Do or Die

An article from Do or Die Issue 7. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 5-8.

Lights, Camera... Activism!

Video Media and Direct Action

This article has been written in an attempt to stimulate much needed discussion in direct action circles about alternative media and its role in our struggles. With the space available the article cannot look at all areas of 'alternative media', nor tackle the areas it does look at in any great detail. It will, however, hopefully act as a catalyst for discussions that should, for once, include the activists on the other side of the lens…

Picture If you live and work in a city you are, on average, filmed by over 400 CCTV cameras per day. If you also manage to squeeze in an early morning national action you could potentially add another dozen cameras to that figure - but that's OK because it's our own media - isn't it?

"I was surprised that not only were people quite happy to send me footage of actions without asking for any control over its use, but some of them had sent tapes to TV stations and couldn't remember getting them back again afterwards." Researcher, Channel 4, November 1997.

There is a basic philosophy underpinning direct action which goes a lot deeper than the net result of the day's action. As the RTS poster states: "Direct action is founded on the idea that people can develop the ability for self rule only through practice, and proposes that all persons directly decide the important issues facing them. It is not a last resort when other methods have failed, but the preferred way of doing things". The issues that have to be tackled are how the ideas and theories behind direct action transfer to the alternative media; whether there are certain ethical criteria that have to be fulfilled for the alternative media to interact successfully with other areas of direct action, rather than become part of the mainstream with a profit motivated agenda.

Although there are many areas of campaign support that need to be looked at in detail, this article focuses primarily on video cameras because, in the wrong hands and with the current state of understanding, they can prove incredibly dangerous. Misuse of video cameras can adversely affect the action itself, as well as increasing the risk of arrest for the activists involved.

'The Video Activist Handbook'

by Thomas Harding (Pluto Press 1997)
248 pages £12.50 ISBN 0-7453-11695

Written by an Undercurrents director who could find books on 'how to make a wedding video, but none on how to become a video activist', this book is aimed at everyone from the novice to the experienced campaigner.

The handbook attempts to cover all topics from equipment and editing to sales and strategy, beginning most chapters with a general overview, before presenting, with some bias, the arguments for and against each tactic. But whilst it manages to cover most topics, however briefly, what it does not do is attempt to cover the underlying ethic behind direct action; the tactics behind wrapping up a deal with your local TV company over the phone gets five pages against two covering the entire history of visual propaganda and information dissemination pre-camcorder. But despite the lack of theory, the book can still be a very useful tool for those new to the field of video activism, with case studies highlighting both the potential success of video activism and the potential pitfalls. There could even be a few lessons for Undercurrents in there somewhere.

Undercurrents - The Film

Undercurrents has been going for just over 4 years now and are currently producing issue 9. With a run of 500 copies, dozens of film showings across the country, and world-wide distribution, Undercurrents is one of the most widely encountered 'direct action focused' productions. Despite their hierarchical operating structure, each issue has increased in radical content and is overcoming the liberalism of early issues. Number 7 carried a piece on the use of sabotage by activists (concentrating on the Newbury burnings) that many other publications, (especially after the GA raids) would shy away from. Issue 8 include a film on the bloody repression of the Kurds by Turkey, a piece on the victorious anti-supermarket camp at Wymondham (see page 54) as well as the regular roundup of global news. The main criticism of Undercurrents the film - rather than Undercurrents the organisation - is its ridiculous price. With actual production costs per video being around £2.00 there is no excuse for charging £12.95 a copy (£9.99 concessions) - if you're on the dole that's a quarter of your weekly income. Undercurrents is worth watching and organising film shows for - if only their internal structure was as good as their finished product.

One case occurred at the launch of a new car in London. The camera operator, working on the Undercurrents video news magazine, had been allowed to record the planning process as well as the action itself. On the day all went as planned, with the car at the centre of the action finishing up covered with paint, and the activists quickly leaving the scene before the police arrived. Incredibly, the person with the camera decided to remain to film the police response - and was subsequently arrested. The tape inside the camera not only contained all the footage of the action but also the build up to it, and faces and voices of those involved. Although no-one was prosecuted as a result of the seizure of the footage it gave the police unnecessary intelligence that could be used in the future.

