LONDONERS AT HOME: The Way We Live Now
Campaigning from home - Peter Tatchell
Date of photography: 12th March 2017
Peter Tatchell, best known as a lifelong campaigner for LGBTI rights, is probably also this country’s pre-eminent campaigner for human rights - a mighty achievement accomplished from a modest, one-bedroom council flat in SE London. As one marvellous testament to his campaign against the British Establishment, Peter was, at one point, labelled a ‘homosexual terrorist’ by the Daily Mail. Over time, however, Peter’s campaigns have begun to be viewed in a somewhat different light: at last, he is being recognised, across the political spectrum, as someone who has consistently and systematically campaigned on issues of universal value, for everyones's civil rights, and for the betterment of all our lives. Even the most reactionary organs of the press are gradually beginning to see value in what he does, to see him as one of the ‘good guys’ - astonisingly, even the Daily Mail labelled him a hero in one edition! But having said this, there is yet a part of the establishment that continues to be, if not hostile, at least ambivalent towards Peter, mistrusting him even now. Nevertheless, partly through the Peter Tatchell Foundation, Peter continues tirelessly with what has become his life’s work, knowing all too well that the cause is never fully achieved and that the dark forces of intolerance and oppression are endlessly metamorphosing, continually seeking to rise again and to reverse decades of hard-won, liberal achievements.
Surely there must be hardly anyone in the UK who doesn’t recognise the face or the name of Peter Tatchell, probably best known for his lifelong campaign for LGBTI rights but probably now this country’s pre-eminent human rights campaigner.
Four years ago, Peter kindly agreed to be one of the 40 subjects in my project, Outsiders in London, Are you one, too? which culminated in 2015 with a seven-week, solo exhibition in central London. The exhibition drew thousands of visitors and many of the topics and the sitters featured attracted considerable attention. It was fascinating to observe that three images provoked the most extreme reactions, both of admiration and detestation: the image and story of the Evening Standard’s long-serving and famously acerbic art critic, the late Brian Sewell, generated both warm approval and heated dissension; the portrait of Trenton Oldfield (he who dared disrupt the sacred Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race and who campaigns vigorously for the right of British people to make peaceful political protest) was almost defaced by one extremely angry woman; while, in a separate incident, Peter Tatchell’s picture was knocked off the gallery wall by a furious old lady who attacked it with her walking stick.
Trenton and Peter are British, though they both hail from Australia, and it would seem that somehow, being perceived as outsiders, they have no right to promote those very causes that people here so often celebrate as uniquely characteristic of British culture, viz the protection and promotion of human rights, equality before the law, and the right to challenge those in authority who are seen to undermine those rights. The explosions of indignation and anger which I witnessed during that exhibition were, for me, exceptional and will always stay with me, but for Peter, they are a recurring feature of his life and, sad to say, he has the physical scars to prove it. As one marvellous testament to his campaign against The British Establishment, Peter was, at one point, labelled a ‘homosexual terrorist’ by the Daily Mail.
For my latest project, Peter kindly invited me to photograph him at home, a modest, one-bedroom council flat in SE London where he has lived now for four decades. But this is no ordinary home; this is the base from which Peter has researched, reached out and campaigned over all these years; numerous projects have been devised here, all aimed at restoring people’s human rights and especially at the struggle to promote equal rights for the LGBTI community, both in this country and abroad.
Peter’s sitting room is anything but that; it is an Aladdin’s cave of reference materials, books, journals, correspondence and, above all, of what are by now almost iconic posters, challenging homophobic regimes in Russia and Africa and right-wing bigots and fundamentalists everywhere. The walls are plastered with images and objects that represent almost a pictorial record of Peter’s tireless campaigning and the many other people who have taken part in what is a life’s work. But yes, there is a desk and there is a computer where Peter works every day, often late into the night. He tells me: “I receive over a thousand messages and requests every day, from all over the world,” and he strives to give them all some attention. He also told Guardian columnist, Decca Aitkenhead, during a 2013 interview, that there was a sofa somewhere in the room, now buried under the mountainous piles of material, ”but I haven't sat on it for about 15 years.” I was too polite to enquire whether it was still there, though I guess trying to locate it now would be an impossibility.
Peter prepares for the photography with the same attention to detail that he gives to everything he does. He will be central to the image, of course, but the posters and the messages they carry are to him more significant. There are too many momentous campaigns for them all to be shown in a single picture and the consequent anguish in Peter’s face is only too evident - he is determined to show as many as we can, because they are all very, very important to him. Not highlighting them would be almost like failing to recognise that the struggle still goes on, as if the issues have gone away, been overshadowed or forgotten.
