It wasn’t something he had done before, but when Israel launched an attack on Gaza in July 2014 John Comino-James decided it was time to protest. Outraged by the military action, he found himself at public demonstrations in Oxford and London, and his first experience with collective expression of dissent led to a broader interest in the phenomenon of political demonstration. “The desire to photograph [protests] followed, as I became increasingly aware of the social energy. Then, because I began to make photographs I became increasingly aware of other causes” he says.
In the two years that followed, Comino-James travelled around the UK attending and documenting as many political protests as he could – from those that addressed global issues like climate change to national issues such as the privatisation of the NHS and what may considered more granular concerns like organ harvesting in China.
His relationship with politics and photography became symbiotic, each fuelling the other. “Of course, if you are using a camera, you are always looking or hoping for a good photograph,” he says. “But the photograph is not the sole end of the process — in fact in many cases it has been for me a beginning of a belated awareness.”
He aligned with certain causes, often playing the role of both agitator and observer. This emotional involvement perhaps explains why the images he collected at the end of two years were involuntarily curated by his personal politics. Comino-James did however attempt objectivity, by photographing protests he didn’t feel invested in.
“I took some pictures when UKIP were contesting the Rochester by-election. I have also been to a couple of events where Britain First were demonstrating. I feel absolutely no sympathies.” While he felt that some of these photographs weren’t as interesting as he had hoped – and so haven’t made it to the book – but he felt that witnessing these protests was important.
The body of work showcased in Shout it Loud, Shout it Clear ends around the time of the EU referendum, closing with The March for Europe near Parliament Square in London on July 2 2016. Around the time, Comino-James felt like this particular project had to come to a close, but “Once I was fully engaged with the work I realised it could go on for ever,” he says. “I like the idea of [documenting] a finite time period resulting in a sort of snapshot of the times.”
“Demonstrations evidence a solidarity of opinion, of concern, of anger, and remind participants that they are not alone in their response to a situation”
Photographs in the book are punctuated with text; descriptions of the setting, poignant quotes from signs or personal reflections of the goings-on – all of which add to intended ‘snapshot’ feel.
This project drew to a close in 2016 but Comino-James says his association with political protest will continue. He is likely to narrow the range of events he attends and documents, perhaps sticking only to causes he feels deeply connected with. This isn’t to say that involvement in so many demonstrations over the past few years has left him disenchanted. Instead, it has lead to a reaffirmation of his faith in the power of the collective. His optimism is reflected in his photographs, where protestors are portrayed as placard carrying heroes.
“Demonstrations evidence a solidarity of opinion, of concern, of anger, and remind participants that they are not alone in their response to a situation,” he says. “When I see the extraordinary cultural and ethnic mix of people at demonstrations and the range of ages, too, I take this as a sign of a real and fundamental strength in our society. It is something really positive to be seen and celebrated. Protests about Chinese oppression in Tibet, the visit of Prime Minister Modi, Guantanamo Bay or climate change to name but four — all point far away from a ‘Little England’ mentality and I find that very heartening.”