Art & Photography

Photo Essay: James Rawlings’ ‘Conflict’

The photographer takes us inside his project documenting synthetic situations of conflict, The Architecture of Conflict


Conflict has always interested me: it can be terrifying, physically and emotionally, and yet some seek it out. This series of images, entitled ‘Control’, is part of a larger umbrella project titled The Architecture of Conflict, exploring this theme in its various manifestations.

The idea for The Architecture of Conflict began with a project at university, for which I documented a group of people simulating warfare with replica guns that fired plastic projectiles. It was fascinating to observe people ‘playing at war’ in the same way we might play a computer game, but much more physically true to life.


‘Control’ was shot at the Metropolitan Police Specialist Training Centre in Gravesend. It’s here they train officers in various forms of public disorder and firearm use.

It took several months to secure access to the site. Although I didn’t have to submit a formal proposal, there was a lot of ‘red tape’ and discussion as to what I could and couldn’t show. For example, using a person’s face could put them in danger or single them out when they later came into contact with the public. As a consequence, I knew from the outset I’d have to photograph people from behind or from afar – I was always going to be a step back from the action.I photographed simulations of riot control. It was more reminiscent of aftermath photography than something more high octane like embedded journalism. ‘Control’ is about showing the spaces we create to manage the conflict we encounter.

On shoot day, they had 10-15 officers form a mob, armed with petrol bombs, fake bricks and glass bottles. This group of officers were completely in character. Obviously, it’s still essentially a form of role-play, but officers glean a very real sense of what these riot situations feel like. The ‘mob’ aggressively goaded and threatened the officers with physical and verbal missiles – they really took it to a frightening level.


There were officers there who’d never experienced this sort of training before, and for them, on street level, I imagine it felt pretty real. For me, it was a different experience. Viewing it from the rooftops, or down alleyways on the peripheries, I was allowed to walk around, to step back and see more than just the immediate action.

‘Control’ also showed me the sheer level of detail and training that goes into preparing for riot response. The whole facility, a town in itself, has been constructed for the sole purpose of simulating and[/one_half]responding to public disorder, like the riots of summer 2011. It feels fitting that I now live in Tottenham where they started.

As the project develops I’ll be looking more at the human nature of conflict in different forms, for example when we as people are obligated by physical, moral, or circumstantial force to take part in it.

The full collection of images from this series can be seen HERE

Words and photography James Rawlings