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A terrorist with a camera
Slarek | 23 July 2012

Have you ever been seen as a threat to national security? I'm sure I and my friends were back in my CND protest days, but it never went any further than having our number plates recorded by shady looking cops who hung around outside anti-nuclear meetings (I had a cycle – good luck doing a background check on that). But last week I got a small flavour of just what it's like to be thought of as a threat by people with the power to act on it with force when I joined that small but elite list of people who have been physically dealt with by the unit charged with protecting the Olympic torch. This wasn't due, I should point out, to any evil intent on my part. So how, you might wonder, could I place myself in a position that could prompt such a response, given the publicity surrounding the torch and its green-clothed guardians? Well in my case it was down to an unfortunate combination of casual disinterest, lack of preparation, and the foolhardiness that sometimes comes with carrying a camera.

A little explanation. Some time ago it was announced that the Olympic torch was being carried through our town and past my place of work. I couldn't have cared less. You'll have to look long and hard to find someone less interested in the Olympics than me. I have, after all, no interest in sport of any description and have an inbuilt aversion to nationalistic brouhaha. None of which is a problem, as all I have to do is steer clear of the whole thing. But photography is part of my day job, and it was decided by those I work for that I should be sent out with my camera on two connected assignments, the first to photograph the torch as it passed the workplace, then to record another torchbearer some miles away who was connected to our establishment. In previous years this would have been handled by another member of staff, one who would have relished this assignment and probably taken better pictures. But government education cutbacks have reduced our section staff from three to down to just one. So the job fell to me. Great.

Now if you stood outside to watch the torch jogging past and thought it was all rather wonderful then jolly good luck to you. I've no interest whatsoever in pissing on your enjoyment. But for me it was every bit as tacky as I had expected it would be, a crass rolling commercial for Coca Cola, Samsung and Lloyds TSB, another sorry component of the overwhelming corporate bollocks that has surrounded the games from day one. I was thus not remotely interested in what I was charged to do and on the day in question wandered reluctantly out, shot a run of photos as the torch trotted past, then got on my bike and cycled to where our boy would be running.

The problem with my scatterbrain approach to everyday life is that I tend to pay scant attention to things I care little about. Stick a camera in my hand and ask me to take a picture and I'll make getting a good photo my top priority, but I won't suddenly develop an interest in what I'm shooting. I have, as they say, an attitude problem. And because I have absolutely no interest in the Olympics, I'd read nothing on it, save for a few horror stories about the amount of money being spent on Olympic brand enforcement and McDonalds buying up the exclusive rights to sell chips near the Olympic stadium. They don't even sell chips. They sell 'fries'. I thus knew precious little about the torch marathon itself beyond the fact that it was passing our way, and knew nothing at all of the posse of Met police runners that were employed to protect the flame. Can you see where this is going? In my half-aware reality daze I didn't even realise who they were when they approached with the first runner. "Ah, that's nice," I naively mused as I switched to a longer lens, "she's got a few athletes to run with her and keep her company." Even when this torchbearer stopped to pass the flame on and the green dressed runners all crouched and adopted alert poses I somehow failed to twig. To me they were like dancers who strike individual poses at the end of a routine. People were applauding. Maybe they were well known for their work on the London stage. I was solely focussed on getting my pictures so paid them no mind. And when you're not interested in something you tend to subconsciously downgrade its importance. To me this parade felt no different from the carnival that parades through town late each summer, despite the troupe of police motorcyclists that had announced its arrival.

Now one thing you need to understand about press photography if you've never done it is that if you're charged with taking a specific photo then you'll do just about anything to get it, regardless of common sense and personal safety. I, for one, become so focussed on capturing the right picture that even personal phobias will take a temporary hike. I'm terrified of heights, but stick a camera in my hand and tell me we need a high angle shot and I'll scramble up the side of a slippery glass-walled building to take it. Only later do I reflect on the potential risks of having done so. And for some reason people let you do it. The bigger the camera, the more you seem to be able to get away with, which only serves to feed the power trip you're on. Years ago I used to attach a broken motordrive to my Nikon to make it look more imposing for precisely this reason. So when my torchbearer arrived and stopped to swap flames with the chap charged with running the next leg and I found myself in the wrong position to get the required photo, I did as I always do when I can't get the picture I want. Without thinking about where I was, I moved quickly forward to get a better angle, but only got about three feet before I was sharply grabbed and pushed away and angrily ordered to back off. I was, inevitably, a little startled by this. Obviously, I reasoned, crossing the road wasn't allowed when the parade was stationary (it seemed logically safer than when it was moving, but what to I know?). Only on my return to work was a I made fully aware of the torch police and their take-no-prisoners approach to anything that approached their 'security bubble' (I'm sorry, but a bubble is spherical and this team were operating a security circle – they weren't even checking for an attack from the air), whether it be a bearded old fool with a DSLR or that poor kid on a bike who, in an innocent effort to get a closer look at the torch, also inadvertently wandered into this testosterone fuelled hornet's nest. As aggressive preventative measures go, however, it was rather smartly done. I was soundly pushed back but sustained no injury and have not since developed even a hint of a bruise. But the aggression behind it, itself doubtless driven by the continuing belief that just about everyone is a potential terrorist, made me really relieved that they weren't armed with batons, tasers or guns.

As the carnival passed and I failed to get my picture (I got plenty of others, but I really wanted that last one), I couldn't help recall an experience I had a good few years ago on an anti-nuclear march on which two alternative measures of police control were demonstrated in the space of half-an-hour. A few hundred thousand people had gathered to march through London and the route had been closed to traffic to facilitate our progress. To allow pedestrians to move freely we'd been asked by the organisers to stay in the road, which we all thought was fair enough. But with that many people walking a route of several miles, the marchers intermittently strayed onto the pathways and an awful lot of police were on hand to encourage us back onto the road. On one occasion a particularly aggressive old-school copper marched over to where the group had spilled onto the pavement and ordered them loudly to "stay on the fucking road!" which inevitably prompted a string of verbally defiant responses and a stubborn refusal by some to comply. And yet thirty minutes earlier we'd been joined by a young policewoman who walked alongside us and chatted amiably with the marchers, and when some wandered on to the path her approach was friendlier and far more effective. "Hey guys, come on, you know the drill," she said with a smile. And you know what? The marchers in question not only returned to the road, they apologised for their transgression.

I certainly learned from this latest encounter: even if I'm not enthusiastic about the job in hand, I should be be better prepared and should try, just occasionally, to think about the consequences of barging about with a camera. But the increasingly corporate domination and control of the whole show still left a bad taste in my mouth, particularly as I'm old enough to remember when sportsmen and women competed without dressing like moving billboards and you could taken any damned food or drink product you liked into the Olympic stadium or Wimbledon's centre court.

All of which brings me round to a previously unmentioned earlier encounter with the torch police, one a lot less aggressive but a tad more revealing. As the torch passed my workplace and I and gaggle of others moved in to photograph the handover, one of the green men loudly asked me to move, not because I was a safety risk, but because I was blocking what I've since been told was the official Coca Cola camera. Here the police were not just protecting the torch and its bearer, but the exclusivity of access of the corporate sponsors. And later as I watched a video of two young kids grabbing the torch for a jape (let's face it, these incidents were the highlight of the whole run), I tried to think of a time when anyone I know had received the sort of police protection being afforded to what is effectively a bronze metal cone of only symbolic importance. It brought to mind the Jacques Prévert inspired quote from Aki Kaurismäki's superb Calimari Union: "Dead fish protected by tins, tins protected by windows, windows protected by the police, police protected by fear. Such a barricade for six wretched sardines!"