Growing up on a council estate in High Wycombe in the late 1970s, skinhead culture just spoke to me. It was all about camaraderie, fashion and music. We were listening to 2 Tone bands such as the Specials and aping what Madness wore on their album covers. Back then I was heavy-handed, angry and rough around the edges, and there was a definite suppression of anger in the lyrics of the bands we were listening to. I liked the attention that being a skinhead got me, too.
School was a nightmare for me. I loved art but couldn’t transfer what was in my head to the page, which caused me massive frustration. But in 1979, aged 14, I went to Woolies to buy a pair of binoculars and got a camera instead – a little 110 Hanimex. Getting my first set of prints developed was a life-changing moment. I remember the voice in my head: “I’m going to be a photographer.” That was it. I never wavered. I would get my mates to nick camera film from Boots for me because I was too scared. The only downside was that anywhere I went, I’d get: “Oh, look who it is, David Bailey.”
A year after getting the camera, I started photographing skinheads. There are no strangers in my photos: they’re my schoolmates, my girlfriends, my mum and dad and my younger brother Neville, who was a skinhead too and extremely stylish, refined and sophisticated. I managed to make the people I loved – normal people – into stars.
This is a photo of my mate Skinny Jim on the tube in 1980. There were six of us, all aged 15. We’d taken the train down to London on a rainy day to go to Carnaby Street and get a Harrington jacket – or whatever we could afford for a tenner. It was an away day and I’d taken my camera, like I normally did.
Skinny Jim was one of those 15-year-old kids who think they are the hardest because they haven’t been punched on the nose yet. That expression is Skinny Jim all over. My God, what a face.
London was scary back then. We had to keep our heads down. There were gangs roaming. You couldn’t go anywhere without getting your head kicked in. But I was never intimidated. I was six foot tall and I remember using my Hanimex as a weapon when some bloke tried to get funny with me in Trafalgar Square. He got it over the head.
That picture is perfect. I’m not blowing my own trumpet, but I stare at it myself and it’s up there with anything that any of the big boys have done. I’ve seen so many variations of my skinhead photos over the last 30 years, but everything is so contrived and they all use models. I was in a tiny little gang on a tiny little council estate, in a tiny little town that no one had ever heard of at the time, taking pictures I thought no one would ever see just because I enjoyed doing it. So there’s an honesty to it, and that’s where the power lies. There is no narrative attached.
What blows my mind is that I was only 15 years old when I took that photo, on a moving tube train. It’s the level of confidence. Something very strange was going on, that I came out as such a confident photographer when I was so insecure at the same time.
If you talk to most people about skinheads, they think it’s about the right-wing and Nazis. The demonisation was continuous. But the skinhead movement, when it started, came out of the philosophy of black and white kids uniting and dancing to 60s ska music from Jamaica. That’s where my photographs come in. Because when I do exhibitions, people usually come in tight-lipped, expecting to see fat, balding 30-year-olds with bulldogs. But if you’re at a gig dancing to ska music – that’s a skinhead. Simple as that.
I don’t know what happened to Skinny Jim. No one bloody knows. I heard he went off and invented stuff. I heard that somebody bumped into him the other day on Facebook and they said he was a lovely bloke, involved in charity. Somebody else said he was dead. So I don’t know. I would never have remembered him at all if I hadn’t taken that photograph.
Gavin Watson’s CV
Born: Kingsbury, London, 1965
Training: “Absolutely zilch. I didn’t need it.”
High point: “My Vice exhibition in Milan.”
Low point: “Too many to count.”
Top tip: “Don’t expect instant fame unless you photograph stars – and that’s boring as ****.”
Gavin Watson’s photobooks, Time Has Creative Power and Oh! What Fun We Had, are available now through the Museum of Youth Culture.
Source: The Guardian