This story was originally published in the Mosaic Art & Literary Journal. It is a work of fiction set during the 2009 G20 Summit protests in London, where the accompanying photos were captured. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Camera – check.
24mm f/1.4 lens – check.
Three fully-charged battery packs – check.
Three formatted memory cards – check.
Lens brush – check.
Rock ‘n Roll.
I set out. It was nine o’clock, later than I had intended to leave, but still OK. The protests weren’t scheduled to start until after eleven, and even with the unavoidable traffic issues, I got to Cannon Street tube before ten. Bank, of course, was closed. Even before I managed to get out of the station, it was clear that I was in the right place. People wearing all sorts of costumes were trickling out into the street with me. I saw the scariest Mickey Mouse I had ever seen, a horrible beast with the jagged smile of a demon of avarice, big round ears, a polka-dot ribbon between them, and eyes full of burning rage. The sight so shook me I didn’t even manage to get my camera out. Happy Financial Fool’s.
Outside the lines of police were prominent. Walk this way, don’t walk that way, don’t ask questions. I got my camera. There wasn’t much action yet, but there were definitely enough characters. Everyone loves a picture of a lunatic.
I walked around the area for a while, snapping shots of the people around me. They all looked interesting, and some of them actually were, if you took the time to talk to them. It was all a grand assortment of hippies, religious nuts, anarchists, socialists, hooligans and hell-raisers in general. A real happening place.
Around eleven o’clock I headed back down to Cannon Street. The main part of the protests – the G20 Meltdown, they called it – was supposed to start around eleven thirty. This would consist of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse coming down upon Bank, the center of London’s financial district. All the business buildings were closed, of course, but some of the people who normally worked inside them decided to spend the day watching the proceedings from the upper floors. Hell, you know you’re in for a good show when one of the official aims of the protest is to create a carnival. The Four Horsemen turned out to be models of horses propped up on a number of wooden sticks, sort of like you’d imagine a Chinese dragon. Not bad at all.
Cannon Street was where the black horse of the Apocalypse started its journey, and what a journey it was. I got plenty of photos of everything, people running, shouting, chanting slogans, and drummers drumming, always drummers drumming. At the end there were some speeches, and then finally the organization went away. Everyone went wherever they pleased, if the police let them. Not that Bank got any emptier, there was just more movement. More loonies walking around, chanting things like “Bankers - Wankers”, “People First”, and yelling “JUMP!” at the bankers watching from the safety of the upper floors of their little fortresses. I think I heard someone shouting “Rabble, rabble, rabble!” too.
Someone must have brought a lot of chalk, because the wall of the Bank of England was covered in writing, slogans and messages and haikus. Under a dignified, elegantly-written “Go Vegan!” there was powerfully scribbled the message “Obama – different colour, same shit.” It made me smile.
Not far down along the wall a smartass had thought it would be funny to write “Everything’s fine” in large letters, diagonally across other people’s words. I thought it was funny, too, and laughed out loud for a second. Close by was another message, a single word: FREEDOM. It was written large and bold; the writer had gone across each line many times, making the letters thick and full of life and purpose. It must have come from his heart. Whatever it meant, it was in earnest. I gazed at it long, wondering how a word could mean so much. Then I took a picture. Before I walked away, I picked up a piece of chalk and drew, slowly and deliberately, the capital letter A in a circle. I don’t why I did it, and I don’t consider myself an anarchist, not really. It just seemed like the right thing to do.
A little after I left the wall I ran into Freddy. He was sitting on the edge of a flowerbed outside the Bank of England, the flowers all around him trampled and crushed into the dirt. He had his camera on his side and his laptop in his lap.
“Freddy!” I yelled unnecessarily loudly as I approached him. He looked up, his perfect white teeth glistening in the sun.
“How you doin’ mate?” he said, extending a hand.
“Good, mate, good. Any good ones?” I asked, nodding towards his laptop.
“Ah, there’s something,” he said. “Sending them home. Be in the papers tonight, just you watch.”
“I could never stand carrying a laptop around like that,” I said, examining the computer without interest. “Just a hindrance and a worry, you know?”
“Oh it’s not so bad,” he said. “I get the photos in right quick this way. Early bird gets the worm, right?”
