Is this a five minute argument … or the full half hour?

Justin Sutcliffe the photographer took those excellent photographs from Talkaoke Session last month. He published a blog post of the event. You can read it on his blog or below. 
When the Independent on Sunday asked me to photograph a growing trend in socialised discussion this week called ‘Talkaoke’ I confess that the images which immediately sprung to mind were of focus groups, talk shows and a Monty Python sketch.
What I did not expect was a round-table chat with a speakeasy vibe and Blade Runner aesthetics.
The principle is a disarmingly simple one, see what happens if you gather a group of people, seat them round a giant illuminated donut, encourage them to choose interesting subjects on which to express their opinions and moderate the whole thing with a person in the centre on a swivel chair wearing a headset for their own contributions and holding a microphone out to the guests in turn. Adding to the experience there is a live video feed of the participants projected onto one wall with snippets of imagery gleaned from the Internet to illustrate the points being made by each speaker.
On a deserted semi-industrial street in Hoxton last Thursday night I found myself heading towards an unassuming recessed doorway with light spilling out through the frosted glass. On the other side of the door was a circle of people bathed in a peach glow, engaged in an animated but calm discussion of the relative merits of atheism and monotheism.
There was a much wider demographic than I had expected, slightly more women than men but a small margin.
The gender balance constantly changed as speakers occasionally took a break or went outside for a cigarette.
On the face of it, a group of people talking to one another does not instantly present itself as a good source of pictures and I had expected the biggest challenge of the assignment would be bringing a rather dry subject to life. But the imaginative, atmospheric way in which founder Mike Weincove has fused debate with instant feedback and technological innovation meant that it was actually extremely immersive.
What quickly emerged as a visual theme was how thoughtful everyone’s input was and how careful they were in their choice of words. Intrigued by the faces, I started to treat it almost as a portrait essay.
The fact that everyone has to wait for the microphone in order to speak and all the topics are chosen by the members of the group meant that no single person monopolised any discussion and nobody felt trapped in a discourse they didn’t care about. There were brisk and fascinating changes of topic as new moderators swung their legs carefully over the flying saucer table and took the helm’s chair – swivelling and leaning this way and that, as hands were raised around the circumference by those waiting patiently to make their point.
In a society where instant messaging, social media, and micro-blogging platforms sit in the ringside seats of communication, where the relative anonymity of the Internet allows anyone to be as abrasive as they choose, there was something really uplifting about the simple fact of strangers and acquaintances coming to exchange ideas and discuss issues face to face. No shouting, no trolling, no aggressive posturing. Just spending an evening swapping opinions with people you may or may not know. Blending some of the best aspects of social media with the immediacy and personal interaction of a live round table, it seemed simultaneously old-fashioned and the most contemporary thing I had photographed in ages.
Demand for Mike Weincove’s “Saucer of Chat” is flourishing and not just here in Britain. He and his illuminating idea will be visiting countries as diverse as Brazil, Lebanon and Norway this year.
My colleague, Sarah Morrison, wrote a far more detailed article for the Independent on Sunday. So if you would like to discover more, you can read it here.

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