A conversation with photographer and filmmaker Adrian Fisk; 90’s activism, winter in the Ewok Village and the creation of a beautiful visual memoir from this time.
How did you get involved in photographing the road protest movement?
I was a final year photography student up in the North of England and I’d heard about these people living in the trees, and I thought there is something really interesting about that. At that time I was very much questioning the status quo of our society and how as a country we were moving through it, whether that was from a social perspective or an environmental perspective, so this idea of people living in trees to protect them from a road being built was really interesting.
I went with a friend and saw this extraordinary thing they called the Ewok Village with all these people living up in the trees. It was incredible because you could go from one tree, to another tree to another tree for several hundred metres along rope walkways between the trees and the treehouses, and thus began the beginning of a 5 year journey.
Essentially, I was interested in people who were questioning the status quo, as I just felt that fundamentally things were not right in all aspects of life, so it was natural that I would be drawn into that.
Did you see yourself as an active participant or an impartial observer, or somewhere in between, and how did you navigate that position?
I was very much an active participant, however, I was very particular about not physically putting myself in the way. I never shouted, even though I wanted to, I was always passively yet intentionally documenting, getting as close as I could.
I think also because I’d been studying photography, I realised that photographers don’t have to be getting physically involved to be part of the questioning of what it is they are witnessing. I also realised that from a young age that my power lay in my work, I could throw myself in front of a digger and get arrested and that would be a powerful, though short-lived moment, or I could photograph people running in front of a digger in an attempt to stop it. That image has far more power, there is more agency in that image because it’s still relevant now 25 years later.
I was arrested at the Newbury bypass, when I was taken out of the Corsican Pine that was the tallest tree along the route. Just by being there, taking pictures and acting in a journalistic capacity, even showing my NUJ card, I was still arrested. The photographs from that specific Corsican Pine and the eviction of it were published in the Guardian Weekend Magazine.
Getting access to a countercultural movement like this takes time. There was a lot of illegal activity going on, a lot of different characters involved, some of them quite vulnerable, you have to navigate that quite carefully. The route into that is trust and in order to gain trust you need to spend time with people, that’s why I built a treehouse and lived at the Newbury Bypass for different periods, particularly over that winter when all the action happened because it really built up trust, these people could see my dedication and my commitment, I was living with them, essentially was one of them. I never physically put myself in the way but I was bang on there with them, but in a different way of protesting, with my camera.
What was it like to live up in the trees?
One of the key memories is how flipping terrifying it was every time you stepped out onto a rope walkway, my head for heights isn’t the best and there would be one bit of rope for your hands that you would attach your harness too, and one bit of rope for your feet, and you’d have to shuffle along and if the upper one snapped then game over. They would bend about… like a fairground ride but 60, 70, 80 feet up! And then there was the practicalities of shooting with film, of changing a roll of film. I only had one camera and two lenses, so trying to change lenses at great height was a challenge.
The other thing at Newbury was how cold it was. It was one of the coldest winters in living memory, I remember waking up in the morning and couldn’t make tea because everything was frozen through. Being up in the trees with the cold steel of your camera, trying to change the lens, change the film all while holding onto an ice covered branch, it was challenging.
It was COLD. Really cold. It was an interesting experience, probably the only time in life where I would live outside in the winter, and when the Spring came, man did you know about it! No wonder they have spring fertility festivals, your understanding of what Spring is when you have lived outside in the Winter becomes a whole new experience. The first warmth of Spring, the first flowers and leaves starting to come out after the long cold hard winter was a really interesting thing to go through.
What do you think happened to the energy and ideals of the road protest and free party movement?
I’ve been posting this work to instagram and social media to build up numbers before the launch of the Kickstarter and so many people have been going ‘oh there’s so-and-so in the picture’ and ‘that’s me in the picture’ and it’s been really nice because often I didn’t even know these people at the time, there were so many, seven thousand people protested at Newbury over the time, so of course lots of people I don’t know, and it turns out one guy lives really close to where I live on Dartmoor so I met with him as he saw himself in a photograph. He was very involved and I asked what he thought happened with the energy. I tend to think of the end of Reclaim the Streets as 1999, but it did actually go on until around 2001, but it did lose its momentum in part due to police bringing in the new tactic of kettling, but talking to him.. people were exhausted. Some were really burnt out. Some started their journey in 1992 and they went right through to 99, I went from 95 to 99 and it’s full on and I wasn’t even doing the full time activist! As a full time activist it’s full on. You’re living in the trees in the winter in the freezing snow, doing lock-ons, being arrested, being monitored, psychologically you don’t know what’s going on in terms of the state authorities monitoring you. People got tired and burnt out. Talking to him, it was quite interesting because he remembered Dutch activists coming over and being all ‘Wow you do all this mad activism and then you party like nuts!’. People just needed to let go. People protested hard, partied hard, and everyone was exhausted.
The question is, how much change was really happening? The roads thing was very interesting, there was very big success there, including the cancellation of 77 roads and the Tory Transport Minister Steven Norris coming out and saying that the Newbury bypass should never have been built. Reclaim The Streets played its influence in parts of London being pedestrianised and the bringing in of the congestion charge, so there were successes, but there can only be so long that you can carry on that momentum.
How does this play into what’s going on now? You’ve got XR who started in 2018 and have been pretty on it, it’s going to be interesting to see where it all goes, because we can’t afford to lose momentum this time. Before, maybe the threat wasn’t big enough in people’s minds so it dissipated, but this time, I don’t know how it’s all going to go. XR will find it very challenging to maintain it at the level that they are, they are doing extraordinary work and to maintain that level is extremely demanding.