“Yeah, but the second mouse gets the cheese.” He looked at me funny for a second, so I laughed it off, hitting him on the shoulder as a goodbye gesture.
“Think about it,” I said, turning away.
Freddy and his laptop. Carrying the camera was annoying, always slowing me down to keep me out of the heart of things, but how are you going to be a photographer without a camera? You’re not. On very special occasions I’d carry an extra lens, but a laptop? No way, mate. Freddy’s photo might be in The Evening Standard at the end of the day, fair enough, but mine will be in TIME at the end of the week. Hopefully.
I headed north, toward Finnsbury Circus. For a while it was the same as everywhere, a big ol’ mess of people and their issues. Then it happened. My one big moment. My shot of the day, week, month. My shining moment of glory and fame.
It began innocently enough. A group of police, four or five of them, walking from a side street towards an assortment of protestors no more than ten meters away from me. One of the cops had a German Shepherd with him. In front of them was a man who looked inconspicuous enough: probably around fifty, balding a bit, the rest of his hair cut short. He was wearing nothing outrageous – a regular pair of blue jeans, a t-shirt and a thin gray jacket. I suppose with the way most of the protesters were dressed this made him stand out, but the outfit was just regular enough that you wouldn’t think twice about it.
Well this guy wanted to get through to the smaller street, behind where the cops were. He let them know fairly politely; they, of course, told him to turn around and get out of their way, and they weren’t mincing words, either. The guy gave up pretty quickly, obediently turned around, hands in his pockets, and started walking away. He didn’t look happy. Not mad, just disappointed and frustrated, a sort of exasperation with the ways of this world on his face. He was walking away like this, not looking back, not looking anywhere but the ground. He didn’t get far before one of the cops gave him a prod in the back. The guy turned his head around, maybe saying something, then turned back again, never ceasing to walk and never altering his pace. I had my camera up and aimed, taking photos of step after step. The next one he wouldn’t finish.
That same cop that had pushed him before came up behind him again and gave him a bigger shove, thrusting him into the ground. The man couldn’t quite get his hands out of his pockets as he fell forward and only partially broke his fall with his arms. His head took the rest of the impact. I have a great shot of the man in mid air. You can see the shock on his face, the frustrated realization of the inevitability of the collision of his head with the pavement. Behind him the policeman’s eyes burn wide with lust, all aglitter like the eyes of a kid lighting ants on fire. A great photo indeed.
The poor man rolled over on the ground holding his head, and right then another policeman kicked him in the ribs. Like an ancient Grecian hero I sprang into action. Fearlessly I dove to the ground, closer towards the man. Billions of years of evolution had prepared my muscles for this moment of boldness, granting me the speed and agility of a tiger as I jumped to my knee to get a better angle for the viewing pleasure of paying viewers worldwide. I have this beautiful moment captured and saved for all eternity. If you zoom in on the picture you can see the man’s mouth twisted in pain, exhaling a sharp, involuntary breath. The skin on his cheek makes a fold as his head moves with the impact; the photo really delivers all the sensations with stunning fidelity. A true marvel of modern photography.
The next photo is no less stunning, the decrease in action more than made up for by the vivid emotions on subjects’ faces. The man is sitting on the ground with his legs outstretched in front of him, looking up into the eyes of the policeman towering over him. On the man’s head a stream of blood is making its way down his face, a big red droplet of it just about to fall from his jaw. I had the aperture wide open so I could shoot with low ISO, and this makes the colors really come to life. The man’s scarlet blood looks so rich you can almost feel its thick texture between your fingers. His expression makes you feel like you were right there, suffering his ordeal with him. The man is puzzled, unsure of what he did wrong or what he should have done to avoid the fury of his punishers. He is disappointed, and he is sad. There is no anger in his face, strangely. You can see in his eyes a sort of disbelief, but no rage, no fire burning within. Directly in front of him stands the policeman with the dog, a thundering German Shepherd, his muscles tense with eagerness. The dog has his front paws in the air, and you can see the collar bite deep into his neck. He is snarling madness and hunger. The foam overflows his enormous fangs; he is a predator, and he wants to kill. The dog’s handler is leaning far back, his eyes wide with tension in the slit of his balaclava. I can’t hold him like this much longer, the man’s eyes say. This dam could burst.
