University of Portsmouth's History Blog

A photograph in a riot: How much can we believe?

Photographs provide compelling insight into the past, but can we trust them to give an accurate depiction?[1]. Second-year UoP history student Becky Platt shows how a photograph seemingly showing an argument between a woman and a protestor during the poll tax riot in London in 1990, is shown to have a very differing story from the account of the woman in the picture. It is a great example to discuss how far we can believe a photograph to depict an event accurately. Becky originally wrote this piece for the 1st year history module Traces of the Past: Exploring Lives Through Sources.

The photo portrays a man and woman arguing with each other over a railing[2]The man appears agitated, and although we are unable to see his face, it seems he may be speaking angrily towards this woman as he is gesticulating with his free hand. What cements this is that he is being restrained by a police officer in riot gear, this gives the impression that the police officer is protecting the woman from the man. The woman is leaning forward against the railing to speak to the man, and within the context of the rest of the photo it seems as though she is arguing with him. Within the picture we can see a further two police officers standing to the side, both in riot gear. Overall, this looks to be a clash between two civilians, the man and woman, with the police officer trying to pull the man away, perhaps to protect the woman from him. However, how much should we believe this to be a true representation of what occurred on that day?



Poll tax protestors marching.

Source: James Bourne, Wikimedia Commons

To give context to this photograph we need to discuss the introduction of the incredibly unpopular poll tax, as it was known publicly[3], which eventually led to a riot in London on 31 March 1990[4]. Within government this was called the Community Charge and it was introduced in April 1989 in Scotland, with England and Wales following the next year[5]. The reason for its overwhelming unpopularity was due to everyone paying the same amount, no matter what wage you earned, and it being applied to every adult[6]. This was crippling for some people who were having to pay bills significantly higher than they had been previously[7]. A demonstration was held in London against the poll tax on 31 March 1990 with thousands of people coming out to march, and which eventually devolved into a riot[8]. In the following days the media reported on the riot with condemnation against the civilians involved in them but many suggestions have been made that following a peaceful sit-down riot police were dispatched and charged into the crowd, a provocation leading to retaliation [9] [10]. The article in which the photo was included appeared in The Independent newspaper on 7 April 1990 under the title “The Mob’s Brief Rule”[11]. The use of the word mob leads readers to form a negative viewpoint on the event and the article goes on to blame the violence on “hoodlums and political extremists”[12]. Within the article this photograph is labelled “A West End shopper argues with a protester who is being taken away by the police”[13] which seemingly confirms the initial thoughts upon viewing it and readers may assume this depiction was accurate.

What is so interesting about this photo is the rebuttal from the woman in it, which gives credence to the idea that the riot police had been antagonistic. According to her account, which was published in The Independent a week later, the riot police had grabbed a young girl without provocation and were being rough with her. She states that the photograph shows the young girl’s male companion trying to get to her but being held back by the police, whilst she was attempting to convince the man to calm down due to the risk of arrest[14]. This paints a very different picture and contrasts how it is framed within the news article. It is a perfect example of how photographs can be misinterpreted despite their apparent truthfulness. The inherent danger with photography is the assumption that a photograph is an accurate representation of an event, without considering other aspects[15]. When viewing a photograph, we are seeing a snapshot of an event, but we are often missing further information regarding the circumstances and reasoning from the people captured[16], as is clearly shown when this woman refutes the initial assumption. The woman goes on to condemn the actions of the police, which gives a different perspective on the police, casting them in a bad light[17]. It is important to note that while we have received extra insight from the woman in the photo, we have not heard from the man being restrained, nor from the police officers. These perspectives could also show a different viewpoint of what occurred on this day. The photo and its rebuttal show the importance of viewing photography critically and not believing it to be fact. Nowadays, particularly with the rise of photo editing software, people understand that photos they are viewing could be falsified in some way. However, this software is relatively new, and I believe it could be overshadowing the need to be wary of assumptions that we know what is going on even with photos that we believe show an accurate image, such as those published in newspapers. The over saturation of photographs these days leads to a certain amount of carelessness when viewing photography. We are bombarded constantly with images, and we often glance and assume, with no real interrogation of what we are seeing.

This photograph is an incredible representation showing why we should not take images at face value. A photograph initially assumed to show a woman arguing with a protestor, corroborated by the labelling in the news article where it was displayed, has been shown to be a misinterpretation as stated by the woman within the photograph. It demonstrates the importance of thinking critically when viewing photography and not just glancing at a photo and assuming you understand what is being depicted. It does also lend itself to further discussion and interpretation as we are still missing perspectives, such as those of the man being restrained and the police officers. It is a fascinating case which provides such an interesting discussion with respect of the use of photography as historical sources.

A photo of a man confronting the police taken during the poll tax riots.

Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/neilhester/3629487913


[1] Derek Sayer, “The Photograph: the still image”, in History Beyond the Text: A Student’s Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources, ed. Sarah Barber and Corinna Peniston-Bird (London: Routledge, 2009), 49.

[2] Richard Smith, 31 March 1990, in “The Mob’s Brief Rule,” The Independent, April 7, 1990, 78.

[3] Danny Burns and Mark Simmons, Poll tax rebellion (Stirling: AK Press, 1992), 10.

[4] Anthony Seldon and Daniel Collings, Britain under Thatcher (London: Taylor & Francis Group, 1999), 50.

[5] Danny Burns and Mark Simmons, Poll tax rebellion (Stirling: AK Press, 1992), 10-11.

[6] Ewan Gibbs, “Historical Tradition and Community Mobilisation: Narratives of Red Clydeside in Memories of the Anti-poll Tax Movement in Scotland, 1988-1990,” Labor History 57, iss. 4 (2016): 439-62.

[7] Danny Burns and Mark Simmons, Poll tax rebellion (Stirling: AK Press, 1992), 10.

[8] Danny Burns and Mark Simmons, Poll tax rebellion (Stirling: AK Press, 1992), 87-89.

[9] Poll Tax Riot: 10 hours that shook Trafalgar Square (London: Acab Press, 1990), 61.

[10] Danny Burns and Mark Simmons, Poll tax rebellion (Stirling: AK Press, 1992), 89.

[11] Alexander Chancellor, “The Mob’s Brief Rule,” The Independent, April 7, 1990, 77-79.

[12] Alexander Chancellor, “The Mob’s Brief Rule,” The Independent, April 7, 1990, 79.

[13] Alexander Chancellor, “The Mob’s Brief Rule,” The Independent, April 7, 1990, 78.

[14] R A Sare, “Eye-witness,” The Independent, April 14, 1990, 7.

[15] Penny Tinkler, Using Photographs in Social and Historical Research (London: SAGE Publications Ltd, 2013), 3.

[16] Richard Salkeld, Reading Photographs: An Introduction to the Theory and Meaning of Images (New York: Fairchild Books, 2014), 73.

[17] R A Sare, “Eye-witness,” The Independent, April 14, 1990, 7.

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