At over 600 feet, Solsbury hill affords spectacular views of the city of Bath and surrounding countryside. At the top there is an iron age hill fort dating back to 300bc. The hill and nearby springs have connections with the Celtic goddess Sulis and King Bladud. The sense of history and spirituality is palpable, inspiring Peter Gabriel to write the song ‘Solsbury Hill’.
In the valley below there are equally beautiful water meadows. The whole area falls within a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It was hardly surprising that there was local and national anger at the decision to build three miles of road through it all. Having spent over a year in East Africa photographing nomadic herders living precariously in a fragile and endangered ecosystem, returning to grey John Major Tory Britain was particularly uninspiring. I had focused on environmental photography for most of my working life to this point. It seemed to me that the never ending cycles of famines and wars were fueled by a craving to over consume. No one appeared to care.
But on my first visit to Solsbury hill in March 1994 it was refreshing to find passionate, committed people prepared to make a stand. Conversations were hostile to consumer culture, savvy and cynical about the media, and driven by a will to save the planet. Their attitudes were optimistic and constructive, and they expressed themselves with humour and creativity. At times it felt as though the land was gripped by a second civil war. Conspirators huddled round fires united in their belief in the cause. The authorities responded in a way that heralded our current surveillance culture. I remember going to the Bath police station on one occasion to report some act of security guard violence that I had photographed. On the wall of the police station there was a “have you seen this person?” poster of many faces from the Welling riots in October 1993 which stemmed from a demonstration organized by Militant and the Anti-Nazi League against BNP skinheads. But the faces depicted on the police poster were not those of skinheads. Quite clearly the police had their antennae out, suspecting the anti-roads movement to be part of some Militant conspiracy.
A lot of the action initially started on the ground but as the road moved on up the hill the protest fell back to the trees at Whitecroft this would be the final stand and the main focus of my book. Climbing around in the trees 80 ft. up on polypropylene ropes was another world. It was no mean feat and for the first few weeks adrenalin coursed through the body. The climbing harnesses that were worn (often home made) became such a mark of respect that they were worn as fashion accessories in Bristol night clubs by people who had only heard stories of the protest. I took these pictures on a battered manual rangefinder camera using mainly one lens and carrying pocket loads of film.
This was the only method that could withstand the rain and constant climbing around in the trees, where you needed to be light and not bulky. By comparison digital cameras in 1994 were expensive and massive with short battery lives, producing files of only 1.4 megapixels. The World Wide Web had only been live for a year and mobile phones were expensive and the size of a house brick. On one occasion a national newspaper ran a story on security guard violence using my pictures. I had to drive the negatives down to London and at a petrol station pay desk I was stared at. Until that point I was oblivious to the fact that I was covered in mud and algae from the trees, and stank of wood smoke and sweat having been in the same clothes for over a week. It felt like I’d left my tribe and I owed it to them to get the message out. Fifteen years on the message which I hope to convey in the subsequent pages seems more relevant than ever.
An exhibition of these and many more images is running at The Jam Factory in Oxford form the 1st to the 29th of November 2010.
A book is also available featuring the images.
More details can be found at www.solsburyhill.org.uk
After studying photography at the London College of Printing in 1984, I concentrated on human rights and social documentary photography.
Alongside environmental author George Monbiot, I travelled to Irian Jaya to document the destruction of the Papuan culture and land rights and contributed to the book ‘Poisoned Arrows’. Similarly in Kenya, for the Turkana pastoralists (for the book ‘No Mans Land’) and in Rwanda for the Twa (pygmies), I travelled to pictorially cover their experiences of marginalisation and human rights abuses.
With some backing from Christian Aid in 1989 I travelled to Northern Namibia to document the San (Bushmen)
The one underlying factor for all these peoples has been the destruction of tribal land rights; minority groups have no say in government and find themselves marginalised to the point of cultural genocide. For many there are only two options open to them: change or cease to exist.
The same is going on in England. Protest at the destruction of the countryside not only provided colourful photographs but a clear message that people care and want to do something about it. It’s an indictment of our progress that we can’t see when to stop or how to make our society a better place to live in.
Images are only one way of describing what is going on, but they are a powerful medium – transcending language and cultural differences. They help build a relationship and sense of responsibility to the issues described in the image that may otherwise be lost in verbal or written descriptions.
More information and images can be found at www.arbib.org