Simon Wheatley at The Side Gallery “DON’T CALL ME URBAN! The Time of Grime’ is a photographic record compiled over a 12 year period, focussing on the youth of London’s inner-city at a vital time, taking as its prism the genre of grime – the most significant and controversial musical expression to emerge from the UK since punk. Grime was essentially the UK’s own authentic response to hip hop, an angst-ridden, confrontational music conveying the hopes and frustrations of an apolitical generation locked into decaying housing estates.
The book is a visual reflection of what grime represented, chronicling the conditions that spawned the genre. It is a combination of music portraiture, social documentary and architectural photography. Many black youths reject the ‘urban’ label that has been imposed on them by commerce and the media. There is a significant discrepancy between perceptions of black culture as ‘cool’ and the often-harsh reality of being born black on a London council estate. ‘Don’t Call me Urban!’ takes us through the raw environment from which the new stars of British popular music, such as Dizzee Rascal and Tinchy Stryder emerged, and introduces us to many other hopefuls who remain stranded in bedroom studios, hidden amongst concrete blocks glamorized in countless music videos.
‘The Time of Grime’ is an era when ‘clashing’ and postcode warfare have emerged, when young lives have fallen victim to absurdly trivial disputes, when rampant material aspiration collides with grim social reality. The book is a unique and penetrating document of an era in which London’s inner-city youth has veered out of control.”
I remember being told during one of my first ever photography lessons that the secret to taking great photographs of people has very little to do with what equipment you use. Nor has it got an awful lot to do with technique. The secret, my lecturer said, was what the National Geographic photographers call ‘getting inside the tent’.
Let me give you an example of what he meant. Imagine that you are traveling somewhere extraordinary, Nepal perhaps – or a remote region of China and you take out your camera to document the scenes around you. You see goat herders, children playing in the streets, women on their way to market or shepherds with livestock. The pictures you take will probably be beautiful, they will probably be ‘foreign’ enough to make your friends gasp but will they actually say anything about the people whose lives you witness on your travels?
Think of Steve McCurry’s extraordinary photograph of the Afghan Girl, Sharbat Gula. Would that photograph have the power to hold your gaze if Gula was not looking straight into McCurry’s lens? By engaging with his subject, by creating a relationship between himself and the young woman he photographs McCurry is ‘getting inside the tent’ and capturing a moment of engagement which has brought him worldwide fame.
Michael Palin does the same thing but with moving images. He lifts the lid on life across the world and gives a little of himself to each scene and, in doing so, he allows the people he talks to to meet him somewhere in the middle of our screens and engage in a relationship between us, the onlooker, and them, his subjects. Simon Wheatley, the Magnum photographer, not only ‘gets inside the tent’ of London’s urban youth in this exhibition and book, he positively zips up his sleeping bag and settles in for the night.
Wheatley’s project, Don’t Call Me Urban! spans 12 years and sees him finding his way into and beyond the Grime music scene by contacting pirate radio stations and music magazines, spending time on the streets and circumnavigating youth clubs and organisations who wanted to know ‘too much’ about his movements to spend time with young Londoners. Wheatley said at the launch of the exhibition in Newcastle that he was ‘expecting a bit of criticism’ of his works with its depictions of drug dealing, violence and the truth about life on the streets in London.
‘The haters are out there at all levels … but I want people to read the text that goes with the work’. Indeed there is extensive contextual text on show throughout the exhibition exactly because of what Wheatley identifies as ‘the tendency to stereotype this subject matter. There’s a lot of good.’ He says ‘Despite all the focus on the bad.’ When asked exactly what he had learned whilst working on the project Wheatley smiled and joked and said “I learned to spit man!”
