[‘Verladestation, Ende Gelände 2016.’ Photo: Sumugan Sivanesan]
Actions live off the images.
So said one of the plenary speakers following the first day of action of Ende Gelände in the Lausitz, 2016. On the previous night an action primer was screened in the Zirkus Zelt. The short documentary featured video shot during 2015 occupation of the Grazweiler coal pit that followed protesters from the camp to the mine and eventually into the back of a police van, interspersed with interviews. This year following the evening plenary, photos and video ‘daily rushes’ were screened, made by independent documentary filmmakers and media outlets such as Michael Goergens, Graswurzel.tv and Leftvision.de. After the first day of action, Malcolm Kratz’s drone footage of protesters entering coal pit and occupying one of the diggers brought rounds of appreciative cheers from the audience (featured in the clip below).
One on-the-ground videographer with whom I spoke remarked that such footage tends to flatten the landscape and the actions being documented, and indeed the aerial abstraction emphasises the scale of the mass actions in the landscape, as identically suited movement-actors are rendered featureless figures in a crowd. Arguably, in-the-field images convey certain affective qualities of actions with which viewers can empathise and potentially identify with. Such images reveal activists’ individual traits, the particularities of the actions they are undertaking and as they moved through different stages; from the initial rush of occupying a position, to the difficulty of establishing a camp on railways exposed to the elements and under constant threat of police eviction.
After the second day of action, Graswurzel.tv’s edit of activists entering Schwarze Pumpe Kraftwerk gained the loudest reaction at the evening screening. The idea to undertake such a brash occupation arose after two blockades on the rail lines feeding the power station were established with relative ease. After it was suggested that most of the police in the region were busy elsewhere overseeing a football match, a group of 300 or so activists decided to enter Schwarze Pumpe reasoning that Vattenfall operators would be forced to shut down the facility for as long as they remained. Although I concur with the premise of the action, I thought the decision to go ahead was made in haste and without the careful planning that had gone into the other actions. It also seemed to me as an action that would most likely result in arrest, which the documentation did indeed demonstrate, and also raised concerns that certain acts were in breach of the action consensus which specified: ‘No infrastructure will be damaged or destroyed.’
Nevertheless, the video documenting violent confrontations with the police seemed to affirm the righteousness of the activities being undertaken. Watching this edit of ‘riot porn’ as part of a large audience seemed to facilitate bonding amongst protestors, many of whom had only hours before escaped this scenario frustrated, injured and confused, or had otherwise been separated from friends who were now under arrest.
These ‘mobilistion videos’ (mobis), quickly assembled after a day of action and sometimes spliced with quick interviews in situ, might seem militant in style, giving activists the opportunity to reflect on the days activities and motivate them for the next. Others, such as the wrap-up video produced by 350.org make use of post-production techniques that are reminiscent of television promos or music videos; the visual language of mass commercial media. One participant commented on how well produced these videos were—‘perhaps even a little too slick,’ he offered.
Perhaps, reviewing events as an audience member that one was active in shaping only hours before, and in a visual language that is popular and familiar, helps to reinforce and legitimise such actions as something ‘proper,’ newsworthy, indeed historical.
We make history not with words, but with our actions.
As an open and accessible movement, one finds differing opinions amongst Ende Gelände activists regarding documentation. Whilst some camp-goers were happy to participate in social media, many others were understandably wary of being identified, especially if they were intending to undertake acts of civil disobedience. The general rule of the camp was no photography outside of designated areas and during defined times (11.30–13.30), unless permission was sought. Special action training sessions were held for the media to photograph and report on, more so in the interests of protecting the identities of movement-actors rather than disclosing the techniques being taught.
Tadzio Müller, a prominent Berlin-based political scientist and activist, informed a press briefing that unlike earlier social movements Ende Gelände sought to collaborate with the media. Although he made no presumptions that the (mainstream) press would be in agreement with their actions, he emphasised their common interest in storytelling, which was also part of the movement’s political strategy. Journalists were assigned a contact in each ‘finger,’ effectively embedding them in actions which could lead to situations of confrontation or uncertainty. It is worth noting that there was a strong emphasis on non-violence and ‘de-escalating’ tense situations should they arise.
