I often say I didn’t choose photography, it chose me. At 20 I came out of the Royal Air Force, where I had failed my trade test to become a photographer (I was never good at being tested – I’d even failed my 11-plus). I had a camera I’d bought in Nairobi and never properly used, until by chance I got some work at the Observer in 1959.
Two years later, the paper put me on a retainer for two days a week. I was earning very little money – 15 guineas a week – but gaining a great deal of knowledge about England. I was sent to every corner, to cover coalmining strikes, byelections, anti-fascist rallies, nuclear protests. I learned how to follow the action. You knew one event came after the other. Sooner or later someone would get a bit too troublesome. You kept your eyes open, looking for the next move: an arrest, a fight. It became a natural way of thinking and working and moving. I was very fast on my legs in those days – as quick as a greyhound.
I had this drive to follow world events very closely. Although I’m a poor reader and suffer from dyslexia, I took it upon myself – and still do – to buy the newspapers every day. I would scan every last word, looking for trouble at home and abroad. Then I would try to go there.
Over time I have come to see my photographs as a form of protest – in particular against the feast of evil that is war, because I have spent so much of my career documenting conflict. But that wasn’t always the case. Photography is very exciting. If you think you’ve got that picture – that you’ve made the composition and your exposure is right –, that is a reward in itself. The most rewarding thing for me has always been to see my name under a picture in print.
But my work hasn’t been easy mentally. You never know what effect seeing pain and suffering can have on you – but you just hope your images will have an effect on the public and spur people to demonstrate against the terrible things in the world. I don’t take comfort in that because I wish the images didn’t have to be taken, that we didn’t need to be reminded of the occasional ugliness of man – and it is always men. Women don’t cause these wars.
My photograph of the man at Whitehall was for the Observer. I was sent to cover an anti-nuclear demonstration in Trafalgar Square during the Cuban missile crisis. The man had broken away from the crowd and made his way down Whitehall – the seat of power. The police threw a line out across the road very quickly, knowing other protesters would follow him.
Looking at the image now, I find it amusing. You see all these rather serious policemen, but one or two are slightly smirking. The man, who I never got to speak to, looks quite lonely sitting with his placard. In those days – here at least – there was still a civil approach to demonstration. Today the man might get his head cracked in or be sprayed with CS gas. Demonstrations around the world get violent: people are gassed and shot. The police are not particularly liked, and with good reason – think of the vigil for Sarah Everard in 2021 on Clapham Common and the way women were handcuffed and pressed to the ground. It’s shameful.
I do question whether seeing what’s going on helps or changes anything. But I still find it tragic that we don’t see as many images of these events in the media any more. I worry we are being denied the truth. We need to keep paying attention and protesting for a better world.
As told to Gabrielle Schwarz
“It was instantaneous,” Hutchinson says of the day he carried an intoxicated rightwing protester to safety during a Black Lives Matter protest in London. “I was thinking the worst of what could happen to him, but I was also thinking of the BLM movement being derailed by something like this tarnishing its name.” Young BLM protesters “would have been vilified” had they hurt Bryn Male, the retired transport police officer. Hutchinson didn’t realise at the time that his act would be shared around the world. “I didn’t think of it at all. I’m a bit older than a lot of the people that were there, I’m not quite pulling my phone out and recording everything I see.” Afterwards, however, when the picture was published, he realised: “Oh yeah, it’s going to go everywhere.”
It was an odd experience, but not a bad one. “It felt really good,” Hutchinson says. “I was receiving messages from around the world, from thousands of people, saying that it gave them hope.” He even received messages from people involved with the far right, saying his actions had made them think about their own beliefs and “the people they hang around with”. He became a celebrity: an interview with GQ, a book deal and a meeting with Prince Harry all followed.
