What do the CCTV pictures of last year’s riots say about our attitude to those caught up in the disturbances?


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The Independent Online

It was said at the time that last year's riots would be a turning point in Britain; how quickly they have been forgotten. Yet the CCTV shots on these pages – of those caught up in and around the troubles, though not necessarily involved in them – are a reminder of the near-hysteria that swept the country in the immediate aftermath of our hot August. Plastered across newspapers and TV screens, they appeared, too, on buses and in supermarkets.

"Photographing people on the street is difficult these days," says the Belgian photographer Mishka Henner, who now lives and works in Manchester. "It is seen with great suspicion, and the police have done a great job of restricting it under anti-terrorism pretexts." Yet, in a bitter irony, here the police had no objection to the tradition of street photography being reinvigorated in the most contemporary of ways. k

We don't know anything about the people in the photos: their backgrounds, what they were thought to stand accused of, or even whether they were accused of anything. "The information released in the images doesn't tell us anything," says Henner. "All we are left with is a series of pictures."

It was easy for Henner to access these pictures, which were widely circulated by police forces online, yet he was struck by their poor quality. "Thousands were released, yet many were just a blur," he says. "It doesn't help identification. Which begs the question: why were they being released?" Even when Henner found photos that he could use – re-appropriating them to pose this very question in a piece called "The Gleaners" for Granta's spring 2012 issue – he had to make them bigger and add colour.

The police would no doubt argue that at the time the pictures were released, they were simply trying to investigate those who might have committed offences. And tragically, it has taken the disturbances for these young people to have any sort of public profile. "It's almost an accidental portrait of a generation we know little about," Henner observes.

Since the unrest, anyone who has had dealings with young people will have been struck by how marginalised they feel. "It took the riots for them to notice we even existed" is a sentiment repeatedly expressed. Indeed, those from working-class backgrounds in particular generally appear only as a threat in the media, or a social problem to be contained. The issues affecting them – and which had a role in driving a small minority to loot – are barely spoken about.

Not long after the riots, Iain Duncan Smith – the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions – blamed the rioting on gang culture. Yet many of those caught up in the riots barely bothered to hide their faces from the CCTV cameras: if k they were criminals, they were not savvy criminals. Noteworthy, too, is that only 13 per cent of those arrested for their alleged part in the disturbances were found to be members of gangs. We do know, however, that 42 per cent of the young defendants were poor enough to be eligible for free school meals – compared with a national average of 16 per cent.

As youth unemployment hurtles towards a quarter of all 18- to 25-year-olds and living standards plummet at the fastest rate since the 1920s, the next generation faces being worse off than their parents for the first time since the Second World War. Of course, of those young people who no longer feel they have much of a future to risk, the vast majority will not riot or loot. Nonetheless, these photographs represent a sliver – however tiny – of Britain's burgeoning young. And unless a growing sense of hopelessness is addressed, such images risk becoming a familiar sight.

The pictures also stand as a reminder of how wealth and power operate in Britain. Henner notes that the riots came on the back of far greater "scandals with far bigger consequences for people's lives. What about the people who caused billions of pounds to disappear?" "The bankers" are often a target for popular frustration, yet they remain largely faceless and abstract, despite helping to plunge the world into its biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression. Is justice blind to class? The visibility of these young people – and the invisibility of others – suggests not.

The images are printed in 'Granta 119: Britain', £12.99, out now. Henner will take part in a Granta discussion on storytelling and identity on 17 May at Waterstone's, 91 Deansgate, Manchester; and at the Granta Salon at the Hospital Club, London WC2, on 7 June (granta.com)