Historian Imogen Lee has taken to the streets with hope, a camera and a few placards:
My first experience of protest was when I was six years old in Basildon. My father worked for the local theatre which, despite the opening of brand new premises in 1988 (secured by a Labour administration), was by the early nineties faced with a Conservative council that was forcing through a series of cuts in local arts-funding.
The march was friendly and colourful, it was also small, but so too was Basildon town centre and as a child I assumed everyone, with or without a banner, was taking part. Within eighteen months my father was made redundant.
In October 2002 I attended my first Stop the War (STW) march. Heady with youthful independence, I believed that walking with others, through the streets of the capital was a natural way to assert my nineteen-year-old pacifism.
But instead I found the dominant voices on the march to be students who came with circus tricks to perform and young men flying Palestinian flags with anger. Their agendas smothered my voice in visual displays of juggling and anti-Israeli slogans.
Disheartened but not perturbed, I attended the much larger Stop the War march in February 2003. I did not go believing this protest would stop an invasion of Iraq, but I did go believing that it would be remembered, that it could change history, that the march would counteract Blair’s increasing obsession with legacy.
Between 2003 and 2009 I worked my way through undergraduate and postgraduate life. Protest was not on my agenda, I had dabbled and felt disaffected by its immediate political impact.
G8 protests, environmental camps and anti-arms demonstrations came and went and I sat back only being riled enough to make comments on social-networks or shout at the rolling news channels.
By the end of 2010, however, in my penultimate year of my PhD, the Browne report was published and its proposals for university funding were being quickly pushed through Parliament.
I and thousands of others had not voted for this and the coalition government knew it.
Protest and marching suddenly regained a visceral poignancy. By November the NUS and the UCU were promoting their ‘Fund our Future Demo-lition’ as London’s first anti-cuts rally.
Spurred on by peaceful but effective protests staged by UCL students and the growing UK UnCut movement, I decided to make my first ever placard and photograph the march in a bid to spread their messages online.
The Stop the War marches mainly consisted of pre-made banners being handed out by the STW coalition, CND and the Socialist Worker. At the ‘Demo-lition’ pre-made banners remained in abundance, but many others, like mine, were hand-made.
Some were created using garden canes, quality card and neat handwriting. Some were scrawled messages on ripped cardboard or A4 paper. Others, meanwhile, were giant visual metaphors: glued kettles on sticks or giant books. This time no one’s voice would be drowned out by another.
In those intervening years of 2003-2009 the internet had exploded with various ways to make voices heard, for thoughts to be shared and to have demands met. Placards were our Facebook profiles, Tweets and Youtube incarnate.
At six years old I had found it difficult to decipher who was observing and who was protesting as my family marched through Basildon. In 2010 the Demo-lition was recorded, commented on and debated, as much on-line as on the streets, at the age of 27 the line between observer and protestor remained as muddied to me.
Our banners were something that we and others could photograph and re-tweet, quote and text, quickly spreading our messages to those sitting at home and in offices, whether in London or Lincolnshire. Unlike the STW marches I did not come away feeling that it would be history that decided our fate; rather, our indvidual messages might focus people’s thoughts, they might even build momentum.
By the spring of 2011 the March for the Alternative, organised by the TUC, had attracted a crowd that went well beyond union members and their glorious, if somewhat unwieldy, fabric banners.
Teenagers held placards demanding political respect, pensioners stated they were prepared to fight for the NHS, parents espoused the value of Sure Start, curators and archivists used their placards as exhibition displays, putting our marching into a historical context and historians, like me, attempted to shape and record the political debate as it evolved, not after it has been laid to rest.
Imogen Lee, April 2011
All photos by Imogen Lee, and you can see more of her photos on a Flickr slideshow here.