There is one more photo. It is of a protester who jumps between the man and the police. He is standing over the man’s legs, right in front of the dog. And yet he is standing his ground; he doesn’t lean back, away from the dog, nor does he seem to be pushing forward into the policeman’s space. His hands are in front of him, a little lower than his chest, palms facing down. Let’s calm down, his stance says, his body says, his hands say, his face says. Let’s calm down, his aura emanates. He has the scruffy look of a dreamer, the unkempt hair of a revolutionary. His face is full of naivety and what – hope? Is that hope?
The Policemen backed away eventually, and the dreamer helped the injured man up. They moved on down the road, walking slowly together, the dreamer listening attentively to whatever the injured man was saying.
I got some good photos, I thought. These babies will sell.
I set off south again, back towards Bank. It was half past twelve now, and the streets were starting to clear up. The main part of the protest was done. It was the time when things were going to get either messy or boring; either way, some people were going to leave. I followed the path the red horse had taken in the morning.
This part of the area was nearly deserted now, only small groups of people walking around, not really lingering. Every now and then you could see a police van parked in a side street. The ground everywhere was covered in trash. Funny, I thought. All these eco-activists talking about the environment, keeping the Earth green, and here I was, in the wake of their path, walking through a landfill. Every now and then a piece of paper would get caught up in the breeze and glide across the street. It was like a town in an old western, eerily deserted by the sane. Only the crazies and the outlaws walked about fearlessly amidst the trash, always under the watchful eye of the law. Every other corner you looked at there was a CCTV camera. We are watching, they wanted you to know. Well we are watching, too, I wanted to shout, and suddenly there was the taste of vomit in my mouth. I swirled around, dazed and angry.
My eyes were caught and my feet strangely balanced by a sight down the road. A hundred feet away, walking towards me right down the center of the road, was a girl. She wore blue bell shaped jeans and a dark red tunic, looking very pretty in a modest kind of way. She had long brown hair, tied up messily with colored ribbons, and on her face were painted ornaments. She walked alone down the street with a plastic bag, and every few steps she would bend over and pick something up off the ground and put it in her bag. I watched her walk close by me, trying to understand what she was doing. I couldn’t find anything special about the things she was picking up. She was just collecting trash. There was rubbish on every square foot of the road, but this girl didn’t mind. She walked right by me, a faint smile on her lips and the ribbons in her hair, picking up the trash that others had stained the world with. I looked at her and her smile and the sun painted on her cheek, and I felt the taste of vomit in my mouth and I wanted to cry. What the hell was I doing?
Slowly I got myself together. I could really use some water, I thought. I hadn’t brought any along, and with all the shops boarded up I figured the taste of that vomit would be with me for a long time.
I started walking back down towards Bank. I saw some interesting sights along the way, but I didn’t take any pictures; it just didn’t feel right anymore. I kept my camera in hand out of habit, or laziness, or inertia or God knows what, but there would be no more pictures that day.
About two blocks north of Bank I ran into Freddy again.
“They broke into RBS!” he told me, all excitement.
“Oh,” I said, running through a maze of monsters in my head. “What, uh, what happened?”
“They-“ Freddy stopped. “Are you ok?”
“Yeah. Yeah. Don’t worry about,” I said. It took a long time to get the words out.
“What happened?” Freddy asked.
“You ever-“ I paused. The taste of vomit.
“You ever think that we’re not actually doing anything? I mean, we do stuff, right, we take photos, but really we’re just observers. Great things happen, we’re there, watching. Terrible things happen, we’re there, just watching someone’s life go to shit. You ever want to do something more? You know, be a player rather than just an observer?”
Freddy looked at me, all seriousness. “It’s not our part. We document things, we show people what’s happening. We reveal truth! That’s an important job, right?”
“Yeah, but we reveal other people’s truth. We don’t ever create anything. Haven’t you ever wanted to actually make a difference somewhere?”
“What we do does make a difference. People shape the world based on what they see partly because of us.”
“Yeah, but why is it always other people? You could be shaping the world too, Freddy.”
“I do shape it, indirectly. It’s not our job to do more.”
“Forget jobs, man. I’m talking about life and you’re talking about jobs.”
Freddy sighed. “Is it one of those? Are you going to lock yourself up in your apartment for a week with a case of gin again?”
