Street Conflict, Photography, The Imaginary, Symbolic, And Real Wednesday July 7, 2010

Returning home from work about four months ago a car pulled off the pavement where he was parked, into my path. I was forced into an emergency stop, and there was a minor collision. At the time, the scumbag apologised immediately. Two months later, he’d lied to insurance companies and was saying it was my fault. This would penalise me in terms of future insurance ratings. Instead of providing little sketches to illustrate what had happened, I decided to photograph the scene from different angles as a better way of indicating likelihood, right of way, and the hazardous nature of his manoeuvre for which he was responsible. Here are the photographs:

Within five minutes of photographing, I was confronted not once but twice in this quiet suburban street. I got angry with the first man, uninterested in his protesting rubbish and repeated louder and louder I was not photographing him (now fuck off), and angrier still with the second man when he asked to see my photographs because he thought I’d taken shots of him. So what, even if I had? – although I hadn’t. I said my camera and photographs were private property (now fuck off). He started talking rubbish about the Data Protection Act giving him the right to see the images. I told him then, call the (fucking) police. I wasn’t swearing at the time; this is a retrospective account. The sickening reality is, had he called the police they would also have wanted to see my photographs. I’d done nothing wrong, nothing at all, yet was being cast in the role of questionable person with suspicious intent. This is constantly happening to photographers, for no other reason than practicing photography.

The problem was, I was carrying my big white telephoto lens – or at least, that was part of the problem. I’d used the smaller black wide angle lens a moment previously, and no one was really bothered. The fact is, all a big lens does is give you better quality. There are compact cameras with a greater focal length than my 200mm, with a greater intrusive potential – though again, taking photographs on a public street is not illegal and that includes photographs of people.

Last night, three stupid feral boys threatened to mug me; the tale also has photographic significance. I ran away, not from fear as such – they weren’t very formidable – but because I simply didn’t want to engage with that crap. Just moving away from nonsense is not a bad idea. I know how it works: the ritual of provocation and psychological entrapment, the manoeuvring for dominance watching for a reaction and weakness in the other person.

They shouted and then caught up with me, sensing a target. They wanted money, and one of the little toe rags said “we can do this the easy way or we can do this the hard way”. It would have been laughable for its exaggerated theatricality, gangster film derivation and popular culture kitsch, were it not intended to threaten, intimidate, and suggest three-on-one violence. But I didn’t think they really meant it or were about to assault me, and I wasn’t unduly bothered at the prospect. It was stupid, council house estate bravado: he was a vile yapping dog, not a pit-bull about to bite me. I walked away again saying I’ve had enough of this and they went in the opposite direction, one on his stupid schoolboy bicycle.

The fact is such incidents are potentially very dangerous. If the youths are just a year or two older, and/or drug use underlies their demand for money, and/or they’re carrying knives as a large number of them do you can end up injured, traumatised, or even dead. I’ve run through my mind if I should have reacted to the “easy way” boy’s threat, taking the ‘best defence is attack’ initiative. You can’t have scumbags on public streets talking like that; it has serious ramifications even if they don’t realise what they are. But, while I do know all kinds of damaging fighting techniques (I used to study martial arts), I’m psychologically disinclined to do any such thing and don’t actually have the training for it. On another occasion about ten years ago with another mugger – a girl this time – I kicked her in the stomach and it had little effect. I realised without the training and the muscular power (I’m not a big guy), in such circumstances I have to use more low impact but violent techniques. Hands, thumbs, the use of elbows rather than fists (far more powerful and together with knees the favoured weapon of formidable Thai boxers); there are various methods of self defence more typically taught to the armed forces for military intent than in average high street classes – although the art of Krav Maga is easily and publicly available and I understand it’s what the Israeli army use. If you were excited seeing Jason Bourne fighting in the Bourne Supremacy films, curious to see effective brutal moves you’d never seen before – me too – that was Filipinese Kali, one of the influences on Bruce Lee (who knew martial arts; his film work was just for show).

