Photographing a Local Protest Against Foreign Conflict

Over the last month, communities around the world have felt passionate responses to the developing conflict in Israel, Gaza, and surrounding areas. As simple or complex as one might find the hostilities in the abstract the ripples of geopolitics affect us all, sometimes very obviously, and sometimes subtly.

In April 2022, I wrote a short blog post with accompanying snapshots about sand from the Sahara desert, which had drifted over from a sandstorm and fell with the rain onto London. This was around the same time that nuclear zones in Ukraine were being targeted, irradiated soil and other contamination possibilities were being discussed. Just as there is no invisible wall preventing sand from the Sahara from making its way to London, so too might irradiated particles travel from Ukraine to my doorstep.

It is easy to forget that lines on a map are not tangible, and that breaking the world up into puzzle pieces does not mean those pieces somehow become separate in any real sense outside of our imaginations. Even the most robust border defenses are regularly ignored by migrating birds.

Gatherings of people manifesting emotion towards events occurring many thousands of kilometers away are echoes of that situation, and like echoes, they are often filtered, or distorted by that distance. Available data from disparate sources, unreliable translations, and a 24-hour news cycle are incorporated by interested parties, who then decide what action they can possibly take in order to have whatever impact or influence they can.

With a foreign dispute such as this, actual practical changes the UK might attempt may be very slight. It could involve allocating funding, enacting sanctions, or even just recognizing certain aspects of the situation as the protestors see it.

Protests take different forms around the world, depending on the culture, political system, and communication styles. From appearance alone, one group of people holding signs may seem the same as any other, but this overlooks the nuance around the message and methodology behind making one’s voice heard within a specific context, and the dynamic between different groups: factions of protestors, counter-protestors, policing organizations, and any other involved group, all culminating in the governmental acknowledgment and response to protest actions. Someone unfamiliar with the English protest landscape might wonder why they see so many signs with “Socialist Worker” branding, just as someone unfamiliar with the history of Palestinian protest acts might question why so many people are carrying slices of watermelon.

The recent pro-Palestine protests in London have sustained and grown week to week since the catalyzing events of October 7th. Some of these have been estimated to represent the largest protests the UK has ever seen. The real-time narrative construction has been especially interesting to watch play out, as events occur abroad, protests or vigils take place in response, then reports on those protests/vigils are published, backlash or counter-protest occurs, and then the cycle repeats. The vying culture and information war feeds off of and then back into these demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, unlimited fuel for anyone looking to affirm their beliefs.

Photographic evidence helps to form public opinion, and once consensus exists further imagery either contributes towards reinforcing, or disputing that status quo – almost a tiny act of protest in and of itself. Photographs from conflict areas seem to have had a powerful history of contributing to peace, although it seems that today we have many hundreds of “Napalm Girls” in the form of equivalently horrific imagery, documented acts of violence which don’t seem to be shifting public sensibilities in the same way that Napalm Girl is often claimed – perhaps the novelty wore off.

It isn’t difficult to search through various wire-service news image databases online as well as social media feeds after protests like these and find all kinds of images and footage that represent what was interesting enough to the photographer to capture and is only a fraction of the events of the day. This is rarely done; instead, editors usually curate a selection that illustrates the events they want to write about. Discourse is then shaped by which of these stories gains momentum, or refuted, regardless of what the actual facts may be.

Photography from one solitary photographer is first-person testimony, one primary source, an account only of what they saw and chose to document. Secondary research that includes multiple accounts across many photographers and documentarians offers a wider view, but still never an all-encompassing one.

Even a holistic view of all photographs and footage from these events will not serve as “hard data”. It would be unrealistic to take a census of attendees’ demographics to determine statistics. Instead, people base their thoughts on whatever information is presented, or whatever they seek out. If a front-page image shows a sea of uniformity then people may assume that that’s all there was to it. From small, unrepresentative samples people can extrapolate all kinds of falsehoods, with examples of a few seconds worth of footage defining opinions on what in reality were hours of un-noteworthy, un-recorded mundanity.