Peter photographs well: he is ‘camera savvy’ and familiar with studio lights. He is equally experienced as an interviewee: every sentence he utters is considered and measured, because in his campaigning work, one word can make all the difference to the cause, in a good way or a bad way. He comes across as calm and assured; he connects to people easily - he understands where they are coming from. It is precisely because he understands his opponents so well (the bigoted, right-wing media, the self-serving politicians, the religious fundamentalists, but also the ordinary people with their facile, commonplace prejudice) that he is so very effective in confronting them, gradually disarming them, and very often successful in making them change their minds or adjust the policies they promote.
It is certainly safe to say that Peter has been a thorn in the side of the UK establishment for umpteen years and those whose hypocrisies he has sought to expose have used the vast power they wield in an effort to neutralise his endeavours, to discredit him, and to undermine whatever he does. Abroad, he has been a leading proponent of peaceful protest against those regimes that egregiously oppress their own peoples, because of their politics, their religion or their sexuality, and he has sustained significant injuries in clashes with the police and the reactionary thugs who have sought to silence him.
Over time, however, Peter’s campaigns have begun to be viewed in a somewhat different light: at last, he is being recognised, across the political spectrum, as someone who has consistently and systematically campaigned on issues of universal value to humanity, for the civil rights of ALL people and for the betterment of all our lives. Even the most reactionary organs of the press are gradually beginning to see value in what he does, to see him as one of the ‘good guys’ - even the Daily Mail, in one issue, labelled him a hero! (One is forced to wonder if this was some kind of aberration or perhaps an April Fools’ Day joke.) But having said this, there is yet a part of the establishment that continues to be, if not hostile, at least ambivalent towards Peter, mistrusting him even now.
When, as Prime Minister, David Cameron invited 150 LGBTI guests to Downing Street for an annual reception, speaking highly of the great contribution many of them had made to society and to the economy, he made mention of Peter Tatchell’s work, but Peter himself was nowhere to be seen - though he lives but five stops away from Westminster on the Underground, Peter was simply not invited. When the House of Commons commissioned an artwork, to celebrate 800 years since the granting of Magna Carta, often seen as the cornerstone of civil liberties in England, the artist proposed to include an image of Peter Tatchell amongst the most important figures who had cherished and advanced these liberties. Yet it is understood that the artist was asked not to include Peter’s image, so it did not appear. This almost Stalinist retouching of individuals out of history would appear to go on even in the Mother of Parliaments and the supposed home of democracy. Peter laughs off such slights but surely they must be hurtful - even if he is now inured to insult and doesn’t suffer much personally from these affronts, they must be a painful confirmation that the cause is never fully achieved and that the dark forces of oppression are ever metamorphosing, continually seeking to rise again and to reverse decades of liberal achievements.
Peter lives modestly, in his small flat. His personal life and principles and what he promotes and campaigns for are two inseparable worlds. He has virtually no private life, as such, and I felt somewhat guilty imposing on him on a Sunday, when at least the phones are quieter and even the relentless flow of emails slows down a bit. As the interview concluded, I asked him what were the five most important campaigns he was currently working on, realising in an instant that there could be no sensible answer to what was probably a silly question. Would it be the fight for heterosexual couples to be allowed to enter civil partnerships? Would it be support for Kurdish people in Turkey? Would it be equality in pension and inheritance rights for same-sex couples? Or the campaign against the harassment of LGBTI people in Russia? Or the democratic deficit in many so-called democracies? Or countering the rise in attacks on LGBTI people in post-brexit Britain? Not forgetting the rise of nationalism across Europe, with grim consequences for the lives of minorities and refugees? I apologised politely for posing such an impossible question and left in the certain knowledge that these campaigns, together with many others, would all be proprities for Peter.
Text edited: 21 March 2017
I have, in my previous project, Outsiders in London described the work of this extraordinary man at some length, so there is no need to repeat it here - that project is still available online and I hope I may encourage you to read more about Peter Tatchell there. The link is:
Please also take time to visit the pages of the Peter Tatchell Foundation - Speaking out for Human Rights. The Foundation seeks to promote and protect the human rights of individuals, communities and nations, in the UK and internationally, in accordance with established national and international human rights law.
The cause is eminently worthwhile so, if you can, why not become a supporter or an occasional sponsor/donor?
Text edited: 21 March 2017
Page modified: 22nd April 2019