XR are definitely doing it. The question is, how did the 90’s influence where we are at now in terms of protest, tactics and style, there is some slight debate about this, but it seems that there is an aspect of the current movements sort of disassociating themselves from the 90’s, or not giving enough credit to what was happening in the 90’s. What is important to remember is that the first direct action environmental movement we saw in the UK was in the beginning of the 90’s and played itself right though-out the 90’s, and it has played an influence in XR’s movement within London. The kind of festive, carnivalesque aspects of Reclaim the Streets, is very evident in XR. One of the key differences is that XR has a no drugs and alcohol policy that I think is a very smart move. Because it keeps everyone focussed and on the case, whereas RTS could have an anarchic edge to it.
What values do you try to embody when you pick up a camera?
Authenticity. That is really important. When I make an image, I want that image to be an absolute honest representation of how I interpret that scene in front of me. Photography is never objective, it’s always subjective. How one person takes a picture of one such scene, and someone else takes an image of the same such scene, they could be two totally different perspectives, which is truth.
So what is truth? I attempt to bring an authentic interpretation of what I observe in front of me, and in turn, I hope that those that observe that image who happen to have an understanding or experience of what is being photographed, will be able to relate to it and be able to say it is a real, honest and relatable interpretation of what they too experienced.
Tell us more about the book project.
COP26 is happening, so I was thinking.. I made all this work with great passion, because I firmly believe in the protection of our extraordinary beautiful planet, and this work is sitting there doing nothing, and COP26 is a good galvaniser, with everyone in their respective fields doing everything they can, both within and beyond COP. It’s been a good theme to make me think, what can I do here to help with the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss? So that was really the motivation and I’ve teamed up with some award winning designers and we created the template for a really stunning hardback book, it’s 160 pages, 200 colour photographs, printed on really high grade, as environmentally sound, minimal carbon footprint paper as you can get. That was really important, as photography printing can be quite toxic, so I’ve really gone for the best paper I can get, 100% recycled pulp from FSC approved original paper, and a forward written by J Griffith who wrote ‘Why Rebel’, which I’m really honoured by, she’s an incredible writer.
It’s a really exciting moment to bring this together, and the idea of the book is to celebrate and acknowledge the activists who put their lives on the line 25 years ago. Also there are two other important things that it attempts to do, one is that those activists were seen as extremists, nutters, crusties, hippies, scroungers off the state, and all the other nasty adjectives you can use to describe them, and is still being used to describe activists today, nothing has really changed in how they were perceived. Bearing in mind, since the industrial revolution in 1751, half of all the CO2 ever emitted has been done so in the last 25 years, so the point is that if we had listened to those crusty-freak-extremist-nutters 25 years ago, would we be in the mess we are now? No, they were bang on the money. This book is a reminder to listen to those activists, because again, we find ourselves in the same situation, it has not gone away, it’s gotten far worse, and now again we have activists with the same unpleasant names being used to describe them, and yet we have a chance, if we start listening to them and getting our act together, perhaps then in 25 years from now we won’t be lamenting back to this time going ‘If only we’d listened to them.’.
The third reason for doing the book, there is an element in the current generation of activists who aren’t really aware of this movement of the 1990’s, that didn’t even know it existed, or to the level that it existed. And to be able to have some level of understanding or to see what that activism looked like in the 1990’s, informs them that they are following a legacy, a continuity of history, and that they stand on the shoulders of those that came before them. By understanding that, they then have greater resilience and strength to their movements.
I want to further inspire and inform the current generation of activists with what was happening 25 years ago.
How can we support?
Printing books is really expensive, ironically when you go for the most environmentally sound paper it makes it even more so! So my kickstarter is attempting to raise £16,000, and this is only going to happen if lots of people get involved. But by doing so there is a fantastic strip of rewards. I remember when I was young and a student, photography books would come out and I couldn’t afford them. Sebastio Salgado’s book Workers, an incredible celebration of physical labour and the Proletariat cost £80 in 1993 and I thought, how can I afford that!? So I wanted there to be something for everyone. So there is a really beautiful poster with the title ‘Until the Last Oak Falls’ and there is a choice of three photographs you can have at the back, so a choice of three posters for £10. And then you’ve got the book, it normally retails at £40, I’m doing early bird on the book for £35, where you will get your name in the back of the book as someone who really believes in the project, and it goes on, there are a really fantastic set of rewards available.
I need as many people as possible to get involved in the kickstarter and to spread the word, so we can get as many people as possible inspired and to further the cause of direct action activism.
The Kickstarter went live on Wednesday 6th of October 2021, over at http://kck.st/3iVs3QH
What are you most excited to be working on next?
So I’ve moved into film making, which has been a really interesting and natural progression from photography, it’s so much bigger and more complex than photography. I love the power of photography and will always be a photographer, but have moved towards filming as it’s a growing industry and photography less so.
I’ve been commissioned to make a film of what needs to be put in place in order to allow a just, resilient, sustainable existence for indigenous and local arctic communities. That starts hopefully, mid October. It’s a big complex film for an academic project called Just North, funded by the EU, visiting the Canadian Arctic, Greenland, Iceland, the Sami of Lapland, remote fishing communities among others. It’s very exciting.
Thanks so much for talking about your work, of living in the trees and activism with us Adrian! Best of luck with the Kickstarter and the publishing of When the Last Oak Falls, it looks absolutely beautiful and it’s a story that must be cherished and retold for these times.