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Women in Westminster: In Conversation With Jess Taylor

5 min read Partner content

Not everyone may know Jess Taylor’s name, but they will certainly have seen her work. As the House of Commons Photographer, she has captured some of the defining images of recent political times. As part of our Women in Westminster series, we sat down with Taylor to find out more about the role she plays documenting the political life of the nation

Parliament is not just a workplace for people who eat, breathe, and sleep politics. It is also a place where a wider staff team uses their skills and talents to ensure the efficient and effective operation of our democracy.

One member of that team is the House of Commons photographer, Jess Taylor. Taylor performs a vital role in helping to communicate the day-to-day work of the Commons to the wider public.

Her camera has captured some of the people and events that have defined recent times. When future generations look back at the turbulent political events of the past decade, it is Taylor’s photographs that they will turn to.

“I'm a photographer first and foremost,” Taylor tells us early on during our sit-down conversation. “That's my role. That's what I'm there to do. To capture and document.”

What comes across strongly during our discussion is the obvious affection that Taylor has for both the institution of Parliament and the people who work within it, − whether they are frontbench politicians or people behind the scenes. In particular, she highlights the critical role of those away from the public spotlight without whom Parliament simply could not operate.

“It takes so many people to make Parliament run,” she explains. “Amongst others there are clerks, broadcasting staff, chefs, cleaners. There is so much more than just what is seen on television. It takes an army to make this place run.”

Taylor’s role in the Commons working alongside MPs has also provided her with a rare insight into the particular challenges and pressures that our elected representatives face on a daily basis.

“I have seen how strong MPs have to be, particularly women. They are under scrutiny constantly,” she tells PoliticsHome. “In the minds of the public, they sometimes cease to be people. I am very fortunate. I get to see the human side of someone. That's what I try to capture.”

That ability to capture and communicate the humanity that sits behind our politics is one of the reasons that Taylor’s photographs are so arresting. It is her inherent empathy that makes the pictures she takes much more than a simple documenting of events. Instead, they become what Taylor describes as “character studies” of some of the most recognisable faces in UK politics.

As well as the people, Taylor’s camera is also always there to capture important historical events. It is during those moments that both the privilege and the responsibility of her role hits home the most. Recalling the events following the death of the Queen, for instance, Taylor recounts standing in Westminster Hall waiting for the coffin to arrive.

“You could hear the band coming down Whitehall and I was standing in this room full of all of these incredible people,” she tells us. “And it was just silent. I remember getting the chills just waiting. I think those are the times when it really sinks in.”

She has similar powerful memories of photographing the Chamber during the historic address that Ukraine’s President Zelensky gave to the Commons in 2022.  

“Everyone stood up and applauded all across the House,” she remembers. “It was the first time I've ever seen or heard anything like it. It was an incredible moment. I remember quickly running into the centre of the Chamber. And getting this big wide shot just to show the enormity of the moment.”

Taylor is clear that her role is to capture such moments and preserve them in a way that will help connect future generations to current events that are part of our unfolding history. She knows that the photographs she takes will form part of the permanent archive that officially charts contemporary political life.

“I'm there to document parliamentary business. That's my priority,” she explains. “If I execute it properly, people should be able to understand a story from one single shot.”

Those single shots retain their power and impact in a media landscape where video has become increasingly dominant.

Taylor’s role as a witness and recorder of events also makes her ideally placed to chart some of the changes that Parliament itself is also undergoing.

“Visually I think you can see those changes through my work,” she tells us. “There are more women in and around Parliament now, both as staff and MPs. I think that's reflected in my work. It shows how far we've come but also that we still have a lot more to do.”

Taylor firmly situates herself as part of those changes. Photography itself is traditionally a male-dominated industry and she views her current role as evidence of wider shifts in the role women play both in Westminster and beyond. Taylor is acutely aware that, along with other female photographers and videographers currently working in Parliament, she is following a path that has largely been the preserve of men in the past.

“I look back to the archive photos of Sir Benjamin Stone and people like that,” she says referencing the politician and photographer who was active in the late 19th Century. “These are the photos that we've currently got in the archives. My photos will go in there too. Women used to be up in the Ladies’ Gallery. Now I am on the floor of the House in amongst it. That is quite a shift.”

As we move forward into what is likely to be a busy and dramatic political year, Taylor’s camera will continue to bear witness to political events on behalf of us all.  She will provide the images that help shape our understanding of the UK’s political life and those within it.

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