LONDON — We are now six days into the unrest that started in the Greater London neighborhood of Tottenham, spread throughout London and then erupted across England. London has been relatively — but tenuously — calmer than it was on Monday night, when looting, arson and violence escalated and reached new and disparate parts of the city. A massively increased police presence of some 16,000 officers and community-organized coalitions against rioters seem to be maintaining a semblance of order for the time being, but debate continues as to how to deal with this situation both in the short and long terms.
It’s a strange, tense time to be an American writing from London, constantly refreshing the Guardian liveblogs of the situation and my Twitter and Facebook feeds. The results are frustratingly disjointed as posts flit between concern and analysis regarding the riots from my London-based friends and news sources and utter obliviousness or confusion from people in the States. Even as someone who spends much of my day online, it’s been a curious experience to digest the major news stories of the last year from the vantage point of my laptop, where I constantly feel both the immediate connections and strained distance to what’s happening in the United States as well as locally in London.
At the moment, my student residence is devoid of access to a television, so my only means of following the news have been the internet and word of mouth (or the occasional glance at a discarded newspaper on the bus or at a pub). I’ve been reluctant to travel far from my home given safety concerns and my mother’s admonitions. As such, although I’m physically present in London, the majority of my experience of the riots has been via social networking sites. The British portions of my Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook feeds are saturated with images from the riots: photojournalism, both traditional and more clandestine, professional and amateur photojournalists, illustrated takes on the threat the riots pose to London’s glory as 2012 Olympic host, tweaked photos at the expense of England’s leaders, as well as videos of impassioned speeches and brutal violence.
Of course, the omnipresence of social media is an increasingly common phenomenon in relation to major news events. There have been numerous reports on how these riots have been shaped by social media, alike and unlike the uprisings of the social-media-driven Arab Spring.
Questions and investigations have already been raised as to the role of Blackberry messaging amongst rioters over that of Twitter or other social media. What’s been more interesting to me, however, has been the ways in which many denizens of England have established identities as non-rioters or anti-rioters and expressed criticism through social media.
Many, many mainstream and independent papers, blogs and tweets have attempted to explain the root causes of the riots, often to suit the author or publication’s overarching political agenda. However, some of the social media memes that have been popping up are not out to analyze the situation and are seemingly uninterested in why the riots are happening. From what I’ve seen so far, the imagery widely distributed online regarding the riots has been sharply critical of the actions of the people looting and inciting violence, mirroring the sentiment of some of the tweets and posts I’ve seen suggesting that their behavior is simply mindless and should not be interpreted as political.
The oft-retweeted Photoshoplooter offers blunt condemnation of the rioters, but without nuanced criticism. Photoshoplooter is a tumblelog featuring doctored photos of people looting, replacing what they have in hand with children’s toys or unusual objects to humorous effect. The apparent point of the tumblelog is to deride looters’ behavior, to expose the sheer ridiculousness of their actions, perhaps to dissuade any potential rioters into looting. Many of the items added in are toys or characters associated with small children, painting a picture of infantile behavior. Alternately, there are also inserts of Justin Bieber posters or frilly tutus in pictures featuring men, which serve to undermine the masculinity of the people shown. In either case, the imagery is decidedly unsympathetic to the appeal that looters might be apart of some disenfranchised “underclass” attempting to assert control in a system that never gave them much agency. The altered photos puncture the power of the riots, reducing the thefts from violent crime to frivolity. Photoshoplooter is not interested in who the supposed looters are — whether they are leading the charge to commit criminal acts or to protest, or are more passive participants or bystanders, or have any non-materialistic stakes in looting. The lines are clearly drawn: there are silly, childlike looters on one side, and on the other: the presumably civilized, adult non-rioters, the people sending in the photo manips.
The stalled tumblelog CatchaLooter operates differently than Photoshoplooter, acting as an archive for allegedly untouched photos of looters. Until yesterday, the tumblelog was collecting photos of looters from both mainstream sites and individuals, encouraging people to send a report to Crimestoppers should they identify someone pictured. The original maintainer of the blog appeared to be having trouble keeping up with submissions, and the identifying operations have moved to Zavilia.com. The CatchaLooter Twitter continues to be updated, and the original CatchaLooter remains on Tumblr. Ostensibly, CatchaLooter is a part of grassroots anti-rioting efforts, a tool to help bring criminals to justice. However, the maintainer found collecting the photos fraught with complications:
The pictures I’m collecting are not supposed to assume guilt — by mentioning this at the start of the blog I think that’s fair. Also, I can’t presume to know what is happening. I have deleted many pics that weren’t from the riots, or were fakes, and will continue to do so. I have also not put up a lot of identified people from Twitter, as it’s not the idea to cause a witch hunt, but to collate all these publicly available pictures in one place to help identify possible criminals.
Who Are the Photographers?
But the remaining collection of photos is interesting even without the motive of identifying looters — it acts as a document not only of the riots, but of riot photography itself. There is a sense of movement to these photos, many of which are presumably taken clandestinely. The angles and framing showcase a negotiation of distance, of being close to the action but not wanting to be too close. People want to know who the looters are as individuals and as groups, but these photos also raise the question of who the photographers are. Who are these people who are amongst the crowds but deny being of it, by virtue of their cameras? Are taking these photos acts of bravery? Are these photographers colluding with the rioters by adding to the numbers of people on the street? What responsibility do these clandestine photographers have to the photographed and to the viewers, especially as the photos circulate rapidly without contextualization? There have been long on-going conversations academically and otherwise as to the social contracts photography may or may not assume. As much as people would like to take these photos at face value, as real, the images and their contexts further complicate these issues.
Many analyses of the situation argue that the riots, spurred by the death at police hands of Mark Duggan, are the result of increasing economic disparities and a stultifying lack of options for low-income Brits, with or without race or immigrant tensions playing a role in disenfranchisement.
There seems to be a disconnect between the complex class politics discussed in long-form analyses of the riots’ causes and the language within some “anti-riot” media, couched in an “us versus them” binary. Of course, one does not need to condone the violence of the riots in order to be sympathetic or understanding of the issues of class inherent in these events, but there seems to be less space or nuance in the images distributed by explicitly “anti-riot” social media towards creating solutions to or criticism of the underlying long-term issues at hand that spawned the riots in the first place. And although one can appreciate what Photoshoplooter and CatchaLooter accomplish while entertaining more complex opinions on the situation, and these tumblelogs are not necessarily characterized as “anti-riot,” the language of the people who are reblogging, tweeting or commenting on Photoshoplooter and Catchalooter often seems simplistically situated in the immediacy of the riots and not the larger issues.
With all this in mind, it’s important to note that the complexity and ambiguities of the situation are not easy to address, making quick, clear-cut and finite solutions and all-encompassing criticisms ever elusive. The issues at stake are vast, both in regards to visual representation of the riots and the larger socio-political contexts these works are created in. I’m eager to see more technically and politically complex art works produced in the future, created with or without the immediacy and ease of social media.
Homepage image is from Photoshoplooter (posted August 10, 2011) (via photoshoplooter.tumblr.com)