One of my Wing Chun teachers once said a fight has to be finished in a few seconds, because after that you’re equal and that’s too dangerous. Even more so, with multiple assailants. The attitude and methodology of Wing Chun is potentially a refined expression of concepts found in Sun Tsu’s The Art of War, a master study of conflict applicable to wherever and however you find it. On the basis of winning in a few seconds, any John Wayne type slugging it out followed with the flurry of the wrestling clinch is simply not viable: you have to take them out. But with that kind of mind set, you have to first assess the level of threat. I’ve seen this described as Yellow Zone, Orange Zone, and Red Zone situations. Ex bouncer Geoff Thompson teaches this; his self defence books contain good advice which includes a description of the psychological traps used just before assaults: the baiting, the who you looking at, the are you calling me XYZ rituals, where thugs create an opening for an attack. A Yellow Zone might be an annoying but un-threatening argument. The Orange Zone is where it gets heated. The Red Zone is when an assault is imminent and you have to act. “Easy way” boy was not in the Red Zone; he was just pretending to be trying to provoke a fear reaction. Animals are like this: when they meet they snarl, growl, and circle around trying to intimidate and looking for an advantage. The same ritual gets enacted every day on British streets. It’s not necessarily about the ostensible point of dispute – money, the stare they claim to object to, or the supposedly spilt beer. Rather, like dogs establishing territory it’s about social resentment they want to ‘take out’ on a stranger because in their dog-like life it makes them feel better. Dogs growl and threaten and snarl; they know both are at risk in a fight and confrontations get settled instead with their posturing. This is from The Independent:

Scotland’s soaring murder rate is blamed on a “booze and blade” culture among the young. According to the statistics, there were 127 homicide victims in Scotland in 2002, 11 more than in 2001 and the highest annual total since 1996. In more than half of those murders a sharp instrument was used and in at least 44 per cent of cases the accused was drunk. In 10 per cent of cases, the accused was on drugs and in 15 per cent of cases, drunk and on drugs. There were 68 fatal stabbings – the highest number for 10 years. Cathy Jamieson, Scotland’s Justice Minister, blamed much of the increase on alcohol, with either the accused or the victim being drunk. She said: “Most occur at the weekend and involve young men. It doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to connect many of these tragic incidents with binge drinking and serious street disorder”…Groups of youngsters…wander the city centre at night armed with knives and heavy leather belts, often high on drink or drugs.

The main feeling I had in Withington was I didn’t want to get involved in this crap. It’s so foul, stupid, and unpleasant. I have better things to do – although in Red Zone situations, such a sentiment makes you vulnerable. So it took me five minutes of reflection to decide if I should simply drive home (in a better area), or pursue the feral little thugs with my camera. They didn’t realise, I’d been out on a photographic excursion. This is one of my shots – nothing special, I just enjoyed the light in a local park:

I decided to pursue them. They were in all probability hanging around Withington high street, and that proved to be correct. I fired off a few shots before one of them approached me in my car and said “move your car”. No, bastard. This is a public road and as a decent citizen I can drive where the fuck I like. Although I didn’t say that; I was actually very concerned about my car and the damage (and cost) a casual kick or swung bottle could easily cause and then thug-boys go racing off down an alley. But…I can photograph you, and you know full well the power such an image has: it can be taken to the police, it can be made into posters, it can be published on the internet or even, should I be such a person, presented to a gang member for the purpose of retribution. About three years ago, ten minutes away from this incident, there was a shooting in which a young person died. I think he was about eighteen. I got some shots of the scene, and offered them to the local paper:

So here they are, thug-boys hiding like cornered dogs against the power of the identifying lens:

My first shot got their faces, but the autofocus was confused and it was greatly blurred. In fact, I’m glad I don’t have the identifying shots I was threatening because my feeling remains the same: I don’t want to get involved in this crap. I’d had no notion of doing anything further; the point of the exercise was to reclaim power by asserting the weight of documented identity and the possibility of police action. This animal-like behaviour is partly territorial: violence, intimidation and posturing are the mode of exchange, instead of civil respect backed up with legal redress and social consequences. Taking a few photographs re-establishes the weight of how society responds to thugs and criminals, affirming the power of civility over their animal-like street behaviour they otherwise get away with. These animal-boys are currently worried about what I’m doing with the images: their animal behaviour was thus elegantly overpowered, using my terms of behaviour not theirs.

What I am doing, actually, is nothing with the images nor dwelling on their stupidity, but reflecting philosophically on the power and effect of photography in current society and recalling to mind this other image I got last night and how I like the poetic effect of the light. This is the kind of thing I enjoy, not photographing feral teenagers:

Photography amplifies whatever it touches. It focuses the mind, as well as the optics, on whatever subject you pursue. This is why I’m ambivalent about some photographic practice, where it documents social concerns and so called politics. In photography, in fact in society generally, people are hostage to a currency of language terms and concepts, that get peddled and re-circulated oblivious to alternative or greater possibility. A prescient example is the use of the word “extremism” in relation to terrorist Muslims: the most pressing worldwide topic today in addition to the financial crisis. It doesn’t make sense and the entire subject is sealed off with political correctness, hysteria, and a false elevation into the status of untouchable mythos. When you research the core ideology of the religion and its historic origins exemplified in the actions of its founder, what you find is a horrifyingly inherent so called extremism which means so called extremists today are authentic rather than “extreme”. It’s a very logical point with serious consequences regarding the reverence surrounding such behaviour, and the ramifications that has in today’s world. If anyone is unsure of this claim, the best way to clarify it is with reference to the Islamic leader’s massacre of the Banu Qurayza tribe when about 800 men were beheaded, taking several hours to complete: not exactly “moderate”, nor his taking the wife of one of the men for what we now call a sex slave. Her name was Raihana. Thus the “moderate” religious types – of whom there are many – arguably represent something else: an inauthentic following because their leader was himself “extreme”. Such matters are important. And yet, the common currency of language/concepts skates over deeper investigation so the issues are never even discussed. In this regard I favour the following remark proposed by Immanuel Kant, as an essential and core aspect of all human advance:

Our age is the age of criticism, to which everything must be subjected. The sacredness of religion, and the authority of legislation, are by many regarded as grounds of exemption from the examination of this tribunal. But, if they are exempted, they become the subjects of just suspicion, and cannot lay claim to sincere respect, which reason accords only to that which has stood the test of a free and public examination – The Critique of Pure Reason, Preface, 1781

The contemporary philosopher Slavoj Zizek sometimes refers to the Lacan differentiation between the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real. These semantic, cultural, and conceptual categories provide a useful model for deconstructing how society works and what we find therein. Religion speaks of the Imaginary and the Symbolic as if they are the Real. They are by definition ‘belief systems’ (Imaginary and Symbolic) rather than fact or knowledge systems (the Real), operating as if belief is necessary and sufficient.

As a medium, photography is especially prone to making the Symbolic into the Real, the Imaginary into the Symbolic, and the Real into the Imaginary or the Symbolic. That is, the truth value of an issue or topic gets distorted and misrepresented. When this is deliberate we call it propaganda, but it’s not always deliberate and it’s often unnoticed.

The Real, for many British streets, is what you see in my image of the thug-boys: cowering and hiding from the lens of civility, the fact of urban social decay and ASBO communities. The Symbolic, is how I was perceived when I was documenting the incident with my car: and it was a bad ‘symbolic’ concerning irrational fears a big camera provokes. The Imaginary is what the scumbag driver is trying to peddle to the insurance companies; the Real is what I’m showing in my photographs.

My photographs of the play of light are Symbolic, but it’s a useful and hopeful Symbolic: that we live in a world (also) where simple poetic beauty exists, untouched by and impervious to the troubles of society and what Jean-Paul Sartre called the hell of other people.