Simon Roberts’s photograph, from the series Star Chambers, was taken as protestors disrupted Leeds City Council’s approving budget cuts of £90m, including 1500 jobs. It shows a meeting and a demonstration, one superimposed on the other. The slow shutter speed used to capture the detail of the scene also blurs the movement of the figures, making a metaphorical point about the council losing clarity and focus, however temporarily. At this moment, it’s difficult to see and therefore to know exactly what’s going on.
Perhaps it takes a photograph to show that politics is about seeing as much as saying. We can’t hear the councillors conferring in their twos and threes, or the demonstrators huddled on the floor. All we can see is people looking: the police and the public watching from their different vantage points above and at the side of the room; the councillors, by contrast, looking away, trying to ignore what’s going on.
Then we notice that the seating in the room is organised so that everybody in the meeting can see as well as hear almost everybody else; that the Presiding Officer’s table is slightly raised to be sure that he or she in particular is able to see and be seen (the table is in the bottom right of the frame, and has been draped with a banner); that raked public galleries have been installed so that the meeting as a whole can be observed (the room is elliptical, with a gallery at each end, from one of which this photograph was taken). The chamber is both functional and ceremonial: it’s panelled in wood (English walnut), with acoustic tiles of artificial stone above, and a frieze of shields above that. Both panelling and stone are carved with names.
And so the demonstration breaks in, because that’s where the business is going on that the demonstrators want to disrupt, though they know that such disruption can only be temporary. But it’s also because that’s where they themselves will be seen, by the councillors who represent them, by the attendant public, and by whoever watches the evening news. For this is the focus of political life in Leeds, the stage on which it takes place, and therefore the stage that must be rushed.