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Photojournalism and the Moss Side Riots of 1981: Narrowly Selective Transparency

Hirsch, Shirin and Swanson, David (2019) Photojournalism and the Moss Side Riots of 1981: Narrowly Selective Transparency. History Workshop Journal, 89. pp. 221-245. ISSN 1363-3554

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In the summer of 1981 a series of riots broke out across England. Here we look at the contemporary photojournalism of the Moss Side, Manchester, riots in the local newspaper, the Manchester Evening News, in order to better understand the riots and media representation of riots more generally. We begin by exploring the contradictory nature of photography (and news photography in particular) – what Susan Sontag refers to as photography’s narrowly selective transparency. We then outline a brief history of the riots, before turning to examine photographs in the Manchester Evening News at the time. We analyse the images both collectively and individually on the basis of what has been selected to be shown and why, and what has been excluded. This perspective allows us then to see in the photographs themselves what was intended to be excluded, primarily the causes of the riots – poverty, racism and oppressive policing; and the humanity of those who took part.

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