Jonathan Taphouse is a Bristol-based street photographer, making a living from weddings and stock photography. He is self-taught, shoots with Leica M9/ Nikon D700 and has been taking photos for eight years. Last week Jonathan stumbled upon and took photos of riots in Bristol. Having uploaded them to Flickr, his account received more than 160,000 views and his photos appeared in many of the nationals. This is his account of the day.
Exhausted, I return to Bristol from the wedding I’ve been photographing all day, only to find police blocking Cheltenham Road with seven Riot vans at the ready. Last time I saw this, the police and bailiffs were removing squatters from the Tesco site, so I knew it was going be something big. I pulled up on some double yellows and grabbed my camera.
On talking to the police, no-one could tell me what was going on but suggested it was an eviction from the squat opposite (In hindsight, I wonder, has they told us the truth, whether any of the violence would have escalated?). At the same time. locals were evacuating the cordoned-off area and were talking about possible petrol bombs.
A line of Welsh police armored with helmets, shields and batons were stopping people entering the area. It was peaceful, but people were confused as to what was going on. Suddenly there was music, and a small group wearing black bandannas over their faces marched up to the police, complete with a trailer and massive stereo in tow. One individual aggressively squared up to the guards, and was immediately thrown back by one of the officers with a double-handed shove to the chest. In hindsight, this was the moment things went wrong.
Not quite knowing why the police were in their streets, and seeing how they were treating us, people now started to get rowdy and out of control. The line of Welsh officers pushed the growing crowd into St Pauls. This was an inexcusable mistake. Pubs were kicking punters out and intoxicated people seemed to be joining in just for excitement of it. They just wanted the police out of their streets, as no-one had been told why they were even there. The new glass recycling bins in St Pauls were pushed to the ground, giving ample ammunition to those who thought it was a good idea to get violent. Once empty they were pushed into the roads and set alight. Chants of ”whose street? Our streets” and “your mothers aren’t proud of you” echoed from this point throughout the night.
Around four hours after removing the ‘petrol bomb hazard’, the police seemed to realise the they might be antagonising the situation and tried to pull out. Their mistake here was to attempting to drive their vans back up through the crowds. This was met with resistance and no-one was moving out of the way. Old tires and bins were thrown into the road to stop them leaving. Police from higher up the road marched down with dogs and cornered the crowd between a row of riot guards and vans. The public had no where to move go, trapped by growling dogs.
Conflict was in stalemate for another hour or two with empty bottles and bricks in the air almost constantly. Eventually the police managed to pull out but left a 4×4 and trailer empty outside the Tesco store. The police returned to find their car on fire and the store in tatters. Things started all over again, and this carried on until around 5am.
Throughout the night I was in my element. I love taking photographs of strangers in the street and revel in the adrenaline that comes with this. At one point, I passed a photographer pulling out of the crowd who shouted out to me “watch your head” with such sincerity in his eyes that I realised the dangers of the situation. From this moment on I was very conscious about my safely. I kept close to walls and away from he bottles that were falling short of the police. I didn’t bother using the flash and the zoom lenses I’d brought out with me, and just kept to a fast 50mm AF lens, shooting manual. The light wasn’t changing too much.
Being dressed for a wedding meant that I got a little more respect from the police, though I was still pushed around indiscriminately by riot shields at the height of the conflict. I felt very vulnerable in St Pauls as there were people picking bricks up out of skips, smashing them into two and running towards the front line. Bottles and broken glass littered the roads. Aggression was in the air and the question remained: “why were the police in OUR streets”.
Finally I got home, ripped all the photos over to my laptop, blogged an image and fell asleep. Two hours later I was awake, unable to sleep, running over the night in my head. So I quickly started to edit the images and upload a set to Flickr to take my mind off things. Twitter then told the world about my images – the “best photos of Bristol’s riots” a writer friend with good Twitter contacts tweeted – and view stats on my blog hit tens of thousands. Suddenly, I became anxious about my safety, worried that I’d incriminated people. I removed some of the stronger photos where you could clearly see faces.
I spent all of Friday taking calls and answering emails from the nationals. I was completely out of my comfort zone and did my best at negotiate a fair price for my images, basically doubling what anyone would offer me (I had no idea what the going rate was!). I then sat back and waited to see what the papers would do with my images!
The whole night was so intense. I’m now trying to get back to normality and find time to edit that lovely wedding!
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After finishing my stint in student media, I couldn’t help but look