Close encounters with the English Defence League

An ageing, red-faced skinhead teases apart his open-necked checked shirt to reveal an image of a crusader’s shield and the words “No Surrender” on his chest. Inadvertently, he also exposes a fleshy triangle of beer belly as he clutches a can of lager in his other hand.

Ed Thompson’s photos capture the spirit of a movement which wears its allegiances on its skin. [Courtesy Edward Thompson]

It is an image, at once intimate, ridiculous and menacing, that captures recurring themes in Ed Thompson’s photo essay documenting the emergence of the English Defence League: bare skin, tattoos and identity and ideology inked onto knuckles, forearms, ankles and shaven heads.

Trying to get a quote from someone in that kind of environment is quite difficult,” said Thompson of the three years spent chronicling the chaotic and often violent gatherings of a group described in a study by the left-wing UK think tank Demos as “the biggest populist street movement in a generation.”

“But when you’ve got somebody who has actually branded themselves, it’s sort of beyond words, and that’s what great photographs can be.”

Founded in 2009, to its supporters the EDL is a grassroots organisation that gives voice to the concerns and grievances of mostly white working class Britons who feel marginalised and threatened by the consequences of multiculturalism and immigration.

On its website, the EDL describes itself as “dedicated to peacefully protesting against Islamic extremism… and promoting the culture and traditions of England.”

But critics accuse it of fomenting racial and religious hatred, of harbouring extreme far-right elements and of staging provocative protests that often descend into pitched battles with police and anti-fascist activists.

Thompson sets his work apart from that of press photographers who have typically focused on capturing the EDL at its most confrontational: the frontline hooligans with faces contorted with anger and adrenaline pressed up against lines of riot police.

He prefers to work inside the crowd, getting up close to his subjects, despite the challenges of shooting with a vintage roll-film Bronica camera with a waist-level viewfinder.

“It’s slow but you have complete control. I get a lot of eye contact with people,” he explained. “It’s not easy having 200 people around you screaming and shouting, as well as horses and police. But if you are standing behind the police pointing a 300mm lens at them and they’re just swearing and pushing that is all you are going to get.”

The result are photographs in which he captures figures who seem more callow, inept and pitiable than threatening, as well as unexpected moments of humour.

In one image, the paramilitary menace of a black-clad figure in a horned helmet is subtly undermined by the pink child’s umbrella hanging from his camouflage pants where you might expect to see a weapon.

“You have these preconceptions about people, and, as a photographer, I love that those are always blown away,” said Thompson.

Still, Thompson’s photos do not flinch from exposing more disturbing and crassly offensive elements within the EDL’s support base.

An image shot at a rally earlier this year in Birmingham portrays a grinning man lifting his shirt to reveal a silhouette of a mosque emblazoned with a cartoon explosion.

That now-infamous tattoo was cited by EDL founder and figurehead Tommy Robinson this week as he announced that he had quit the group because of concerns over “the dangers of far-right extremism.”

When people lift their top and show a picture of a mosque with boom in it… I’m not willing to be representative of that,” Robinson told the BBC’s Newsnight.

With recent EDL rallies struggling to muster crowds numbering more than a few hundred, Thompson believes the movement’s raw appeal had begun to wane long before Robinson’s decision to reject his street-fighting roots in apparent preparation, many predict, for an attempt to re-brand himself as a more respectable campaigner.

“I always had the sneaking suspicion that one day the suits were going to come on, and that’s why I wanted to shoot the EDL while it was at street level,” he said. “But there’s going to be a lot of people who will not want it to end. They’ve got the tattoos and the masks and it’s a lifestyle now.”

A version of this article was originally published on the CNN Photos Blog on 10 October, 2013.