I work hard to remain conscientious and prescient with the photographs I make and the story I eventually tell with them. Many journalists are there to cover the protest from a press perspective, so it’s not like me not photographing another angle of a podium, or a protestor holding a placard is any great loss. Many photographers in the London photography community are also working to try and come away from these protests with a different story than what might make it to the front page, and I encourage you to seek out their work, starting with Christian Cross, TJ, and Ellie Ramsden.

I’m not approaching the protests as an activist with my own narrative, rather I am doing my best to remain aware of what the conversation is, and use my images to contribute effectively.

Perception between factions seems to be the most significant point of contention. If people can’t even agree about the intent behind a protest or the meaning behind a chant or a slogan, then how will they be able to agree on a course of action? Narratives can spin out from extrapolation or assumption based on curated footage from isolated events or the fringes of a gathering, leading people to be distrustful towards any version of events – priming for even less trust when it comes to the conflict itself, where even more resources are channeled into propaganda.

No side of any cause I’ve documented has ever been truly homogenous, even when presenting in uniform; there is always a diversity of thought even when in broad agreement, cohesive unity. With these protests, I don’t believe the factions are divided along ethnic/religious lines, as some believe. There are both Zionist and anti-Zionist Jewish people, pro and anti-Palestinian Muslims. Protests and vigils have drawn in huge numbers of people from all kinds of backgrounds and religious leanings. None can be dismissed or have their motivation distilled down to pure irrational hatred, or self-hatred.

To those who see (or want to see) the situation as a clear binary, it may be surprising to see that the pro-Palestine/pro-Ceasefire/anti-Zionist protests regularly see the welcome and safe attendance of many Jewish people, whether independent or belonging to organizations of sympathetic Jewish groups. These include Na’amod, and Jews Against Genocide. These campaigns have seen representation at many other Israel/Gaza protests I have attended over the last few years, although they along with members of the Neturei Karta Haredi Jewish community are often dismissed as being “the wrong sort of Jew” (a label which itself is controversial to some). The reasons for their attendance are not necessarily religious; many of the Jewish members of the crowd decrying the state of Israel do so from their personal morality. These attitudes are not unique to those outside of Israel, as many instances of footage similar to this seem to demonstrate, although again these are only a slice from one perspective over a much larger story with much more nuance than one article could hope to address.

The diversity of the attendees has led to some fears that a “false flag” protest action could take advantage of extreme division and lead to discord and/or political/legislative consequences for the group they might pose as. Something as simple as graffiti on a monument could lead to loss of support, and even lead to the government taking radical foreign policy action as a way to appease the locally “wronged” group.

As narratives unfold, protests and related behaviors have been condemned, including affixing/removing fly-posted propaganda, protest signage, chants, and disruptive tactics. Maintaining a controversy around opposing opinions only makes different groups feel like the underdog, giving them more reasons to keep showing up.

In 2022 there were large protests over the war in Ukraine following the Russian invasion, but it was clear that the British Government was firmly “on side” with those protestors, and Ukraine, with all kinds of support and aid being offered to them and their citizens who sought refuge here as the months went by. I don’t believe any credible politician came out with support for Russia, although there were a few “both sides” comments and calls for compromise. It’s difficult and sort of pointless to protest with the status quo, and the Russia/Ukraine war had public opinion coincide with the status quo.

Here with Israel/Gaza, the status quo seems aligned with Israel, with statements from our Government very soon after the events of October 7th, expressing supportive consensus from both opposition and in power politicians. This gives protests a real weight, as they actually need to change their MP’s minds, not preach to the choir.

There are degrees of endorsement and degrees of dissent; so sustained petitioning may legitimately lead to some change in representational thought, or even policy and government action. The further we get from the October 7th incursion, and as events in the region continue to develop, the more potential there is for sentiment to shift. There are increasing calls by politicians for aid, humanitarian pauses, and ceasefire, no doubt at least partially guided by the strong demand there seems to be from the thousands of people regularly chanting for it.

From those in the crowd I’ve spoken with the objectives of these gatherings are to guide the government (here in the UK) towards condemning violence, and calling for ceasefire/humanitarian breaks in the fighting in service of the non-combatants. They want the government to specifically condemn the killing of civilians, and to distance themselves from any support of war crimes.

