A foot in Jesus sandal protrudes from under a police van, while an officer looks smirkingly on. A man stands in Hyde Park: on his head is a paper bag printed with instructions on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. One reads: ‘Kiss your loved ones goodbye.’ A demure woman sits in a folding chair beside a sign which reads ‘Hello, can you stop for a talk?’ She might be canvassing for a politician or manning a WI stall. In fact she’s picketing Greenham Common RAF base, home to Uncle Sam and his cruise missiles.
Edward Barber’s stunning photos from the early 1980s pinpoint a moment in the history of protest in this country. In some ways they look back to the Suffragette era: a lot of those active in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and these demonstrations were women (‘Take the toys away from the boys’ says one placard. Mrs Thatcher is an honorary boy, presumably). In others, they look forward to Occupy: ordinary people on the streets expressing their anger. Barber’s shots appeared at the time in newspapers and CND material. Now, in spanking new digital prints, they stand tightly packed, shoulder-to-shoulder like the 30,000 women who formed a nine-mile human chain around Greenham in 1982.
The room is painted the canary yellow of the radiation warning symbol; benches are drilled with holes in the shape of the CND logo. These details continue a theme in the work: a very English kind of pre-internet homespun creativity, full of wit and folk art. In the same vein, Barber has created a collage-y ‘mind map’ to trace nuclear protest from the end of WWII until the US cleared out of East Anglia in the early ’90s. These funny and haunting photos are full of children and teenagers. They stare dumbly and angrily into the lens and into the future. They probably thought it would go one way or the other: apocalypse or Eden. In fact, it’s stayed exactly the same. n