Interview with Chris Steele-Perkins
We spoke to Magnum Photographer Chris Steele-Perkins, exhibited in The Magnum Home, about the draw of youth, student newspapers and being 'grabbed by the throat'.
It was actually shot for the Sunday Times Magazine as a commission, and it was shot as a sort of tenth anniversary of Enoch Powell’s infamous speech against immigration, the Tiber flowing with blood, all of that.
So Chris, we’re showing a series of yours shot in Wolverhampton in the late 70s – Rastafarian boys, parties, dancing – and it’s very beautiful. I think it comes quite early in your career…
Yes. And how did you start?
Well, I suppose it was working on the student newspaper, for fun. I was doing photographs for a student newspaper, and it turned out to be quite a good training ground because you’d do a football match, and then you’d do a rock concert, and then you’d do a portrait, and then you’d do something else. It was real situations with real deadlines, which meant there were real outcomes…
Yeah, I guess – that’s journalism?
Well yes, in a student sort of way. I discovered I enjoyed it, and I discovered that you can do more things with photography. After I finished my degree, I thought, well, I’ll take my chances and try to go freelance rather than be a not-very-good-psychologist!
Well, you made the right decision, I suppose! So the show is called Just Kids, curated by Ekow Eshun, and it concerns itself with youth culture. I know that when Ekow saw the series of yours that we’re showing he felt it was completely perfect for what he wanted to portray, but I’m interested to hear whether that was a subject you had in mind when you were shooting it…
Well, the whole background to it being shot is kind of interesting. It was actually shot for the Sunday Times Magazine as a commission, and it was shot as a sort of tenth anniversary of Enoch Powell’s infamous speech against immigration, the Tiber flowing with blood, all of that. I’m sure you’re familiar with the story, but he was the MP for Wolverhampton, so the idea was to get back ten years later and look at the ethnic minority community – not particularly the youth community, as it happens – and see what they made of it all.
That context puts the series in a whole new light, I think. I know that a lot of being a photographer involves working to a brief or to a commission but I wonder, when it’s up to you to decide on the subject of a project…
Well, it wasn’t my choice to do this, but I jumped at the chance of doing it. And the fact of the matter was, I went out with a writer, who has since died, but we just did what we did. That was kind of how I worked generally, in that people would ask you to do something and then expect you to put your own spin on it. So you just dig around, see what’s happening, meet some people who’ll help you out a bit… basic poking around and getting stuck in.
Well, the photos feel really intimate. I can almost imagine what one guy’s saying to the other, or hear the music the girls are dancing to. I was interested to hear what the actual process is when you’re a photographer. Is it important that you create a relationship with the people you’re photographing – or is it important that you remain anonymous?
Yeah… well, I think it’s horses for courses, you know, sometimes intimacy is really important, and sometimes it’s a question of trying to make yourself as inconspicuous as possible. With an assignment like this there’s a fairly limited time frame, but we were looked at slightly suspiciously by some of the kids. The writer especially looked like a sort of out-and-out skin head, which was more to do with the loss of his hair than his attitude! And I’m not African-Caribbean black or anything like that. So, there was a bit of suspicion from some quarters, but others were very open and welcoming.
There’s something about observing – I think people forget there’s a body behind the camera when they’re looking at photographs.
Well usually, if you hang out long enough, people get used to you – even if they’re not your best mate, you’re there, you get on with things.
And you mentioned you studied psychology, which is obviously something you didn’t end up pursuing. I’m sure you get asked this all the time, but it strikes me as apt, given what looks to be a really sincere interest in people – maybe more specifically, how, where and why they exist – to be seen in your images, if the impulse that lead you to study psychology in the first place (and perhaps to abandon it) is the same one which drew you to photography?
I don’t think there’s anything terribly profound in it – I did psychology because it was quite an easy degree, and I was interested in it. But a lot of it is just common sense. I don’t think I took too much with me into the pursuit of journalism.