Today, Hutchinson runs his fitness and martial arts business, and does activism and community work with the organisation he founded with the friends who were with him that day, United to Change and Inspire. And he still likes the image. “I’m actually quite proud of it. When I’m long gone, my grandchildren will be able to point to it and say, ‘That’s my grandad.’” FB
In the 1990s, environmental protests swept Britain. Here, activists protest against the construction of the Newbury bypass in Berkshire – hundreds of acres of woodland were cleared for it. Activist Swampy, AKA Dan Hooper, quickly became the face of the movement. He was an object of fascination for the tabloids, who reported on everything from his love life to his possession of magic mushrooms and his relationship with his parents. “It made my life a little bit weird for a while,” he remembers, so much so that he took to refusing all interviews and vanished from the public eye. Now, however, he believes “we kind of need the media a little bit”. Back then, the whole country would follow the drama when Swampy was evicted from tunnels or trees, and environmental issues found a wider (if often hostile) audience as a result. “Now I look back on it and think, wow, if it made any difference, then it was worth it.” FB
“The people we put on pedestals should be inspirational, people to literally and figuratively look up to,” Rhian Graham says. She is one of the four defendants who stood accused of criminal damage for their role in toppling a statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol during an anti-racism protest on 7 June 2020.
This wasn’t the only statue to be targeted that summer. The murder of George Floyd had sparked a wave of anti-racist protests across the world and demonstrators frequently targeted monuments commemorating colonial figures. But this image had a particularly strong impact. As Graham recalls: “It was a moment of victory, of people saying: ‘Colston and men like him do not represent Bristol today and do not deserve to be on a pedestal.’”
The four were cleared of the charges by a jury earlier this year. Unused funds raised for the trial are being distributed to anti-racist charities in Bristol. “To have been found not guilty has given me faith in humanity again,” Graham says. But the attorney general has since made the contentious decision to refer the case to the court of appeal for legal clarification. The new policing bill has a section that raises the maximum penalty for damaging a statue to 10 years in prison – a move Graham says “illuminates our government’s priorities and who the laws are designed to protect”. GS
The Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, an anti-nuclear encampment that ran from 1981 to 2000, was the largest female-led protest movement since the suffragettes. The most famous event at the camp was Embrace the Base: a protest marking the first anniversary of Nato’s decision to store nuclear missiles at the RAF airfield in Berkshire. On 12 and 13 December 1982, more than 30,000 women came together to hold hands and encircle the nine-mile perimeter fence of Greenham.
“It was a really powerful moment, because there were so many of us from all different walks of life,” recalls Angie Zelter, an environmental and human rights campaigner who attended Embrace the Base. The fact that they were all women was important, Zelter says, because it allowed them “a space to speak and act in their own way without being dominated by men, who tend to take the limelight in a mixed group. Women felt safe to engage in nonviolent direct action – they were able to cry freely, hold hands, show their vulnerability.”
There was a heavy police presence at Greenham Common, with frequent raids, evictions and arrests. At Embrace the Base, Zelter says, horses were brought in to try to disperse the women: “I was quite frightened. At one point I was crying, but there were other women there who were used to horses, trying to calm them down.” Today she continues to campaign against nuclear weapons: “Regardless of what the so-called law says about protest, we have a right to protest and we will continue to protest.” GS
Fulvio Grimaldi was one of the few journalists present when British soldiers opened fire on protesters in Derry, killing 13 people. His image of panicked civilians carrying the body of teenager Jackie Duddy became the iconic image of the massacre. FB
Launched in late 2018 by a small group of activists in the UK, Extinction Rebellion (XR) is now a global environmental movement with a presence in more than 80 cities across more than 33 countries. “We recognised that the political structures in place appeared to be incapable of doing what needed to be done,” says co-founder Clare Farrell, who set up the XR art department and helped build its visual identity.
