An informed citizenry is the heart of a dynamic democracy. And nothing informs with more immediacy and power than images. Through an ever growing range of media, protest photography brings an awareness of current issues to the 99% who never take part.
Our "democracy" gives us almost no grip on the nation's politics. We get to vote for one of a couple of very similar parties every five years. If we live in the wrong place or vote for a party other than Labour or Tory our vote is unlikely to have any effect at all. What does have influence is the media portrayal of politically relevant events. New media - Facebook, Twitter etc use a massive number of images. They have become a large part of most people's lives. Even traditional media, while still putting their own political spin on the words, have a great thirst for images. And images are harder to spin than words.
Protest photography is much more than extreme street photography. Coverage of protest forms our social memory, it creates a permanent record for history, spreading the ideas behind the protest and fertilising social change.
There's something very Zen about protest photography. Caught on the fly, seen and recorded in a fraction of a second, protest photographs are truths. Not an explanation of the truth. Not a commentary or an analysis.
Protest photographs are about as unmediated as a record can be. This is why Photoshopping things into or out of photographs is seen as such a serious breach of trust and of ethics by photojournalists.
Public protest is so potent a force that the state puts massive resources into subverting and undermining it. Undercover cops act as agents provocateurs as well as spies. TSG (the Territorial Support Group - the hard cops) provoke protesters so that FIT (Forward Intelligence Teams - the small groups with cameras) can film and photograph them to add to the police databases. Police tactics are often designed to smear the causes rather than to keep the peace.