Two images of the miners' strike, an instant apart: so which is the classic?

By Ammar Kalia

These days, it’s not unusual to see dozens of amateur photographers all pointing their smartphones in the same direction in a scramble to capture variations of the same shot. But scrums of professional photographers are an old and familiar phenomenon, with competing versions thus existing of many famous images. So what helps one picture stand out from the crowd?

One of photographer Martin Jenkinson’s best-known pictures shows a protesting miner, wearing a toy policeman’s helmet, squaring up to a line of police officers. The black and white image holds both a playful humour and tension in its frame, pitting the lone protester in his parodic outfit against the dark block of officers facing him, one of whom looks directly at the lens. The image was taken at the Battle of Orgreave, a pivotal 1984 miners’ protest in which the police outnumbered demonstrators. Some officers, many argue, used excessive force.

Picket wearing a joke police helmet talking to Police Officers without identification numbers at Orgeave, 6 June 1984
Picket wearing a joke police helmet talking to Police Officers without identification numbers at Orgeave, 6 June 1984 Photograph: Martin Jenkinson

The Guardian sent its own photographer, Don McPhee, to cover the event on the same day, and one of the images he came back with is very similar to Jenkinson’s. The framing is tighter and the protester looks directly into the eyes of the policeman facing him, lending a clearer air of confrontation to the image: Jenkinson and McPhee must have been standing only a few feet away from each other when these near-simultaneous photos were taken.

Don McPhee’s shot of the Orgreave picket line in 1984.
Telling the same story, differently … Don McPhee’s shot of the same Orgreave picket line. Photograph: Don McPhee for the Guardian

There are many similar instances in the history of news photography. The famous image dubbed “tank man” of the lone protester facing down a line of tanks during the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing in 1989 exists in shots by five photographers. Charlie Cole and Stuart Franklin took the image from the same balcony of the Beijing Hotel, while Jeff Widener and Arthur Tsang Hin Wah captured it from different floors.

Jeff Widener’s photograph of the protester, never identified, who faced down the tanks at Tiananmen Square.
Jeff Widener’s photograph of the protester, never identified, who faced down the tanks at Tiananmen Square. Photograph: Jeff Widener/AP

A barrage of photographers facing every news event has long been commonplace. “Certain events produce so many images that you can get fatigued looking through them all,” says the Guardian’s news picture editor, Karin Andreasson. “Ultimately, you rely on your intuition, which is honed from years of experience.”

Louisa Briggs, the curator of the first retrospective of Martin Jenkinson’s work, at Museums Sheffield, believes that the selection process for fine art photography works in a similar way. “When I was first looking though Martin’s photos, it was about a gut reaction,” she says, “and then I’d go back to the selected images and analyse them more. For visitors at an exhibition, they would also respond in a similar way.”

The relative merits of the two Orgreave pictures rely on context as much as content. Andreasson prefers McPhee’s: “When looking for a good news picture, you want a strong composition, something that is dynamic, lit well and clean,” she says. “The McPhee has a wonderful direction of eye contact and a tighter crop, which lends an immediacy to it, whereas there is less of a sense of confrontation in the Jenkinson image. McPhee tells the story better, although both images show the fact that there is more than one truth to a story.”

Capturing a different kind of story is what makes the Jenkinson image enticing to Briggs. “Since Martin was the National Union of Mineworkers’ photographer, he was based in Orgreave for around a month and won the trust of the miners,” she says. “He had a great rapport with them and could take images that captured the personalities of the people who were part of the strike and that really comes across in his photograph. In Martin’s image, the miner wearing the toy helmet feels more playful – it’s a more complex depiction of the miners’ strike, which often saw families with both policemen and miners in them facing each other.”

Fans using smartphones at a concert.
Everyone’s a snapper … fans at a concert. Photograph: Getty Images/WIN-Initiative RM

Briggs adds that no story is ever simple. Jenkinson’s daughter, Justine, apparently told Briggs that the miner went to speak to the policemen because the officer had noticed a cricket badge on the miner’s jacket and so they were joking about the sport together. Jenkinson also took the image “to also document the fact that the policemen weren’t wearing their identification numbers”, Briggs says.

“There could have been an element of performance to the images, since both photographers would have been shooting nearby,” Andreasson says, “and so McPhee would have chosen the image that summed up the written story as clearly as possible.”

For Briggs, “McPhee is brilliant at that summation – he distils exactly what was going on around the miners’ strike,” and yet she believes Jenkinson chose the more nuanced portrait, “an emotive, human image”.

Ultimately, both choosing what to shoot and taking the photograph itself depend on intuition: sensing something momentous or simply remarkable is in the offing and taking the gamble on capturing the precise moment of its happening. That gut reaction might be diluted when surrounded by dozens of others hunting the same thing, but each image is still unique and tells its own story. Even if that might be the fact of all the other photographers clamouring around you to get the perfect Instagram.