How I shot portraits of marchers at the 80th Anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street
My name is Charlotte Barnes and I'm a Commercial and Editorial Photographer based in London. Last weekend marked the 80th anniversary of what has become known as the Battle of Cable Street. In 1936, thousands of Londoners came together to prevent Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists (known as the Blackshirts) from marching through the East End. Mosley had chosen this area for its large Jewish and immigrant population and despite the strong likelihood of violence, the government of the day refused to ban the march and sent a large escort of police to prevent anti-fascist activists from disrupting the march.
Jewish, Irish, socialist, anarchist and communist groups came together with local people to build roadblocks and barricades to prevent the Blackshirts from achieving their aim. An estimated 20,000 people turned out to face 6000 police and and thousands fought running battles in the street. They were successful and eventually, Mosley's fascists were forced to abandon the march.
I went along to the anniversary march to make portraits of some of the men and women who marched or spoke at the rally held afterwards.
I didn't have an invitation and I wasn't there as a photojournalist. My plan was to pin up a background paper against a wall somewhere and to ask people for a few moments of their time, find out who they were, why they were there and make a portrait with them. I took along my friend TJ who had agreed to be my unpaid assistant for the day and we arrived at the march's end point so we could scout the site for a suitable location. It was a bright, sunny October day and I was looking for somewhere with good footfall, but out of direct sunshine. Ideally, I wanted a nice smooth wall to gaffer tape my grey paper onto.
Pretty soon, I realised that the best possible place was going to be behind the main stage that was being set up by the organisers, the trade union Unite for the speakers to address the crowd. I went and found the Stage Manager and asked if he had any objection to my plan and he said it was fine if I cleared it with the organisers. Once I'd run my plan by the head steward and he'd agreed, I was good to go, so TJ and I went ahead and set up our improvised studio.
My plan was to make some really intimate portraits of the people I met at the rally. Inspired by formal portraits of activists from the 1930s, I wanted to use a very thin depth of field, as if I was shooting on a plate camera, focusing the viewer's attention on my subjects' eyes. To do this fast and accurately, I shot between wide open and f/2 with a Nikon 85mm f/1.4 on my D3s. The portraits were lit with a single Elinchrom Quadra head into a 70cm Rotalux softbox, positioned camera right. In order to cut down on the natural light coming into the scene, I fitted a Singh-Ray Vari-ND neutral density filter to my lens, to cut off about three stops of light.
Working this way is quite tricky and I knew I was going to need to nail focus on my subjects' eyes. It's imperative to use single point AF and to have really good technique. When you're working with a Vari-ND, it's pretty much pointless using a light meter, so I was relying on my histogram on the back of the camera and a 'suck it and see' approach to exposure. In the bright daylight, I find it absolutely invaluable to have a loupe round my neck so I can see the LCD out of the daylight glare, so when I'm working outdoors, I always pack a Hoodman H-LPP3 HoodLoupe.
Once I was set, I left him looking after the kit and wandered round, in search of people to talk to and photograph:
I had the great honour of meeting and photographing 101 year old Max Levitas, an East End Hero who fought at the Battle of Cable Street in 1936. Max went on to become a Communist councillor for 15 years in Stepney and has spent his life campaigning against fascism:
Like I mentioned - when you're shooting at f one-point-something, you've got to have rock solid technique:
Each portrait took no more than a couple of minutes and I made sure to take some information about my subject and ask them why they were at the march and what their connection with Cable Street was.
I met and photographed some wonderful people, like English children's novelist and poet, Michael Rosen. Author of 140 books, he served as Children's Laureate from June 2007 to June 2009 and has been a TV presenter and a political columnist:
Artist Paul Butler has been involved in a number of public art projects. In 1982/3 with Ray Walker and Desmond Rochfort, he painted the famous commemorative mural at Cable Street:
Much of my professional life involves shooting work for corporate clients that often doesn't see a wide publication, so it's great to get out and make some personal work that has real significance.
Later in the afternoon, whilst I was working behind the stage, Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn MP spoke to the crowd and was photographed by many hundreds of people. I much prefer my more deliberate style of work and I shall always remember the day I got to make a photograph and shake hands with Max Levitas, hero of Cable Street.
The full gallery can be seen on my website here: