby were not taken by professional photographers. The news teams missed the event. In fact they were not even invited. The killers of Drummer Rigby made sure of that. They knew only too well that passers by and onlookers could and would record the event and broadcast footage and comment around the world within minutes of it happening.
The propaganda victory for the killers is of course that we all saw it all as it happened. There were a few heroic folk who intervened of course. But at the end of the day, the good citizen photojournalists of Woolwich played right into the plans of the terrorists and took some nice snaps of the event.