A new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, London, brings together Edward Barber's documentary photography of England's early non-proliferation movement, 35 years since the very British protests emerged against the Cold War nuclear arms race.
It was a protest that changed history. On 12 December 1982, some 30,000 women marched arm in arm onto Greenham Common in Berkshire, aligning themselves along the entire length of the nine-mile long fence that surrounded the Royal Air Force station.
Standing against a backdrop of ribbons in the shape of peace signs threaded through the barbed wire, they protested proposed government plans to turn the green into a US nuclear cruise missile base.
Each missile would have four times the destructive power of the atomic bomb that pulverised Hiroshima in 1945.
This was one of the key demonstrations in support of the burgeoning anti-nuclear movement of the era, and resulted in a number of peace camps being set up around Britain.
What started as a series of marches in the late 1950s, was turning into the mobilisation of hundreds of thousands of protesters asserting their opposition to nuclear weapons.
A new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum due to open in May, will show a collection of pictures taken by London-based photographer, Edward Barber, illustrating the five years of the escalating tensions of the movement in the early 1980s.
Barber has produced a number of series addressing the capital’s local social truths, including Islington’s People (London), All Dressed Up: British Fashion in the 1980s and 15-18: Teenagers in Their Rooms, as well as teaching at the University of the Arts London.
In 1982, however, Barber’s work largely consisted of formal portraiture. This was the first time the young freelancer had experienced the challenge of capturing the fast-paced atmosphere of activism.
“It posed some real challenges for me, unused to working on the street,” says Barber. “I wanted to record some of the often overlooked elements of performance, folk art and fashion in the Peace Movement.”
The theatre of creative protest – such as the “Die-in” outside the Stock Exchange (1982), elaborate outfits and messages on make-shift banners, as well as (often) critical observations of the attitudes of the police – are just some of the subjects in Barber’s energetic narrative.
The role of the photographer in capturing these messages was pivotal, and not merely observatory, explains curator of the exhibitions Hilary Roberts.
“Protest was devised with cameras in mind,” she says. “It was hoped that most of the forms would be photographed or filmed.”
“A lot of my friends at the time were peace activists,” Barber explains. “Taking documentary photographs as a freelancer was my contribution, my personal form of activism.”
Peace Signs incorporates different moods and aspects of life at the rallies and camps. One image shows a woman sitting on a fold out chair next to a sign with a polite invitation for a chat, a bike and a rug on the ground.
It is a nod to the humour and charm of a polemical conversation.
“It’s about taking a moment to grab someone’s attention and appeal to, in some cases, the positive things rather than the negative,” says the curator. “Just as a successful advertising campaign might.”
Passionate about the movement, Barber capitalised on the emotions evoked through his images and worked to fuel the increase in media attention, forcing the world to look.
“I saw this as preventative photography” says Barber. “I intended to document, celebrate and warn. It attempts to foreground both individual and collective engagement, courage and resilience.”
One image portrays an elderly woman standing on her own, with a large paper sign reading ‘No to nuclear war’ draped around her neck. In another, we see a young boy shouting for his cause.
“The diversity is what strikes you about these images as a whole,” says Roberts. “All age groups, from the very young to the elderly.
“There are people who are obviously there for a good day out and there are people who are completely absorbed by the cause and will do whatever it takes.”
The images were first published in the 1980s across a multitude of editorial platforms such as The Guardian, NME and US News, as well as forming a hugely influential book called Peace Moves: Nuclear Protest in the 1980s curated by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1984.
Next month, the collection will be presented altogether for the first time, mounted on walls painted in a luminous yellow and black; the warning colours of nuclear content.
“I hope that it will bring people pause for thought but also some insights into the forms of protests and their effectiveness, their commitments that the people who took to the streets and the peace camps demonstrated,” says the curator. “All in the interest of securing public safety in the long term.
“Nuclear weapons are very much the subject of public attention once again given the sequence of events ranging from the Trident, to the most recent diplomatic efforts to secure public safety such as the agreement with Iran and concerns about dirty bombs in the hands of potential terrorist organisations.
“You can see why this subject is just as relevant today as it was way back in the 1980s when Edward first took these photographs.”
Peace Signs is open 26 May to 4 September at The Imperial War Museum, London. Learn more here