A woman sits on a fold-up chair, with a sign – 'Hello, can you stop for a talk?' – inviting passersby to stop for a chat about nuclear proliferation. An elderly woman stands on her own with a sign 'No to nuclear war' round her neck. A sandalled foot sticks out from under a police van, whilst a polieceman leans on the van, smiling uneasily at the camera. A man stands with a paper bag on his head, covered in instructions on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack.
CND Rally, Hyde Park, London, 1981. Copyright Edward Barber.
'Peace Signs', Edward Barber's collection of arresting and moving photos from the early eighties, taken at Greenham Common and elsewhere, is currently on exhibition at the IWM in London. The photos capture the protests of people from a hugely diverse range of ages and backgrounds, though most are women.
Some images show the creative, almost playful aspects to the performance of protest, as demonstrators try to obstruct, disrupt and prevent the smooth running of the murderous war machine of Britain and its U.S. ally. Lines of singing women join hands around the fences of the missile base. Activists lie in the roads in the shape of the CND sign. Demonstrators and pickets supply an endless stream of volunteers to block the paths of supply lorries, tractors and bulldozers. Women stage a Die-in outside the Stock Exchange.
Women from Greenham Common stage a Die-in outside the London Stock Exchange during the morning rush hour as President Reagan arrives in Britain, 1982. Copyright Edward Barber.
In several more sombre images, we see protesters stare unsmilingly at the camera, returning our gaze. In some ways they look vulnerable and helpless. What chance do young children, older people and women have, ranged against large numbers of blank-faced, uniformed policemen? Yet the strength of their determination and conviction also shines through these beautifully clear, well-printed images, and the challenge of their anger comes vividly across the 30-odd years that separate us, mutely willing us to continue their resistance.
A protester from the Women's Peace Camp at Greenham Common after keening in Parliament Square, London, 1981. Copyright Edward Barber.
As befits the anti-nuclear cause, the protests are peaceful, and in a forerunner of the Occupy protests they are often playful and witty, part of an unscripted collective performance. It's a kind of folk art, facing off against the bleak, regimented lines of policemen, lifting and dragging their protesting, prostrate bodies off roads and pavements.
There are no prosaic notes accompanying the photos, giving details of the locations and events depicted, because although they would have given documentary precision, they would have limited the power of the exhibition to creatively communicate its still-relevant messages.
Instead, the photos are arranged to echo the creative, chaotic nature of the protests they document. Then, towards the end of the exhibition, Barber's 'mind map', connecting rough ideas and movements with arrows using a thick marker pen, gives some context to the protests. It maps them into a tradition of creative and collective action, reaching from the fifties to modern day protests by Jeremy Corbyn and others.
'Embrace the Base': 30,000 women link hands, completely surrounding the nine mile perimeter fence at RAF/USAF Greenham Common, Berkshire, 1982. Copyright Edward Barber.
“I saw this as preventative photography” says Edward Barber, about his collection of photographs. “I intended to document, celebrate and warn. It attempts to foreground both individual and collective engagement, courage and resilience.”
The exhibition can hardly be said to have prevented the continuation of the immoral threat to world peace represented by Britain's arsenal of nuclear weapons. But it is certainly a celebration and a warning. It is a celebration of a peculiarly British kind of humorous, angry and incredibly determined type of commitment to persistent protest against state power and militarism.
Protestor at Bank of England. Copyright Edward Barber.
And it's a timely warning of the evils of nuclear proliferation. Just when the genocidal threats implict in the Trident missile programme are being renewed by the Government, the exhibition itself echoes and confirms the protesters' critical resistance to war, and renews their creative call for peace.
Peace Signs is on at IWM London until September 4th.
Mike Quille is a writer, reviewer and chief editor of Culture Matters.