Another press contact and spokesperson, Monika Bricke, made efforts to ensure all journalists and photographers were able to access sites with activists or from key viewing points. Perhaps a general lack of police presence and Vattenfall security coupled with the relative accessibility of the rail blockades meant there were always a handful of photographers and journalists lingering around the actions. Even when hundreds of activists stormed the Schwarze Pumpe Kraftwerk, a handful of press photographers kept up with them. Watching from the bridge I counted over a dozen police vans racing towards the power station soon after. Many activists returned later, bruised from scaling barbed wire fences, dodging police batons and tear gas. One activist asked if I had a press card, and if so could I accompany him back to the site to look for missing members of his affinity group. I had none. When I spotted him later I discovered, undeterred, he had discarded his white boiler suit and taped a hand-written ‘press’ sign to his backpack. This ad-hoc press pass did the trick, allowing him to negotiate police lines to find his comrades kettled in by the police.
I could imagine myself doing that.
Ende Gelände is known for its arresting documentation featuring activists wearing identical thin white boiler suits, protected only with dust masks, plastic visors and clutching string bags stuffed full of hay. Set amongst the vast barren landscapes of Germany’s lignite coal pits these images have played a role in aestheticising, publicising and bringing people to Ende Gelände. Arguably, these images provide a template for how to do anti-coal actions and are in themselves a nascent visual language that can be recognised, for example, in the actions recently undertaken by Reclaim the Power at Ffos-y-Fran in Wales, which was also part of 350.org’s ‘Break Free’ campaign. At the Lausitz camp and also at various Ende Gelände meetings I attended, people I spoke with would often recall these images when describing their interest in the movement, saying things like:
I saw the images on Facebook. I wasn’t sure what it was but I knew I wanted to be a part of it.
When a friend showed me the videos I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard about it earlier.
The images tell the story. I could imagine myself doing that.
Striking imagery coupled with testimonials from the blockades, such as those published by John Jordan and Ben Winston, have undoubtedly contributed to movement building. Thousands of other anecdotes and personal accounts which circulate via word-of-mouth recall the exhilaration of being part of the crowd, the rush of adrenalin as activists repelled baton blows to surge through the police lines and enter the coal pit, and the exhaustion of running from the police after breathing in tear gas. They tell of the camaraderie and casual intimacy in the blockade, and of the activists’ eventual release without charge, having collectively refused to reveal their identity or co-operate with authority. Such stories contribute to the historicising and mythologising of the movement. Suitably, this year a session in the Zirkus Zelt was dedicated to sharing stories from the blockades and the camp. Storytelling can settle nerves rattled following a day marked by police confrontations, tear gas and arrests, and instil trust and calm as reports emerged of blockades being threatened by mobs of drunk angry locals, rumoured to be neo-nazis.
The rule of thumb for this sort of anti-photojournalism: no flash, no telephoto zoom lens, no gas mask, no auto-focus, no press pass and no pressure to grab at all costs the one defining image of dramatic violence (Sekula, 2000).
This often-quoted sentence from the late Allan Sekula (1951–2013) is lifted from a text written to accompany his slide show installation Waiting for Tear Gas (2000) that documents the anti-globalisation protests in Seattle, 1999. In this work Sekula set a precedence for a kind of ‘anti-photojournalism’ that sought to counter emerging media stereotypes of activists by filling in the varied moods, impressions and characteristics of the demonstrations. According to Sekula, put simply Waiting for Tear Gas shows how ‘the human body asserts itself in the city streets, against the abstraction of global capital’ (Sekula, 2000).
For me, photo-documentary is a way to remain attentive in such scenarios. Later I am able to reflect, examine and develop narratives with these photographs, which also contribute to an ever-expanding ephemeral archive of images. Wielding a camera establishes some distance between myself, the photographer, and the crowd being documented. The trade-off is that I am not wholly absorbed in the moment or completely caught up in the swell of movement actions and perhaps less available for other kinds of meaningful encounters. Jo Syz is a dedicated photographer and filmmaker I met at the camp with whom I struck up a rapport. Neither of us had press cards or identified as members of the press and nor were we willing to be arrested. Regardless, we thought of ourselves as documenting the movement from within. Not necessarily for the press, but for the archive, for art and for our own projects. Curiously, in the field I did make a conscious decision to include other photographers in the pictures I was taking, possibly pre-empting a subtle critique of the mediatised aspects of our current consensus.