“Fuck you, Freddy.” It was only four days last time.
He smiled a disgusting, cynical smile. “I gotta go,” he said, turning on his heel.
“Yeah,” I said. He headed somewhere north; I walked south. You’re a robot, Freddy. You’re a goddamned robot.
I ended up by RBS. There was a lot of police everywhere, and they seemed to sort of pen in the protestors. I somehow got in, not even sure why. I guess I thought it might feel good to be pushed around. There was still enough room to walk about a bit, and I decided to do that.
The crowd had a lot of diversity across all sorts of metrics. There were some who you’d immediately think were there to make a racket, there were those who you’d think got caught there by accident, and there were all sorts of people in between, outside, and from other dimensions. You could find a hundred different reasons people had to be there, a hundred different issues they thought needed to be looked at. They would come from a hundred different places around the world, and here they would all be together, penned in like some inconsequential herd animal.
But herd animals they were not. At least not all of them.
I’d been walking around for maybe ten minutes when I saw him. Billy O’Flaherty. He was looking at me, all smiles, his neat brown hair and those big blue eyes that made the rest of the world seem dull. We walked towards each other through the crowd like ghosts gliding among the living. When finally we met we hugged for a good ten seconds, silent.
“Good to see you, brother,” Billy said.
“And you, brother.”
Years ago we had drawn each other’s blood in a fit of passion. That was the day we became kin.
“How are you?” I asked after a few moments of comfortable silence.
“Good,” he said, “and you?”
“Good,” I said. We smiled. Silence again. A lot could have been said; it had been a long time since we’d last seen each other. But it wasn’t like us to ask those things, or to tell them.
“I heard people broke into RBS,” I said.
You? I nodded.
He smiled again. Yeah, I was there.
I smiled back. Why?
“Why not? It was an excursion. The trip of a dinosaur into man’s world. Alice in the Wonderland, come packing. Can you imagine it? Walking around in there?”
Offices always so full of life, so clean and polished and sterile. And you come in through the window. There’s glass on the floor, and a metal barrier that people used to break that glass. Smoke from a smoke bomb fills the air, and you wipe it around only to have it come right back like a film of oil. With all the adrenaline and the smoke bomb having just gone off, everything’s muted, and there’s hours in every second. Slowly you start to see shapes, and they give rise to objects, and there’s always more. Like climbing a mountain in the rain, when suddenly you reach the top of the clouds and you see a world you weren’t sure could be there.
“But what’s the point?” I asked him.
“Not all things have a point,” he said.
“But I think you do.”
Billy smiled. “Oh I don’t know,” he said. “There’s many points to be made, isn’t there?”
“What, like them having bankrupted the world? How’s a broken window going to fix that?”
“It won’t, right? But what is going to fix that? Nothing, mate. It’s done. But they need to take responsibility for what they’ve done; they need to know that they’ve failed us. They fucked us, and we can’t just let them get away with that. We can’t! We’re angry, damn it, and we have a right to be. We’re not some goddamn flock of sheep, are we?”
He looked at me now and his eyes were passion, and I knew that in his determination, Billy was a god. I stood in silence. Finally he chuckled with an uncharacteristic cynicism which I felt sure he’d concocted for my benefit.
“You still walking around with that camera, telling other men’s stories?” he asked.
I smiled, weakly. It was my photography that had lead us in different directions, in the end. I studied artistic photography in university, but I also took my camera along on the endeavors Billy and I went on. Eventually, I started being able to make money selling the photos I took on those adventures. After I graduated I figured this was the easiest way to pay off my loans, and before I knew it I’d slipped firmly into the world of journalistic photography.
I pulled out my camera to show Billy that yes, I was still taking pictures, and for a second I tasted the vomit in my mouth again.
“To each his own, I guess,” Billy said.
I was silent for a moment, overcome with something that could have been nostalgia. “Can I take a picture of you?” I asked.
He nodded. I took the picture, those keen blue eyes speaking to me through the lens.
I put the camera down again, feeling closer to him instantly, those blue eyes much warmer all of a sudden.
“Do you have any water on you?” I asked.
He laughed, reaching into his jacket to pull out a flask.
I had a sip. Whiskey. Sure as hell better than vomit.
“I’ve missed you,” I said.