Free Speech in the Barbican

I’ve always found London’s Barbican Centre a rather confusing place, in fact the whole Barbican estate, a brutalist conception where painted yellow lines on the pathways were found necessary to guide people from the various Underground stations to performances at the centre.

Nikon D700 16-35 mm: 1/25s, f/4, ISO 3,200, -0.3Ev

It’s the different levels that really make it difficult, with the main walkways being well above ground, linking with a grand post-war scheme that saw a future City of London where pedestrians and road traffic would move at different levels. Away from the Barbican itself, only traces of this concept remain, with parts across and along London Wall having been demolished relatively recently, but most was simply never built, impossible without major demolition (which the Luftwaffe had previously carried out on the Barbican) and incredible expense.

But inside the Barbican too is confusing, with different levels and no really clear definition of spaces. Regular visitors and those who work there doubtless soon become used to it, but as an infrequent user I still have problems.

D700, 16mm fisheye: 1/40s, f/3.2, ISO 3,200, -0.3Ev

But on this occasion I didn’t have to worry. The protest by the United Voices of the World, the union representing the cleaners at the centre began at the entrance to the centre on a proper London street shown on the A-Z, and when a small group of cleaners led by UVW General Secretary Petros Elia ran inside, evading the security staff, all I had to do was follow them into those confusing depths.

D810, 28-200mm in DX mode, 28mm (42mm), 1/60s, f/3.5, ISO 3,200, -0.3Ev

Outside it was dark, with relatively little light from street lamps and in some areas where the protesters were standing rather more coming through the glass doors and windows of the Barbican entrance. With the Nikon D810 I was working with the 28-200 mm f/3.5-5.6 in DX mode (42-300mm equiv) at full aperture and ISO 3200, in shutter priority mode at around 1/60th second, augmenting the available light with a little flash from a SB800. The flash wasn’t doing a great deal (though you can see its effect in some images) as I was using the 16mm fisheye on the D700 at similar apertures and ISO, without flash at shutter speeds from 1/15-1/50th.

When we rushed inside, the light levels were not all that different,but I had changed from the 16mm fisheye to the 16-35mm f4. I generally prefer not to use flash when photographing such incursions, as it makes it much more likely that security will take notice and ask you to stop taking photographs or to leave. I did take a few images with the D810 and flash, but generally needed a wider angle of view, and almost all of the better images were made with the 16-35mm.

D700 16-35 mm: 16mm, 1/30s, f/4, ISO 3,200, -0.3Ev

The spot which the UVW chose for its protest inside was in a foyer area of the centre, and overlooking it was a balcony from a higher level, draped over which was a banner for an event taking place on that weekend, ‘Battle of Ideas’ with its message in large capitals ‘FREE SPEECH ALLOWED’. This protest wasn’t what they had in mind, but the banner certainly fitted. Although the security weren’t too happy about the protesters being there and speaking out.

D700 16-35 mm: 16mm, 1/60s, f/4, ISO 3,200, -0.3Ev

It was at first difficult as the protesters were largely facing the banner, but eventually I was able to get the picture I wanted.

D700 16-35 mm: 16mm, 1/50s, f/4, ISO 3,200, -0.3Ev

The Barbican’s reaction was one of moderation, and when the protesters carried on after being asked to stop and leave, they called in the police, and a very polite conversation ensued, with the protesters agreeing to leave peacefully and continue their protest outside.

More pictures and text about the cleaners demands for a proper living wage and decent conditions of service at Cleaners protest in Barbican.


My London Diary : Buildings of London : River Lea/Lee Valley : London’s Industrial Heritage

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