“You’ll find nothing you muppets…” Not a line from The Bill or some other plodding vernacular cop show but the real thing: a suspected drug dealer during one of many Hackney police raids witnessed and recorded by photographer Robin Maddock as part of an intermittent three year project to uncover, in his words, “what was at the end of the sirens and flashing lights.” Maddock appears to have had no trouble engaging image-conscious, media-savvy coppers who not only made room in the car for him, but were happy to invite him to pre-raid briefings. They also perused, and approved, a dummy of the resulting book.
As well they might – for this is no hard-hitting exposé of urban crime “control,” nor is it an unflinching account of the brutalities and horrors of a drug trade run riot. Instead Maddock has sought to portray the environmental conditions and urban landscapes against which the successions of raids, searches, questionings and cautions are played out. An iconography of an after-dark Hackney lifestyle emerges: a backstreet builders’ yard, and a shuttered bagel shop; a photo of Malcolm X, and a poster of Marcus Garvey; furniture out the front of a night-time estate; ganzies, baseball caps, handcuffs and helmets; a stash tin and a strip club; dogs who’ve mislaid their muzzles. If you ever scored in the White Hart (as was), demolished a Lower Clapton takeaway on the way home, and woke in the morning to find your telly gone, you’ll know whereof Maddock speaks.
His point is that the bits and pieces of this particular East London landscape are an index of a broader social and cultural neglect, against which the Met can play only a walk-on role. Accordingly, the wryly askance, deft and astute pictures of the actual raids suggest a sense of mission fatigue – the oblique outtakes from a to-be-continued War on Drugs. We don’t see Hackney’s finest smashing the doors in, but we do get a shot of the cheap, splintered damage afterwards. When an officer searches – fruitlessly, we imagine – above some kitchen units, Maddock’s photograph shows only two uniformed feet balancing on the worktop, next to the Fairy liquid, Ribena and washing-up. Elsewhere a poster of Tupac, gun thrust down his waistband, gives the Law the finger. Another officer appears in a doorway to take crime scene pictures, armed, not with the latest digital surveillance technology, but with a rainbow-coloured plastic disposable camera. This is not Forward Intelligence, not the Ring of Steel; this is Hackney, and we use Snappy Snaps.
There are photographs too of bored-looking suspects awaiting their inevitable release – Maddock writes that the raids are rarely effective, that they seldom lead to prosecutions. But it is by no means clear that these pictures achieve the critical independence that elevates the other frames. He aspires to a studiedly neutral position, explaining that he “can’t feel empathy for either side”. But it becomes apparent that there is a precious little middle-ground to be had between 20 masked police and their target. On these occasions the imbalance of power on which the project is predicated asserts itself unavoidably.
It is interesting to speculate how many of the photographs – of innocent individuals on private property – might constitute an invasion of privacy were they to appear in the press. In fact, a few miles to the east of Maddock’s patch, the Barking and Dagenham Recorder recently published photographs taken during a (similarly fruitless) police raid and, though the suspect’s face was pixellated, the paper was censured by the Press Complaints Commission in a ruling that editors “cannot invade a person’s privacy with impunity just because they have the consent of the police”.