Almost everyone in London knows about Speakers’ Corner, yet few have actually been there. Indeed, many will be surprised to find that it’s still going today.
Officially in existence since 1872, Speakers’ Corner was ceremonially ‘reopened’ in 2014 after refurbishment of the area in the north-east corner of Hyde Park. It appears to be an institution London and its authorities are immensely proud of but somehow reluctant to promote.
While neglected by Londoners, Speakers’ Corner attracts a great number of visitors from all over the globe and is probably mentioned in every London guidebook. It seems that there are many places around the world where people still regard this place and institution as the epitome of the right to freely speak and assemble. The reason is obvious: the number of countries where people get imprisoned, or even killed, for voicing their opinion (at least if it’s the wrong one), or favouring one religion over another, seems to be on the increase.
Yet Speakers’ Corner today is probably better known for its assembly of eccentrics, fervent preachers and perceived nutcases.
The crowds have become smaller, there might not be as many speakers as in the 1960s and religion has gradually replaced politics as the dominant subject matter. But if you pay a visit to Speakers’ Corner on a Sunday afternoon in 2015, you will encounter an atmosphere that perhaps hasn’t changed much since the days of Marx and Lenin.
The first thing that will strike you is the passion with which speakers and clusters of seemingly random people argue their cases and debate issues of all kind. Orators, preachers, hecklers and attention-seekers shout at each other (or no one in particular). Eccentrics mingle with tourists, groups of teenage school children and Sunday afternoon strollers from nearby Mayfair, Kensington or Bayswater.
No microphones or megaphones are allowed here. Speakers have to find other ways to make themselves heard and to fend off vociferous hecklers. Unlike the internet, this is not a place where one can remain anonymous. People might not know your name but debates are clearly face-to-face. And although violence is surprisingly rare, speakers have to be prepared to get pushed off their ladders when words are no longer powerful enough.
How much of this passion can be captured in a photograph? That’s what I have been investigating with these images.
© 2017 Jan Enkelmann. All rights reserved.