British Student Protests and Photographic Truth

This photograph was widely distributed last week in the British press following national demonstrations against the proposed tripling of student tuition to a maximum of £ 9,000 by the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition government.  The image depicts a young man kicking in the window of the Tory party offices, which were then occupied by hundreds of students.  Indeed, not only was it widely distributed but it dominated the front pages of virtually every major British paper on Thursday morning.

The relevance for this course concerns earlier topics regarding photographic truth, the role of mass media in popular culture and the democratic potential of mass media.

First, concerning photographic truth.  How is it that this image comes to dominate the newspaper headlines?  Though an obviously significant event and escalation of protest activity does it accurately capture or represent the totality of the events on a day when 50,000 students peacefully marched in London?  Is it appropriate that this image was chosen among the many depicting the protests of the day?

Also note the pairing of the image with text.  The text – some of it quite sensationalist – is diverse and leads to very different understandings of the image.  Think of the different associations made when the image is paired with “brainless”, “thuggish and disgraceful”, “the new politics”, or “this is just the beginning”.  This text in many ways frames the associated ideas and concepts that you will bring to your understanding and deciphering of meaning from the image.

One commentator in the British press asked similar questions such as, “Is it political manipulation to choose this picture instead of, say, a peaceful shot of smiling placard-wavers to put on front pages? Are the media exercising their nasty arts to make students look like a mob?”

His answer is no and he suggests that the image is placed appropriately on the front pages because it is exciting and touches our Dionysian desires about the wild potential – good for some, bad for others – of such events and moments.  He also connects the image to a long iconography of protest and rioting, which it inevitably connects to and calls upon within British popular culture.  He also points out the very different meanings that people will draw from this image.  Some will see it as a chilling image of violence others as a call to a more defiant, liberatory politics.

Another way in which this image connects to our course is in the use of social media to organize the protest and now to coordinate the follow up that will occur on November 24th.  Almost immediately following the protests the students set up a blog to publicize a “statement of unity” and started a facebook group to promote the statement and subsequent action.  By Thursday evening Pacific Standard Time the group had 2,118 “likes”, and by Sunday evening it had grown to 4,681.  How effective is the use of social media in this way?  Does it demonstrate a democratic potential of mass media?  These and a variety of other interesting questions related to this course are posed by this event, which may portent an emerging student movement in the United Kingdom.  We will discuss these issues in week 4.

Additional link related to the protest:

No. 10 hits out at lecturers who praised student protest at Tory HQ – Guardian

This entry was posted in Instructor - Additional Material, Section 1, Section 2, Winter 2011. Bookmark the permalink.

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