From West Country raves to Reclaim the Streets, Matthew Smith has been documenting the changing face of rebellion for the past 20 years
“Back then, protest was being invented as it went along. Celebration and entertainment fused with art, music and non-violent direct action were a very potent recipe for resistance, and that resistance was happening on a nationwide footing.”
Photographer Matthew Smith is talking about the changing face of protest in the UK. For two decades he was on the frontline of it – from the Poll Tax demo in March 1990 to the M11 Link Road Protest and Freedom to Party, Reclaim the Streets and G20 protests. “Protest was fun with only an undertone of danger. From an authoritarian point of view clearly that had to change,” he continues. “The UK has a very individual approach to protest; protest highlights the failures of government in a very publicly visible way (and) clearly authority want to minimise that highlighting of failure in every way possible – it is inconvenient to the image and practice of government.
“Protest was once seen as a democratic right that had to be catered for; now alongside a lot of other things, it has to be licensed and pre-approved as a condition of its existence. Laws have been passed using the pretext of terrorism to prohibit the activities that made the DIY protest culture of the 90s so successful in order to make that success impossible in future.
“The proof of the pudding of that immense unification is that fact that so many people came together, in such large numbers, and with such regularity that it scared the government into enacting legislation that effectively curtailed old notions of freedom in a very real way” – Matthew Smith
It’s this infringement on what was once seen as a democratic right that drives Smith, who recalls an encounter with a police photographer at the fateful 2009 protest in London where Ian Tomlinson was unlawfully killed. “(He was) reloading his memory cards. He had a high-powered Nikon DSLR with a long lens, on the top of the camera he had a mobile phone mounted with its video running, to one side there was another video camera, on the other a flash. I was like, ‘Hello, that’s a nice bit of kit you have there. Tell me, what’s your brief when you come on a demo like this?’ ‘Faces,’ he replied, ‘The video camera is running all the time for use later, the mobile phone is used to text (message) video footage back to base so they can run it through our face recognition software so we can tell who is here, where they’ve been before and to identify any potential troublemakers or persons of interest to the police’. On that occasion, I’d already had my photograph taken earlier by an officer stood on a rooftop who clearly targeted me as I was holding and using a DSLR myself. Unwanted witnesses are clearly a priority to identify.”
Smith was also witness to the West Country rave scene: “The very early countryside free parties that we went to were all run by bikers. I feel privileged to have lived through an era that now seems to provide the original cultural subject matter that is constantly being recycled and reinterpreted today. The proof of the pudding of that immense unification is the fact that so many people came together, in such large numbers, and with such regularity that it scared the government into enacting legislation that effectively curtailed old notions of freedom in a very real way.”
After shooting everywhere from Bristol to Luton, Sheffield, Wales, London and Somerset, Smith is combining his archives of rave and protest – it took three months of sifting through 50,000 images – into a zine called Exist to Resist, published by YOUTH CLUB. With a few more books and a retrospective planned (“big shout-out to Epson and to Sir Tim Smit from The Eden Project for their ongoing support”), Smith is paying homage to Britain’s anarchic streak, something which will hopefully inspire those fighting for a better Britain today.
“Exist to Resist is a reference to those who by their very existence and choice of lifestyle seemed to inherently reject the conformity demanded by the government... It is also an exhortation to inbuild lifestyle resistance in an equally diverse set of ways to the undermining of basic freedoms that the government of right now wishes to impose upon the population of this great country.”
Exist to Resist will be published as a limited edition zine, and is the first in a new series from YOUTH CLUB, hosted at London’s Doomed Gallery – more information here. The zine is the first of YOUTH CLUB’s preservation programme and the result of a nine-month project. Smith’s unseen archive of 50,000 photos spanning over 20 years is now available at www.mattkoarchive.com