One protestor described to me a sort of deep-set apathy and hollowness, combined with what they called survivor’s guilt. Everyone is watching the emerging footage; everyone abroad is helpless to do anything tangible – what alternative exists other than peaceful protest as an outlet for this deeply emotive issue that they care about? I feel that this is a commonality shared between the protestors, that these gatherings are an effective outlet for these shared sorrows.

One protestor carried a sign, half of which quoted a section from the Likud charter, “The right of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is eternal and indisputable and is linked with the right to security and peace; therefore, Judea and Samaria will not be handed to any foreign administration; between the Sea and the Jordan there will only be Israeli sovereignty.” The other half of the sign read, “From the River to the Sea”. Many different chants echoed this sentiment and others, all open to different interpretations depending on what the listener believes the chanter intends.

Much of the discourse seems to revolve around reductive labels: who is who, what do they support, and what consequences should there be for someone who falls into this category rather than that category. As I’ve mentioned, the ideology of the various groups is not homogenous, no individual is a checklist. Suggesting that everyone in a crowd of tens or hundreds of thousands all think and feel the same way is laughable. As with any large group, there will be fringe views, mainstream views, and a core message, and it’s much easier to pay attention to the fringe (which often makes for a better photograph/exciting footage) than the overall message. You can brand a peaceful protest as violent based on agitation, but this is only one way to understand it; I think a violent protest is one where the objective of the gathering is intended to use violent means as the act of protest – such as “let’s smash the windows to make ourselves heard”, as opposed to using peaceful means like civil disobedience. A peaceful protest can experience violence, but that doesn’t make it a “violent protest” it makes it “violence at a protest”.

Mutual empathy does not result in complete agreement about action. As with any movement seeking progress, everyone might agree that the status quo is not ideal, but there is no consensus as to what should come next. In contrast, maintaining the status quo requires little action, which is why conservative groups can come together in unity while progressive groups often splinter into factions of in-fighting and disagreement.

Demonstrating depth and avoiding reductive generalization is something photography is incredibly effective at, giving human faces to sterile statistics. Words, symbols, and the meaning behind them tie into this effort to dehumanize crowds into labels, and everything seems to carry as much or as little significance as whoever is reacting to them seems to want them to. Protest chants have been equated with actual violent acts, IDF is interpreted by some as “Zionist Soldier”, and I’ve seen more competing definitions for ‘refugee camp,’ ‘peaceful protest,’ ‘violent protest,’ and many other terms than I can remember ever seeing before.

I’ve even seen disagreement on what the name of the conflict ought to be, with some protestors referring to it as the “Likud/Hamas” war, Israel/Gaza, Israel Palestine, Israel/Gaza/West Bank war. I’ve seen it referred to as a skirmish, incursion, genocide, rebellion, uprising, conflict, and many others. It is all and none of these depending on whom you talk to, and what purpose they want their language to serve. The average person is not looking to journalistic style guides, or recommended phrasings – and even these are allocated somewhat arbitrarily, and are open to reinterpretation and change in meaning over time.

Manipulation of language towards an agenda ignores the underlying reality but has a real effect on legislation, which is more or less an application of linguistic definitions. Photography is an effective counter to words, as it shows something less ambiguous and less easy to dismiss based on classification. Whether one identifies as Israeli, Palestinian, Jewish, Muslim, Hassidic, or anti-Zionist these labels are secondary to the perspective I am documenting from, which is that these are London-centric protests, hosting people in London. Many of my projects touch on identity and within the UK the various identity crises that come with the freedom to choose your destiny.

In some of my images, I make an effort to include aspects of stereotypical British cultures and icons, framed in ways that communicate the context and setting as much as the people themselves. I want my photographs to say what I want them to say, to communicate as best as possible through a wordless medium. London is an incredible melting pot, a cultural mosaic of coexisting communities reflecting an incredible range of the world. When global events send ripples to our shores it’s no surprise that those are picked up on, amplified, but in our own context become their own story, separate but influenced.

