Dissent and rebellion have dominated news content for the past twelve months, from the Arab Spring in North Africa and the Middle East to the Occupy protests around the world. Yet from the chaos comes a book that contextualises the mechanics of revolt. Having carefully selected the most poignant images of rebellion from the past 65 years and with an introduction from veteran journalist John Simpson, Protest! explains these bewildering events and pays homage to the photographers who have risked their lives for the sake of preserving their memory. We speak to the book’s editor Gemma Maclagan Ram.
Dazed Digital: It can’t be difficult to capture an interesting photograph when the subject matter is controversial and the people are angry, so what makes an image of this kind particularly arresting?
Gemma Maclagan Ram: It’s the ability of that one image to capture the essence of an entire situation with no need for words; whether the focus be on anything from the sheer size of a crowd to the look of utter despair on just one face, the reader/viewer immediately knows what is going on there, even if they don’t quite understand the whys or wherefores.
DD: Is the role of the press photographer now obsolete? What are the benefits and drawbacks of citizen journalists documenting news events?
Gemma Maclagan Ram: Not one of the photographers we spoke to for this project bemoaned the fact that now, with nearly everyone, even in the poorest countries, in possession of a camera phone, everyone is a photographer. If they did, they wouldn’t place their art/skill very highly. Professional photographers know what they’re doing. There are images in Protest! that were taken on an i-phone and you cannot tell the difference (except the ones where the photographer has also used the hipstamatic ap!). But the old adage that it’s the workman and not his tools has never been truer. You could argue that the photos we have included from Prague in 1968 were by a citizen journalist. At that time Josef Koudelka was not a press photographer but he went on to become one of the best-known photographers of all time.
DD: John Simpson opens with a short history of protest since The Second World War. Can we ever fully understand the contributing factors that lead to rebellion at the time, or is this something that comes retrospectively?
Gemma Maclagan Ram: We can certainly understand the immediate contributing factors to a rebellion, especially in this day of 24-hour news analysis, and often, they are obvious – an oppressive regime, austerity measures, human rights violations. Putting them fully into context though does come with time and it helps to have the outcome from which to start your point of analysis! This is one of the reasons why Protest! does not seek to explain such events, it puts events in brief context for the reader, but it is the story of the protest itself, the images from that protest, the story of the photographers who were there, rather than a full narrative history.
DD: Do you believe in the power of protest? Do you think it will ever affect change again here in the UK?
Gemma Maclagan Ram: Yes, I believe in the power of protest. I defy anyone who reads this book not to. When you see the pictures from the American Civil Rights marches, the images from Berlin in 1989 and read the photographer’s accounts, you cannot help but see that those protests made a difference, arguably they made the difference. As for protest affecting change again here in the UK? Never say never. It’s done it before and no doubt it will do it again. Only time will tell.
'Protest!: Sixty-Five Years of Rebellion in Photographs' with an introduction by John Simpson is published by Andre Deutsch. Price £25.00
PHOTOS BY PAUL MATTSSON
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