On another occasion people were arrested after a demonstration at Hackney Town Hall; unedited 'activist' footage from the action was given straight to the local TV station - who then handed it to the police. During the action the 'activist' was questioned and claimed to be filming for Undercurrents. This was later found out to be untrue - but despite the person with the camera being a stranger to everyone on the action, one word acted as a passport to record every intimacy and potentially incriminating act during the action itself.

There are always two sides to every debate however, and many of those currently taking direct action are there after watching Undercurrents at a festival, whilst others may have read through a copy of Squall or Do or Die and been motivated by the dramatic photographs that complement the articles. But even that raises questions about the potential of the movement to recreate itself in the image of its media representation…. All of which leads to the same point: there has to be a continuous appraisal of the methods and motivations of those involved (at all levels) in alternative media - and at the moment that is not happening. The following aims to highlight points in the process from action to 'advert' and examine the image, theory and motivation.

More often than not, the first part of the process is the recording of the image. People will often try and avoid getting their faces near a police Evidence Gatherer (E.G.) film unit; likewise most will avoid trashing machinery with police filming nearby, yet many appear happy to trust those on site with cameras - as long as they're wearing green and black. Quite a few will remember the open cast action in Derbyshire, when every machine on site was trashed and over 350 000 damage was caused (SchNEWS, 7th November 1997); police attendance was negligible and no arrests took place on site. People may also remember the video cameras filming the smashing of machinery from afar, whilst others stood at the side taking photographs.

What action was taken to ensure that none of the footage taken was incriminating - or distributed without the control of those recorded? The answer, as usual, appeared to be very little. If you see someone turning up on their first action with a camera - or even if you see someone you know and trust filming anything potentially incriminating - you have a responsibility to others on the action to question exactly where their motivations lie, and to take appropriate (intelligent) action. Actually taking part in direct action should come before the recording of the event for others. It should not be seen as a spectacle, but as the way to achieve results - people taking back control of their lives.

At present, the activist community seems to have lost control of the image that is often the only connection those not involved have with what is going on and why. The camera can be there as an integral part of the action, a key weapon to be used as part of the greater campaign, but the camera operator should never be - or be seen as - an outside unit. They are there to complement the action, and to support those on the front line; this means working with the various campaigns before hitting the 'record' button, and finding the balance necessary for the relationship to work. Trust can only be built up over a long period of time. If those with the cameras haven't got the patience to get to know at least some of those taking part in the action they want to record, they certainly haven't got the patience or knowledge necessary to be given control over the resultant images.

The current alternative media network on which this article is based developed primarily from inside the environmental direct action movement, and this should have ensured that the whole process - from the recording of the initial image through to final distribution - remained within the control of those actively involved in the movement. It should also have ensured our media could develop as an independent and ethically sound means of information dissemination - but the image, from inception to distribution, has fallen from being part of the process to its current position apparently very distant from the ethic it claims to represent.

According to Michael Albert (Z Magazine, Oct. 1997): "What makes alternative media alternative can't be its product in the simplest sense. …[It] can't just mean that the institution's editorial focus is in this or that topical area; being alternative must have to do with how the institution is organised and works". At present there is one agency that specialises in the production and distribution of alternative video in the UK: Undercurrents. Based initially in London, and now in Oxford, there are a number of lessons that can be learnt from recent revelations about the working ethics of the organisation (see box).

Focus on Undercurrents

A document was circulated last year which detailed some concerns about 'Undercurrents'. Written by several activists with experience of working within the organisation, the main points raised were:

  • That Undercurrents' contracts ask contributors to waive all moral rights to their work, whilst claiming incorrectly that work could not be used by the mainstream without the waiver.
  • That the contracts asked contributors to sign exclusive rights over to Undercurrents for between 20 to 25 years.
  • That the contract demands contributors agree to promote the video in any way possible in order to widen distribution.
  • That the majority of money from the sale of footage (70 per cent after all costs have been taken) remains within Undercurrents instead of being offered back to the campaign that produced the images in the first place.
  • That Undercurrents have been quietly working as a (fairly) exclusive news agency; acting as mainstream when dealing with outside media, yet still claiming to be activists when working in the activist field.
  • That the explicit hierarchy at work within the organisation disallows much sense of ownership to anyone who comes to work there.
  • That Undercurrents can only profit in this way because its actual methods of operation radically contradicts what we feel is most activists perception of the organisation.
  • That unless there is a large scale change within the organisation activists should begin to view it very much as they do mainstream media organisations.


