Lenses at the sharp end

PHOTOGRAPHERS have been having a hard time, with attacks coming from all sides. NUJ London Freelance Branch, now again representing most photographers in the union, asked member Pierre Chukwudi Alozie for an update. See the full version here.

In a speech in Arizona on 22 August Donald Trump (the 45th president of the United States) spoke of the "very dishonest media, those people right up there with all the cameras..." and was rewarded with booing of said people with cameras. Trump's remarks foster continuing attacks on working journalists throughout the world.

The general public also seem to be taking an increasingly aggressive attitude to photographers, videographers and writers. While covering protests around the the G20 intergovernmental meeting in Hamburg, Germany in July 2017, I saw a palpable rise in tension and hostility when anyone raised a camera, particularly around the Black Bloc and Antifa (anti-fascist) protestors.

At a protest in front of the Kensington Town Hall on 16 June 2017 over the the Grenfell tower disaster, a photographer working for Agence France Presse (AFP) had his gear snatched - only to have it returned later with the help of members of the community. There Sven Rosenstein, a video journalist working for the Russian television station RT (formerly Russia Today), was beaten to the pavement - and rescued by the Metropolitan Police. Two days earlier Sven had been filming in front of the church community centre near Grenfell tower when four or five people came out and asked him to stop. They progressively got more aggressive, until one, apparently a doctor, threatened to break the camera and beat Sven up.

On 20 January 2016 freelance photographer Kelvin Williams was severely beaten at a far-right demonstration in Dover. During a lull in the running street battles Kelvin had to run from a group of masked neo-Nazis coming down the street. He tripped and fell - and one attacked his face with a long wooden pole. Kelvin raised his arm to protect himself and it was broken in five places - his "bones were in a mush", said the surgeon at the William Harvey Hospital in Ashford.

After a two-and-a-half-hour operation, Kelvin was finally able to give a statement to the police. A racist thug is now serving seven years in prison. Kelvin faces a long recovery with arthritis and the prospect of an elbow joint replacement. He now avoids social media as he could be tracked.

Media organisations require journalists to have a public profile on social media platforms - which exposes them to threats, intimidation and tracking. Women journalists in particular have been targeted by certain groups. For example in June 2016 a far-left group singled out Louise (not her real name) in front of the French Cultural Centre, for her photos appearing in a right-wing online paper. They harassed her by obstructing her movements and vision.

In October 2015, in Paris, writer David Perrotin was covering the French version of the Jewish Defence League protesting in front of the offices of Agence France Presse. One protester recognised him, alerted fellow protesters, and David had to seek refuge in the AFP building after being chased and kicked.

It seems that such incidents are likely to increase as tensions rise due to nationalism, racism and economic discrimination. As violence escalates and journalists have to take more risks to get close to their stories, I want to see courses like the Hostile Environment and First Aid Training, which is used primarily for conflict zones, adapted to domestic situations. The union must support freelance members to do these courses.

Kelvin Williams told me that any photographer or journalist who had been on that street could have been on the receiving end of those blows.

Photojournalists in particular have a stark choice: to cover a protest or not to cover. As individuals we have a choice. As journalists, as eyewitnesses to the events and changes in our world - there is no choice!