Photographing a State of Uncertainty: The Coronation of King Charles III

When I made images documenting the mourning period after the passing of Queen Elizabeth II there was a complexity to the situation that I wanted to convey. I wrote about navigating different manifestations of grief, as well as that grief in the context of the wider political relationship between the deceased and the citizens of the UK.

Whether I was seeing performative grief or genuine sorrow there was an underlying simplicity to my approach. An individual has died, and this is the mood in the aftermath. Translate that mood into imagery.

In that same article I wrote that “uncertainty of the future is an aspect of loss,” and I found a similar uncertainty while documenting the Coronation of King Charles III. A funeral is a relatable event, and even the Jubilee celebrations shortly before the Queen’s passing were relatable as an anniversary, but what was there to really connect with about the Coronation?

Social convention is where people metaphorically convene, where they meet. If people aren’t aligning then there is no convention, no tradition. By this, I am not referring to taking a stance either for or against the Monarchy, as those are clear boundaries that people can agree or disagree over. More that if one is supportive of the Monarchy, what does that actually involve?

During the funeral it meant grief, and during the Jubilee, it meant celebration and reflection – however, these feelings were really grounded in the individual. The Jubilee and Funeral for the Queen meant something more than feelings towards the throne and the Crown, Elizabeth II was a very humanized figure even to her decriers.

What does Charles III actually mean to people? I doubt many were lining the streets only because they were supportive of his environmental message. Switch Charles out for any other Royal and the day would have gone the same. It didn’t feel like it was about him as an individual, it was about the position, the gold carriage along with all the other regalia.

As I stated, funerals and anniversaries are relatable traditions that everyone has, or will experience. People gathered for the Coronation, but that is effectively the extent of it. Is that the British tradition of coronation; gathering together while someone else performs the ritual? Have you really participated in a tradition if it’s just a spectator sport, or is that just someone else’s tradition that you’ve tuned into? Personally, I think the traditions that last are the ones that can be participated in by everyone and passed down via that active participation.

Even football has a team spirit behind it, a personal investment, and stakes that make spectating participatory rather than performative. With no stakes beyond maintaining tradition, what was the significance of this day?

When I wrote about the uncertainty of the future in the wake of the Queens passing it was this same thread that I saw progressing during these Coronation proceedings. What many took for granted during the Queen’s reign now feels like a former stability, now left shaky; not quite an identity crisis, but identity nervousness.

There was a crowd at Tottenham Court Road watching a live feed on large digital screens, and during the literal crowning moment, they let out a sort of collective awkward laugh. There was self-awareness that this was a silly thing they were watching, but followed a few moments later by a few in the crowd calling a half-hearted “God save the King!”

I think this was an interesting microcosm of general attitude, a crowd going along with things while feeling unsure about how seriously they ought to take it. This is reflected in the behavior of the “establishment” that does not come across as having a serious mandate for leadership. Controversial decisions around policing the Coronation lead to apologies in the wake of arrests that are questionable at best, and at worst straight-up unlawful attempts to suppress peaceful protest. Time will see court cases and further controversies, all the while based on this lack of sincerity.

What was left for me to document? Not tradition, as that was a one-man show with very tightly gatekept press access (all of whom did a superb job at documenting within those confines). Not sincere celebration, certainly not once the rain started and washed away most of the motivation for street parties. Not a powerful protest, as restrictions were tight which left any dissenting voices far away from the procession route.

What did that leave me? Rows of tents as people waited to watch the procession pass. Flags, umbrellas, and masks. People climbing barricades to catch a glimpse of the King in his carriage.

I was reminded a little of my time in D.C. during the Inauguration of Joe Biden, but even those photographs worked as a grounded story. I think my images from the Coronation will only become relevant when worked into a wider body of work, and can possibly represent some ideas around identity, uncertainty, and specific expression of authority.

About the author: Simon King is a London-based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow his work through his documentary collective, The New Exit Photography Group, and on Instagram.

Image credits: Photographs by Simon King