I’ve always thought that photography helps you experience any subject – we appreciate clouds, architecture, events, faces – and when I first started taking pictures in the early 1990s I used to love nipping round to Speakers Corner, usually before or after a dim sum with friends.
In the beginning I certainly felt in tune with the underlying concept of the place. I saw Donald Soper, the great Methodist and Socialist orator, who had been familiar to me from his appearances on the BBC’s Any Questions and was well-known for having addressed Hyde Park crowds for 50 years. While I had my own doubts, and the dim sum gang used to tease me about going there, fundamentally I did believe that Speakers Corner was indeed a symbol of British free speech and open debate, and Soper seemed to embody that tradition’s continuing health. In those days other speakers engaged in serious political debate, there were Christian evangelists, one or two black nationalists, someone called William who claimed he was the reincarnation of Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison, and there was the odd Muslim, usually a British convert who had already morphed his way through a range of other religions before deciding to grow his beard and wear a turban. The exact mixture varied from week to week, and as a photographer you could happily develop your documentary skills. Shouldn’t every photographer know how to use their elbows?
As life moved on, I visited less often, maybe not for months, but by the end of the 90s it was very obvious that Speakers Corner was different. Soper had gone, politics was peripheral, and the place seemed dominated by religion. On one side were the bible bashers, West Indians, Americans, Northern Irish – no English, of course. On the other were Muslims who were much less benign than the hippy convert. These speakers, all men, seemed to arrive with small bands of bearded followers and were either English-speaking first and second generation immigrants from India, Pakistan, East Africa, or spoke Arabic and addressed an audience of foreign students and Arab-speaking visitors to the UK. Debate seemed far less important than preaching their word, and as an atheist it felt like photographing something that was of little more value than a freak show. Yes you could still exercise your picture taking skills, and the results could still be surprisingly interesting – I have pictures of at least one Muslim activist who subsequently got 10 years for involvement in terrorism.
In the last few years my my visits have become much more sporadic. Each time I go, the place just seems ever more frozen in religious dogma, the same tired characters pumping out variations on their tedious themes, and each time I go I seem to have even less sympathy – so much so that I struggle to find a lower description than freak show.
But something has certainly changed – “non-photographers” aren’t snapping photos any more, they’re recording video. You can’t just wait for them to compose their shot and put their phone back in a pocket because they seem to want to hold it in your way until their arms fall off. Even if you can elbow your way past them and get to the front, more phones are then ruining your background.
It means that I’m not sure I’m photographing Speakers Corner any more – it’s as if you’re photographing how people experience any event. And I’m not sure that’s totally a bad thing.