Amy Weston's dramatic picture of a woman leaping from a window symbolises the riots that erupted in London during August 2011, writes David Clark

Image: Amy Weston’s most famous image of Monika Konczyk leaping from a burning building in Croydon in August 2011. It was published in many publications worldwide. © WENN.COM

The spontaneous rioting that broke out last summer in a number of English cities and towns shocked the nation. The picture that sums up this period of widespread social disorder was shot by news photographer Amy Weston, and shows a desperate woman leaping from the first floor of her burning flat.

The riots were initially sparked off by the shooting of 29-year-old Mark Duggan by police attempting to arrest him on 4 August in Tottenham, north London. The early peaceful protests over Duggan’s death turned into rioting two days later.

By 7 August, civil disorder, looting, arson and violence had spread to other parts of London, and the following day further ‘copycat’ rioting was breaking out in cities and towns around the country. Despite all police leave being cancelled and extra police being drafted into trouble spots, rioting and looting continued over the following nights.

Amy Weston, 33, was working for World Entertainment News Network (WENN), a picture agency specialising in celebrity pictures and news stories. On 8 August, the agency asked her to go to Croydon in south London, where shops were being looted and buildings were on fire.

As she arrived in the Surrey Street area of the town at around 8pm, she saw flames coming from the windows of flats above some shops. A major fire was also burning at a nearby furniture store.
In the street below the flats, local residents were looking anxiously towards the burning flats. ‘There was a small crowd of people in front of me, some of them in their night clothes, who had obviously come out of their homes that were ablaze,’ Weston said in a Radio 4 interview on 10 August. ‘A lot of them were very emotional and upset. Grown men were crying into their hands, and there were six or seven riot police who started to push us back.’

As that happened, a man shouted that there was a woman still inside the building. As Weston looked in the direction he was pointing, she could see two feet emerging from the first floor window as the woman tried to escape the flames.

Image: One of Amy Weston’s images of Monika Konczyk leaping from a burning building. © WENN.COM

The riot police moved to a position beneath the window and, together with onlookers, tried to encourage the woman to jump. Weston, although some distance back, could feel the heat of the fire on her face.

She was shooting with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II and 70-200mm lens, and fired three frames as the woman jumped. The most famous of them shows the woman as she has just left the window ledge.

‘I knew that I’d got the shot,’ Weston continued in the BBC interview, ‘because I spend my life looking through the lens on my camera and I knew when I took it that I’d got the shot. But it wasn’t until I got home and had a really good look at it that I could see exactly what was in the frame.

‘It was such an intense moment,’ she added. ‘Now, looking at the photograph, it’s almost like there’s some sort of silence, but directly behind me was the Surrey Street market area where there are some of the larger stores selling electrical products. As I turned around and looked behind me, it was like a war zone. There were huge groups of people, some cycling through the smashed windows and back out with televisions and other electrical products… it was just unbelievable.’

Weston was only at the scene for ten minutes and, after the woman jumped from the window, she tried to leave the area. However, the path to her car was obstructed by a group of 40-50 fighting rioters. She took off her cardigan, wrapped it around her camera and hid it under her arm. ‘Then I just ran as fast as I could through the crowd and back to my car,’ she said. ‘I didn’t actually look at my camera until I got back safely.’

On 9 August, Weston’s pictures of the woman jumping were published on either a front or inside page of almost all the English daily papers, and in many other publications worldwide. In most cases, the main picture was cropped as an upright image concentrating on the woman and the people below. On the front page of The Sun it ran with the headline Descent into Hell.

Weston’s picture stands out for its simplicity and perfect timing; the figures, silhouetted against the vivid yellow background of the furniture store blaze, give it an almost theatrical sense of drama.

Image: Amy Weston returns to the spot in Croydon where she took her dramatic photographs. © WENN.COM 

The shot was taken at a moment during the peak of the disorder, and four days later the riots had almost ended. During the rioting, more than 3,000 people were arrested, five people were killed and the total cost of the disturbances reached around £100 million.

The person in the photograph was later named as Monika Konczyk, a 32-year-old Polish woman whose fall was broken by riot police. She had survived her terrifying ordeal unharmed, but the picture of her falling remains a potent reminder of a period when society seemed at breaking point.

Books and Websites

Books: Out of the Ashes: Britain After the Riots by David Lammy examines the causes of the riots and what can be learned from them.
Websites:

To hear the Radio 4 interview with Amy Weston quoted in this feature,

search Google for The Media Show: Reporting the Riots. A Guardian

feature on Weston’s picture can be found on www.guardian.co.uk/media

(search for ‘Amy Weston’).

Events of 2011

  • 11 February: Hosni Mubarak, president of Egypt, resigns following widespread protests
  • 11 March: Japan suffers a major earthquake and tsunami, resulting in the deaths of at least 15,000 people and leading to the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster
  • 29 April: Prince William marries Kate Middleton at London’s Westminster Abbey
  • 1 May: Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is killed at his secret compound in Pakistan by the US military
  • 16 May: In the financial crisis in Europe, the European Union agrees to a t78 billion bailout loan for Portugal
  • 22 July: Norwegian Anders Breivik kills 77 by bombing a government building in Oslo and carrying out a massacre on Utøya island
  • 20-28 August: Libyan rebels overthrow the Gaddafi government. Gaddafi is captured and killed two months later
  • 17 September: In New York, the Occupy Wall Street protests begin, then spread worldwide
  • 27 October: The EU announces an increase of the bailout fund intended to tackle the European sovereign debt crisis, which rises to t1 trillion
  • 15 December: The Iraq War is declared officially at an end after more than eight years of conflict