We should note the ease with which control over footage from actions can be taken away from the activist community and placed in the hands of those who may have very little or no experience of direct action. Undercurrents have stated that there has always been a hierarchical regime in place within the organisation, and expect the video activist to accept that fact as a fait accompli.

However, whilst it may be easier to work with such an organisation on their terms, the activist community must both challenge those ideas with which it disagrees, and as necessary find or create alternative outlets for the work. As already stated, direct action does not end when the camera goes back in the bag, and the same ethic has to follow the images from beginning to end. There should be a fluid process in place that allows both common sense to prevail and for overall control to remain within the represented community.

Whilst Undercurrents may state they are not deliberately taking control of the image for their own ends, they are demonstrating enough of a lack of understanding to trigger warning bells in all those who come into contact with them. Their explanation, that because the mainstream media want moral rights over all works they use, the activist community must also sign away their moral rights to an outside force, is incredible in its simplicity. If Undercurrents were fulfilling their perceived role as intermediaries between the 'naive' activist and the mainstream media, they should be informing activists of their rights, not working to the agenda of the mainstream. To create an environment where those with expert knowledge in a particular area can develop a symbiotic relationship with the activist community at large, the 'experts' must also practice the underlying ethics apparent within the images they record.

There are numerous publications that attempt in different ways to fulfil the 'alternative' criteria. Examples include SchNEWS, published each week in Brighton, and the Earth First! Action Update. Both work in different ways, and have put in place criteria that attempt to ensure the media (and thus the image) remains within the control of activists and is not taken over by an unrepresentative elite. In the case of SchNEWS, all articles are written, edited and published by activists; this should ensure that not only do those involved in a campaign get an opportunity to represent themselves, but that training is freely available for all those who want to become more involved in the process. In the case of the Action Update, the creation of an elite is avoided by rotating publication of the newsletter each year.

Where we go from here needs debate that must take place at all levels. The action and current standpoint of Undercurrents should be seen as unacceptable. We need to challenge, change, and learn from our current position to ensure that we never find ourselves in the situation where control of the image has passed to those who place their own survival above the greater good of the movement. The next time someone asks you where you're from, and tells you to put the camera away, it's not necessarily part of an ego-war, it could be because they have never seen you before, and want to know where your motivations lie. Do you know?

[Do or Die is obviously not immune to the problems outlined in this article. Opinions and suggestions are welcome.]

Grassroots Video Contacts

Since the original document (referred to in 'Focus on Undercurrents' box) was circulated, we have heard that there may have been some changes at Undercurrents - but it remains to be seen whether these amount to anything substantial. (We certainly hope so!) People at Undercurrents have been requesting a right to reply in this issue, as they saw this article before publication. After much debate we decided we are not happy with this. Firstly, space was a consideration - inclusion of a reply would mean sacrificing other articles that people had spent months working on. More importantly, why do Undercurrents deserve a reply any more than anyone else criticised in a piece printed in Do or Die? We felt that they could write a letter of under 500 words for the next issue or submit a longer piece as an article, and it will be read and considered for publication as all other submissions are. Undercurrents have had plenty of opportunities to respond to these criticisms in a meaningful way (indeed the author of this article waited for a response from them before concluding it), but have so far consistently failed to do so. Instead they have chosen to misrepresent it as an attack on all video-activism, motivated by a personal grudge. It is nothing of the sort - as you can tell, it seeks to strengthen video activism (and all DIY media) by applying the ethics of direct action to the media which represent it.

Do or Die DTP/web team: