Serious Conviction: Photographs from Speakers' Corner

Image copyright Jan Enkelmann

A small piece of land in the heart of London has been the scene of heated debate since 1872 when the Parks Regulation Act gave permission for people to meet and speak out on any issue. The site, once home to the Tyburn gallows - a site for public execution - became known as Speakers' Corner, and earlier this year reopened to the public following refurbishment.

Photographer Jan Enkelmann is working on a long-term project on the area and here shares his thoughts on his work so far.

"With freedom of speech such a hotly debated topic, Speakers' Corner is one of those institutions you think should receive a lot of media coverage. But surprisingly it doesn't.

It was once the site of riots, tumultuous demonstrations and public meetings of groups that weren't allowed to gather anywhere else. It is where Marx, Lenin and Orwell found their audiences. Today, Speakers' Corner is mostly seen as a playground for eccentrics, religious fanatics and oddballs of all kinds.

While this is certainly true, and the majority of speeches have religious backgrounds, there are still a number of speakers desperately trying to keep the tradition of meaningful political debate alive.

What fascinates me about the place is that you never know what's going to happen next. What starts off as a quiet afternoon might turn into mayhem within a few minutes and things are suddenly kicking off. That's especially true in the current political climate and with the many religiously motivated conflicts around the world. Speakers' Corner will give you a glimpse into the motivations behind every one of these conflicts and present the beliefs and standpoint of each of the parties involved, however extreme they might be.

Image copyright Jan Enkelmann

Some veteran speakers draw a regular crowd, as do the religious dogmatists. These mix with local Sunday afternoon strollers, tourists and groups of foreign students eager to practise their debating skills under the supervision of their teachers or tutors. And then there are the hecklers and hangers-on who do their best to stir up the proceedings.

I first learned about Speakers' Corner in secondary school, in the early-80s in Germany where I grew up. It was portrayed as a key London landmark, in line with Tower Bridge, Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. But then it took more than 10 years of living in London to discover it for myself.

It is a place that won't reveal its true character and mystique on a single visit. So over the last few years, I've become one of the regulars, dropping in once a month or so for an afternoon of taking photos but also chatting with people, getting heckled myself, becoming part of the scene. I guess I'm intrigued as to what draws people to this place in a time where it's become so much easier to reach and interact with a global audience through digital media.

Image copyright Jan Enkelmann

When taking pictures, I generally try not to get too drawn into the speeches and altercations and focus on the visual side of things, although sometimes it's hard to avoid being dragged into a debate.

From a photographic point of view, I'm interested in the dynamics between speakers, audience, hecklers and passers-by. There is always a lot of passion and naturally that makes for great pictures. Long lenses don't really work here, you have to get up-close, be part of the action. Things are moving fast, the light is always changing and the crowds, surrounding fences and harsh light falling through the trees make for tricky backdrops. But the results can be amazing if you do get it right."

Here is a selection of pictures by Jan Enkelmann.

Image copyright Jan Enkelmann
Image copyright Jan Enkelmann
Image copyright Jan Enkelmann
Image copyright Jan Enkelmann
Image copyright Jan Enkelmann
Image copyright Jan Enkelmann
Image copyright Jan Enkelmann
Image copyright Jan Enkelmann
Image copyright Jan Enkelmann
Image copyright Jan Enkelmann
Image copyright Jan Enkelmann
Image copyright Jan Enkelmann

You can see more of Jan Enkelmann's work on his website.