Speakers Corner

Days of film

Almost every Sunday in the early 1990s I seemed to be photographing Speakers Corner in London’s Hyde Park. Back then, it still felt like the symbol of free speech that I had heard about, and you could dismiss the wacky elements. Black guys from Brixton pretended they were Malcolm X, angry socialists called for the overthrow of capitalism, Christian preachers slapped their bibles, Catholics argued obscure points of theology among themselves, an old hippy claimed he was Jim Morrison, hecklers tormented a British Muslim convert about his previous life as a Buddhist. Above all there was the great Methodist and Socialist Donald Soper, still addressing his audiences after 50 years.

The digital age

By the turn of the century l had fallen out of love with the place. It seemed more about bearded men shouting praise of whatever deity stars in their sacred book. The Christians now seemed fervently evangelical and more transatlantic than before, while Muslim preachers from the Middle East or South Asia were protected from heckling or questioning by their Muslim male audiences. You might still see an authentic British bigot condemning sodomy or racial mixing, a few 9/11 and Iraq War conspiracy theorists popped up, but it seemed a freak show serving the tourists. Phones and selfie sticks became part of my composition.

While I still go there occasionally, it’s in the absence of anything else to do. The last photograph here shows a Jewish convert to Christianity speaking to tourists. A police horse had just passed by, expressing its opinion as eloquently as any speaker that day!

Video selfies

After not having been back for two years, I finally went again in late 2018. What surprised me was the number of groups and individuals who were there to record themselves. They set up their gear, did their piece to camera, talked among themselves, and left – no doubt announcing on social media that they had been at Speakers Corner. In body, they were there – in spirit, I’m not so sure.