Indeed the photographs that lines the walls of The Side gallery in Newcastle are beautiful, intimate portraits of subjects that most people would shy away from. There are lads in hoodies, kids taking drugs, confrontations with the police and scenes that would make most of us walk away in fear. Wheatley hasn’t walked away, he’s held his lens up close so that we can see the people underneath the stereotypes. He’s there, camera steady, when two young boys come charging around the stairwell in a block of flats on Lambeth Walk, he’s there in Thornton Heath when a man is arrested in a shop for suspected possession of marijuana – a stunning composition involving two shopkeepers, three policemen, the suspect, a shopping trolley and a dislodged policeman’s hat. He’s there crouched down at child’s eye level to photograph two young boys playing in the corridor of what looks like a prison but is the outside corridor to their home on the Pepys Estate in Deptford, all mustard yellow gloss walls and a cold stainless steel gate.
Wheatley photographs the unexpected. He captures the anxious expression on an elderly woman’s face as she tentatively passes two kids hanging out on a stairwell, her handbag clasped close to her body, her eyes avoiding the added gaze of the lens that is upon her in her concern to get away quickly. We can sense the throbbing tension at the back of a bus as the noise levels rise and the see the discomfort of the passengers outside the ‘gang’ on the back seats. The stress is tangible in the photograph Wheatley presents.
In a room on the Heygate Estate in Walworth the light falls across a young mother’s face, her child on her hip, as she gazes out of the window, the sun highlighting her cheekbones while the child’s gaze pierces the lens to look directly both at the photographer and, through him, at us. By ‘hanging around’ the people he was photographing Wheatley has managed to disappear into the back ground. He describes noticing a self consciousness in his subjects in the first frames he would shoot, an excitement at his presence in certain situations which would gradually give way to an acceptance as people got used to him being around.
The project was not without incident. Despite carrying two camera systems (one for portraiture and one for documenting action), a flashgun and a press pass Wheatley was held and searched by the police when he was ‘caught’ in a car with suspected drug dealers.
He said with a smile, ”The police must have thought they’d found ‘the big guy’, a car filled with three black guys and a Colombian.” That was the night Wheatley spent locked up in a cell. One day was spent waiting for a photograph to depict the gun culture in the area. As he waited and waited to seize the perfect shot Wheatley found himself falling asleep only to be woken by two men prodding him with the barrel of a gun to wake up and take their picture. He got his shot.
Weeks later the same men told him “You’ve missed so much, you’ve missed it all. We’ve been holding places up – come and take a picture.” A demand, Wheatley reminisced, which would make him not so much a reporter or a photographer as an accomplice.
Don’t Call Me Urban! shows us the truth about life in London over the last decade for these people, these kids. It tells us about the Grime music scene. Dizzee Rascal, Wiley and Tinchy Stryder from E3, Kano from nearby Plaistow.
As NYJA, a young woman interviewed in Wheatley’s video of the project explains, “Grime is culture, music. A love of music. You have to feel pain whatever. That’s what Grime is. It’s broken English, a poet to release your stress out”. The exhibition shows us the drugs scene, the violence “Every day day someone gets shot, someone gets knifed” NYJA says in explaining why she goes to church every week. “Church helps”.
It shows us, the viewer, what it’s like to try to belong, to find a home in the Britain that was torn apart in the 1980’s and is trying to regenerate itself from a grass roots level among dilapidated housing estates. Wheatley completed a project for The Guardian newspaper in 2007 – a series of portraits of people who were trying to make a change in these areas, a charity which targeted kids between the ages of 12 and 15 to try to give them an alternative to gang culture, to show them that the future could hold more than death or prison.
His conclusion nearly four years later is that to change the future for these kids the solution needs to be radical rather than material with an overhaul of the way we live, from the food that we eat to the sense of community in the places we live. His favourite photograph from the entire exhibition? A shot taken inside a house where a little boy rests against a door frame, his back framed by an orange wall. A pile of coats fills the frame to the right and to his left the door to the room inside is hanging askew off its hinges. “Him. He’s my favourite. He’s got nothing and his house? His house is a stone’s throw from the Houses of Parliament across the river. I learned a lot …”
More about Don’t Call Me Urban! can be found at www.dontcallmeurban.com
The exhibition at The Side Gallery runs until 20.11.10 The book, Don’t Call Me Urban! is now available from Northumbria Press.