“It was a powerful experience to be a part of the Black Lives Matter protests. Thousands of people came together to express their frustrations at not only the events unfolding in America but also the everyday inequality within the UK. One of the children said: ‘I want to become queen one day so I can make the police not be unfair to black people.’
In this blog I’ll be looking at another selection from the 2020 book ‘Portrait of Britain Vol.3’ published by Hoxton Mini Press in collaboration with British Journal of Photography
‘Nikitha’ by Morgan Shaw is a photograph associated with the Black Live Matter protests in London during 2020. I selected this image as I found in this image several of the points which I would have applied to ‘I CAn’t Breathe’ an image I recently critiqued also from the ‘Portrait of Britain Vol.3’
In this image we see what appears to be a family of four, two parents and two children. All four individuals are people of colour. Each parent carries a child on their shoulders elevating them above the surrounding crowd. The adults look directly forward, a look of determination on their faces whilst the children look, laughing, to each other. Between the two children is a hit arm extending upwards holding a sign which is declares ‘No Justice No Peace Charge The Murderer’ in reference to the, now charged, unlawful killing of George Floyd in the United States.
The image itself appears to have been shot on medium format film and somewhat haphazardly cropped to the right side, shown by the absence of black border which edges the rest of the frame. The image is presented in colour which a heavy grain suggesting either heavy digital post processing or a need to ‘dodge’ the film quite heavily.
I want to start, as always with what I like about this image.
That is the obvious personal connection between the children. Their laughing and smiling is infectious and uplifting. A reassuring juxtaposition against the back drop of protest. The sunny day heightens their joy and their playful fingers embracing the neck of one and fidgeting the hair of the other adults. Their positions and actions are obviously accepted and part of the familial relations between the children and adults, a unity and bond which they share. This scene of connection is idolised by the low camera looking up an angle which increases the stature of the subjects. It’s scene of rverence and admiration by the photographer who looks to empathise with the cause and represent those who choose to protest peacefully yet with commitment, discipline and determination. A generational teaching moment for the both the adults reliving their parents struggles but also an opportunity to learn and develop for their little ones.
The proximity to the subjects allows us to stand beside them as the march. We see them as if over our own shoulder, a fellow we walk with and for.
My critiques of this image would most be restricted to the way the image is contextualised for us both in the book itself but also as a singular image.
Morgan Shaw presents us with a scene of four subjects. We can assume one is ‘Nikitha’ but which one? Is this a family of four or two separate pairings? Is ‘Nikitha’ the child or the adult? Whilst in itself the question of who ‘Nikitha’ is doesn’t necessarily diminish the work, I do feel it fails on the quest of representation, especially considering the subject matter is that of the rights and equality of people of colour. Shaw presents us with a quote which he attributes to “One of the children…” again the question becomes which child? Was it ‘Nikitha’ of another child at the protest? How do we know that sentence was even spoken?
These questions whilst not undermining the effect of the image are unnecessary in the face of what we are presented. Instead of elevating the work beyond it visual representation it diminishes our understanding and reading of the image. All of a sudden I feel that the photographer is lucky in achieving this shot and has vastly built a context around it for the purpose of presenting themselves rather than the subject. In these situations I want more context, and less commentary. I want to know who these individuals are and I want to understand their situation, not to hear the photographers experience, especially as at the photographer is a white male.
On the topic of contextualisation, I find that the localisation of the image through writings not supported by the image. The contents of the frame do not denote and specific city or country. The little architecture included is a fairly non descriptive clock tower which, whilst being a distinct style, is unfortunately common throughout Europe and even in the US. Again this localisation is not necessary. The protests where a world wide movement, the fact this is not tied to a location does not undermine the power of the image yet when we are told the location I begin to question what it represents. Is this London? As in, is this a thought shared by the population just these few people?
I feel the fact Morgan Shaw is an Australian both helps and hinders here. His style has a certain ‘sunniness’ to it, a generalisation but one which I adopt to differentiate this work from the archetypal dreariness of British photographers. His style helps give the image a sense of ‘worldliness’ which allows the image to be free from location. It is also however this style which also diminishes the work slightly as we are distracted by the heavy grain and scratchiness of the image. Whilst the medium format can have these inflections generally the format is know for it’s high resolve and quality, the ‘filter’ type effect here is more akin to a low quality disposable film, which admittedly it could equally be, yet it then makes one wonder about the reasons for selecting that type of cheaper film for a modern event. The use of. medium formats in colour don’t have the same distancing effect as disposables, polaroids and monotones. The use here of either heavy filter or disposable presents the same issue as ‘I can’t Breathe’, that the photographer is choosing an aesthetic, which diminishes the contemporary nature of the work, over the need to show immediacy.
In reviewing this image I visited Morgan Shaw’s website in hope of finding more. I hoped for a page dedicated to the event with multiple photographs and an extended contextualisation but unfortunately it appears he heavily restricts what he publishes on there.
These questions and issues I have con easily be answered in an extended presentation and in that is the issue of singular images. To work this image has no need for the context provided and only raises queries. Yet as presented we have to judge the two together.
Whilst I do have a lot to enjoy in this image, I feel that it falls victim to two of the most common issues facing contemporary photography.
The photographer has to insert themselves someway into images of other the seek to represent and the appeal of the aesthetic over the need for relevancy and immediacy.