The riots that engulfed England between 6 and 10 August, 2011 were the subject of much media commentary which sought to advance explanations for this wave of destruction (the ostensible trigger seems to have been a police shooting incident that occurred two days before the riots.) On the one hand you had die-hard right wingers saying that the whole thing was precipitated by unemployed yobs sponging off the state who needed to get off their backsides and find a job, combined with vaguely muttered semi-racist remarks, all usually accompanied by a yearning to see a return to the good old days of public hangings. On the other side you had hand-wringing lefties saying that this was a result of a deeper political malaise within a post-colonial post-imperial society, the dissipation of hope in the current economic turmoil, the ghettoisation of ethnic groups as well as institutional discrimination that pervades mainstream social and bureaucratic structures within the UK. Of course, both arguments are rather simplistic; on the one hand you have rioters presented as the scum of the earth while the counter argument saw them as legitimate political activists. While of course unemployment and the current economic situation mean that desperate people without hope are more likely to engage in political action, including violence, to say that all those involved were motivated by a political agenda is fanciful. Once chaos reigns, order breaks down and the normal rules that govern our lives no longer apply. It’s an intoxicating free for all. Human nature being what it is, some people take advantage of the situation to do a bit of good, old-fashioned, thievery.
Britain is the leading proponent in the use of surveillance technology; no other country has demonstrated such a historical eagerness to utilise advances in technologies to document, gather data on and control their population. More recently, assisted by decades of terrorism spilling over from Northern Ireland, the need for robust policing to enforce unpopular policies during the Thatcher era, and the build up of a substantial military-industrial complex that sells quite a lot of lethal and not so lethal weaponry and technology to some very dodgy places (such as many of the regimes in the Middle East that have been in the news of late), the marriage of technology to social control and policing has reached new levels within the UK. From the humble mug-shot, to the countless CCTV cameras that pepper every street corner and alleyway, the ANPR system that is used to track cars around the country, as well as the ongoing DNA database police project (taken and stored from pretty much anybody they encounter no matter what the outcome of the arrest might be), not to mention the recently discarded (on cost grounds) ‘voluntary’ biometric identity card that was presented as being a wonderful addition to personal data protection and safety (I would imagine that life would have been made very difficult without one), surveillance and monitoring has become an integral part of everyday life in the UK.
So all this technology, does it really work? In the case of CCTV, sort of. Sure, CCTV cameras might discourage crime in certain circumstances or might help in the arrest of people after the event but it doesn’t actually stop the actual crime from taking place. The CCTV camera and the person watching it (if anybody is actually observing it in real-time) is usually located at a distance and powerless to intervene. And if the CCTV camera does discourage crime from happening in one place it is likely just to displace it to another area where these cameras are absent.
Turning to the book itself, a small, self-published softcover that appeared in 2011, na Champassak presents a series of images culled from the internet entitled Looters. Even the title, Looters, immediately evokes a negative response within the viewer in which all sorts of pre-existing subjective views are assigned to what is portrayed by na Champassak. In contrast to the iconic image from the riots, a photograph of the woman leaping from the burning building (here), these images eschew the overt drama of violence in favour of a more considered portrayal of the individuals involved. The source of each images is not mentioned but each portrait is accompanied by the jpg file name which it was assigned and from a few of these captions it is possible to ascertain that these images may have been posted on the internet by the authorities in order to identify the individuals concerned. Apart from a succinct quote from Aristotle at the beginning of the book (‘The mother of revolution and crime is poverty’) there is no other text to guide the viewer.
The images are presented as head-and-shoulder portrait images of individuals, in grainy, indistinct and blurred black and white, which have been heavily cropped (by either na Champassak or the authorities), many of which are so indistinct as to be completely useless for identification purposes. A number of the subjects of the images have clearly anticipated the CCTV cameras and wear masks or scarves over their faces to disguise themselves rendering the footage quite useless in the case of prosecutions. This work also has resonance within nineteenth century classificatory techniques where individuals were measured, photographed and described with the object of using their physical features as a way to identify a certain ‘type’ of person on sight (criminals, the insane etc.). These techniques have been resurrected in the use of profiling to identify individuals selected for scrutiny because they meet the definition of those who might be likely to commit a crime. So using the images in the book as a guide, what does the stereotypical looter look like? They seem to be in their teens or early twenties, predominately male, like wearing hoodies or scarves wrapped around their faces and with a better than average chance of coming from an ethnic minority. In that sense, the book does not provide us with anything new; these are the same people we see on crime shows day-in, day-out.
If CCTV doesn’t actually do very much to prevent crime it does provide dramatic footage of gritty, real life ‘crime’ for us to derive vicarious entertainment from. In this context an aesthetic of crime is created. Criminals in the CCTV world are presented in stark film-noirish terms, usually at night or in dimly lit conditions, as indistinct, grainy or heavily pixelated figures, engaged in acts of drama that are far beyond the experience of most viewers. This is the ‘normal’ image of crime. These are the underclass of violent, dangerous, degenerate, unredeemable offenders who pose a constant threat to a society of decent law-abiding folk, which in turn, serves to legitimate and valorise the police who are presented as the last bastion of order in response to the forces of chaos who threaten to overthrow everything we hold dear. Such is the simplified narrative that permeates much of both fictional crime drama and the supposedly objective fly-on-the-wall reality programmes of cops on the beat (where cracks do show they are usually presented as a simplified morality play of an honest ‘good’ cop fighting against the corrupt ‘bad’ cops to do the right thing.) This is a particularly nineteenth century construction of both crime and our response to it which still largely defines the debate in this area. The flaws inherent within a strictly hierarchical, bureaucratic organisation consisting of uniformed, often armed, individuals, possessing special powers and in daily contact with corrosive elements in society, who have the potential to abuse their power and influence to ensure that supposedly fair laws are not applied justly is an area that is never part of the official narrative. Of course the alternative to the police is probably just some form of anarchy.
All this surveillance actually appears to have had little or no impact upon the riots themselves. Smart rioters concealed their identities while many others didn’t bother either through ignorance or a simple disregard for possible future consequences. Technology such as CCTV does have an impact upon how the authorities police society but by itself it achieves nothing other than presenting a visual depiction of what happened after the fact, which is used by vested interests, such as the police and politicians, to boost their own importance (and budgets). After all, if society is not constantly under threat from a dangerous underclass why spend all that money on fancy technology that doesn’t really seem to achieve very much? Unlike photojournalistic representations of rioting, which tends to focus on the drama of violence, Looters represents the helpless gaze of the eye of power looking down upon the disorder and chaos which it was supposed to prevent.