UK media have given the protests here extensive coverage, to a point where you may think our country was directly involved in the war effort, and that these protests are the make-or-break factor. Instead, I think it’s worse: an ideology war playing out as an on-screen spectacle, farming outrage to build polarising artificial division. The more calls to clamp down on protest the more invested communities become in the outcome, and the higher the tensions rise as rates of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia increase in response to what is perceived as an urgent, immediate, nearby threat –which continues to drive the ongoing protests and division.

These protests are a local story, although they reflect many similar actions around the world. They represent the idea of tending to the part of the garden you can reach. Whether these protests achieve any success, in policy or public opinion, the conversations they have generated are part of a wider effort of propaganda warfare. A database of every image, video, or online comment related to the conflict and the protests — all of it can be drawn on and used to shape messaging, manipulate commentary, and outline a version of events that is beneficial to that curator’s cause.

A long-term approach to documenting means flexibility rather than reactionary instant conclusions. Making photographs, noting their significance at the time, looking at them possibly decades later, making further notes and observations in retrospect, and incorporating new context is a very mindful process, constantly refreshing my outlook on the world, on my work, and all the relationships involved in each. Recognizing that stories in real life don’t have neatly demarked beginnings and endings, that it’s all one process, guides my approach to documentary photography. I’ve written before that there is an intrinsic relationship between a photograph of a Prime Minister at a podium outside of Downing Street announcing a policy and the effect that policy ends up having on the population; within one photo essay, they could be side-by-side, complimentary rather than juxtaposition. So too these protests are “part” of the wider story, and all stories are “part” of all others.

Reflecting on events today is very different from the reflection that may take place years from now – but continuous propaganda effort occurs today to persuade people that the conclusion is already foregone. People paying selective attention to events is what makes long-form documentation so essential, to show a more complete picture to people who would not go back to do the research themselves. Thousands of kilometers away, all we have is a narrative, one that can be influenced by collective voices and input.

Keeping all of this in mind while working, as well as understanding what expectations there may be from the general public, offers some very powerful tools to work within the threads of an existing narrative. If I had to form an opinion many years from now based on my images alone, without a wider context, what might it be?

I believe the sentiment of someone here in the UK looking at photographs and reading about protests in the UK is very personal: what do my neighbors think about this issue? What is my direct relationship with these ideologies and identities? What kind of person is attention? What kinds of slogans are being displayed on their signs? What kinds of letters are being written to my local MP about this? What decisions might a politician make about this that will end up affecting me? Will this division manifest even closer to home than outside government buildings?

More people in the UK will have a direct encounter with these local protestors than will have any kind of direct experience with catalyzing events in the Middle East. However, local or distant, for the vast majority these vents will all exist purely on the other side of a screen, on social or mainstream media. Outside of viral moments I doubt the London protests are a story many care about beyond the reaches of the UK. Local and personal relevance to the lives of communities here, who are anxious to see how division may affect their families, how discourse and culture war may take shape here.

People will see whatever aspects are amplified, and short of documenting every single moment via thousands of body cams and invasive CCTV we can only go by anecdotes and moments that stand out from the rest. My attention has been on the people and behavior, emotions in the faces, dynamics, and interactions within the crowd. There are moments showing prayer, family, friendship juxtaposition between fashions and attitudes, discussions, and arguments.

I try and keep track of what is drawing my eye and why, and whether it’s something obvious like spectacle, or if there’s something more subtle or personal that is worth investigating further. Working long-term I can refine the photographs I produce and work on the core of the story I’ll be presenting, separate from news-cycle influence.

I hope to use the images made at these protests as part of a collective photography publication along with other imagery produced by New Exit Group. This may be more than a few decades away from full completion and will contain more than just imagery made at protests – the long-term aspect of our work allowing us to develop stories fully, show different groups emerge, break into factions, gain or fall out of popularity, the journeys of individuals through joining a cause to where it may take them. As a Britain-based group, the work will not include things happening overseas, it won’t be a commentary on foreign affairs; it’s about how those affairs reach and affect us here and become part of current, relevant, proximate affairs.

About the author: Simon King is a London-based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow his work through his documentary collective, The New Exit Photography Group, and on Instagram.

Image credits: Photographs by Simon King