The movement is decentralised, which means anybody can take part. The eye-catching spectacle of the Red Rebel Brigade was devised by a Bristol-based arts group for a protest in April 2019. With their bright red outfits, symbolising the blood of all living species, the silent troupe made a memorable impression – and continues to make appearances in rallies in different cities. XR is sometimes criticised – by figures on both the left and right – for promoting the strategy of disruptive protest. “People like civil disobedience in the past – they don’t really like it in the present,” Farrell says. “But disruption is necessary because it’s a way of getting the message across with much more urgency. If you are living in a society that is self-consciously self-terminating, then disrupting that is an extremely compassionate thing to do.” GS
Seeking to “free art from oil”, Liberate Tate is a collective that stages unsanctioned performance-cum-protests in gallery spaces. This photo depicts a work from 2011 titled Human Cost, in which a member of the collective lay naked on the floor of Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries and was covered in an oil-like substance. The group has been credited with pressuring the Tate to end its 26-year sponsorship by BP in 2017. GS
“You could literally feel the emotion in the air. It was a very heavy feeling,” Patsy Stevenson says of the vigil on London’s Clapham Common on 13 March 2021. Hundreds had gathered to mourn Sarah Everard, who had been abducted, raped and murdered by Metropolitan police officer Wayne Couzens. “Often as women we’re told to stay indoors when things like this happen. It was one of those moments where it was like, no, we don’t want to stay silent any longer,” Stevenson says.
The Met claimed the gathering was in breach of Covid-19 restrictions and several participants were arrested. The image of Stevenson made an instant impact: “Probably because of my bright red hair,” she says. “But also the fact that I was at a vigil mourning the death of a woman by a police officer, and the police were arresting us.”
The high court has since found the police’s attempt to block the vigil was unlawful. Stevenson is undertaking individual legal action against the Met and is not allowed to discuss the case. While the events of her arrest were traumatising – “I’m in therapy now because of it” – Stevenson is grateful for the increased attention on combating violence against women. “It gave me some opportunities to change people’s opinions and hopefully get more things done.” GS
People in more than 600 cities across the world took to the streets on 15 February 2003 to express their opposition to the planned US-led invasion of Iraq. These demonstrations are said to be the largest coordinated protest event in history. This photograph of a sea of banners at the march in London captures the scale of the proceedings. Despite the groundswell of public opposition, the war in Iraq began just over a month later. GS
“That day will never leave me,” says Annie Pilkington-Bernier, seen here in a pale bucket hat and glasses, aged 24. “I’d been on many demonstrations before that, and I still believe it was one of the most defining marches I’ve been on.” Roughly 20,000 people marched from Fordham Park in south London to Hyde Park on 2 March 1981, to protest against the lack of response among politicians and journalists to the deaths of 13 (later 14) young black people in the New Cross fire in January that year. “The National Front was so prominent at that time,” Pilkington-Bernier says, “and it felt like the black community was under attack.”
Initially, police tried to stop marchers from crossing the river, though eventually they made their way across Blackfriars Bridge and along Fleet Street. Much of the protesters’ anger was towards British newspapers. “We wanted to shame the press,” Pilkington-Bernier says. “It felt like the only time the black community made the newspapers was crime.”
Writer and photographer Vron Ware was there in solidarity and also to bear witness, “both to the grief, rage and dignity of the assembly, but also to the police tactics”. Ware had covered many fascist demonstrations in the late 70s and for her the way far-right protesters were treated, “marching wherever they liked”, was in stark contrast to the heavy-handed approach of the Metropolitan police towards the black protesters. Earlier this year, Pilkington-Bernier recognised herself in the picture at an exhibition that she visited with her niece. “When we saw it, we were both so happy,” she says. “It’s so important these images are seen now – the next generation, with the Black Lives Matter movement, are walking in our footsteps.” FB
In the late 70s, Jayaben Desai (second from right) led a workers’ strike at the Grunwick Film Processing factory in Willesden, advocating for better working conditions. Most of the workers, including Desai, were Ugandan Asian women who had been expelled by Idi Amin before settling in the UK. Their strike gained wide support: postal workers refused to take mail to and from the factory, and even Arthur Scargill joined the picket line. The writer Amrit Wilson, who covered the protest, remembers Desai as “very persuasive … She also understood patriarchy, which was central to the strike.” FB