Ben Roberts’ new photos of the Occupy tents in London are telling of the difference in U.K. and U.S. government response to the movement so far. Unlike the rash of tent-clearing seen in recent weeks at U.S. Occupy locations, the London Occupy tents are still going strong after an eviction deadline last week passed without incident. Roberts suspects that the complex legal wrangling over the issue will allow the protesters to stay put for quite some time.
The photos also contrast the majority of coverage given to the movement which primarily focuses on people rather than spaces. Though as Roberts sees it, the two are inseparable.
“You can almost see more of the person by not having them in there,” Roberts says.
Roberts, a U.K. documentary photographer, was prompted to do the project by news reports that claimed only 10 percent of the 250 tents in St. Paul’s Square in central London were being inhabited overnight.
He suspected the actual numbers were much higher and set out to create a new way of seeing the occupied space. Instead of trying to do another portrait series, Roberts spent one evening poking his head into protestors’ tents and photographing them without their inhabitants.
“It’s much easier to focus on someone’s face but I wanted to look at the traces they left behind,” he says.
The information tent, for example, shows a jumble of seemingly meaningless items. But to Roberts the chaos was revealing. He was particularly intrigued by the filing system, which he referred to as very “Heath Robison,” a British analog to Rube Goldberg. He said the protestors were clearly trying to handle a barrage of information but hadn’t quite figured out how.
In the medical tent, it was the exact opposite. Things were clean and organized, revealing the care and attention paid to issues of health and safety.
Roberts tries to avoid making pictures that are overly directed or produced. None of the photographed tents were scouted beforehand; they were simply chosen based on who would give him permission. Using a flash, he created a flat, surgical look to the photos so nothing in the tent would be highlighted. Roberts hopes the photos allow people to interpret the protests on their own.
“As a photographer I like to stand on the outside, take an impartial viewpoint, offer it up, and say here’s what I’ve seen,” he says. “I have made work where I’ve been ingratiated with my subjects, but I slowly became less satisfied because I almost knew what the pictures were going to look like before I got there. I never knew what was going to be in the tents, and I like this idea of chance.”
That, and he knew the voyeur in all of us would always be curious to see inside.
“Everyone gets a kick at looking into a place they might not otherwise see,” he says.
To see more of Roberts’ work, please visit his website.