And speaking of journalism – I’ve spoken to a few Magnum Photographers now, and a couple of them are really keen to stress that they don’t think of themselves as ‘artists’, they think of themselves as ‘photographers’. I’d be interested to hear what you say on that score. It’s an interesting problem, I think, the way we categorise these things, but Magnum is so special in the way that it hovers between documentary photography and fine art (whatever that means), and your work is no exception.
Well it becomes a sort of circular debate, really. Art’s become whatever anybody says it is, essentially, and if you want to jump around beating your chest saying ‘I’m an artist, I’m an artist’, then get on with it. If you want to say ‘I’m a journalist’, get on with it – I’m not too bothered. It normally comes down to which is the easier way to make money – do you take an assignment, or sell a print from a gallery wall? And then you decide, well, I’d better call myself an artist because I’ve got a print on a wall. I’d better call myself a journalist because I’m here in Libya, say.
Your work has taken you all over the world. Do you find yourself thinking about how to capture a sense of place? Location seems to crop up again and again, but equally, you seem to head to places where something is happening, where people are doing something, or responding to it.
It’s difficult – but the one truism that I think is absolute is that some places grab you by the throat and others don’t. And if it grabs you by the throat, go with it! Whether that’s Africa or Japan, and it’s not somewhere else, you make those choices on how your instincts work, really. That’s true for me at least, other people have different approaches. For me it’s an extraordinary opportunity to explore the world in which you live – you can’t do the whole thing, but you can do the stuff which is most intense and meaningful to you.
Completely. And are there projects where you set out thinking that the place or the situation will grab you by the throat, but find that it doesn’t? Are there projects which we don’t see?
Yes, that happens very often. You’re full of expectations but they just don’t match reality. I think it’s really important that you do recognise these things, because otherwise you’re just trying to represent some abstract idea which may not be correct. If you’re not connecting, if it’s not meaning anything to you, don’t bang your head against a wall too long, you know? It’s not a particularly healthy exercise. I’m not talking about simple enjoyment here, I’m talking about some more profound connection, I think. I don’t want to pin it down too tightly, but you just know it’s right.
Sure. And then, when it comes to individual images – rather than, say, a series – there’s this immediacy inherent in the medium of photography, these ‘moments’, which I think people react to quite strongly. In your work, what role does serendipity play? Or planning?
I think it’s kind of a collision between the two. I mean, you’d be a fool if you did no planning at all, but at the same time, you don’t want to get yourself tied into a framework that you find to be inadequate when you’re actually somewhere. You’ve got to have flexibility and follow that lead, that lead, not that one and so on. Again, it boils down to common sense really. You do what is necessary – if you go into some sort of civil war zone, for example, it’s useful to know who’s in it, what their ideology might be. It would be dumb not to do that. But at the same time, you might find that something which has nothing to do with what you first thought was going to be interesting turns out to be more interesting. For example, when I was in Afghanistan, it became very clear that although the war was going on, it effected a very small number of people – relatively speaking – and that the rural nature of life in Afghanistan was ongoing, and I focused on that much more than I had intended.
I suppose it comes out of what you’ve said, but if you were speaking to somebody who was trying to get into photography now… Is it really a question of common sense, like you said?
Well, it’s a pretty different landscape now to the one that I came into… It’s quite hard to project myself into that, and what would be a good starting point, but – they sound like clichés but they remain essentially true, I think – it’s about following the things that mean the most to you; that ‘grab by the throat’ thing again. If you don’t get that sense, maybe you shouldn’t be there – to be very blunt! And try and express what you actually feel about the place, rather than what other people expect from you. And then, it’s down to chance after that….
I like that idea. I’m not a photographer, but a writer, and I think to write about something you’re not interested in can be a real struggle. It never quite works.
Well, if you’re not interested in it, then how can you expect anyone else to be interested in what you have to say? It’s just not going to happen!
If you’re not connecting, if it’s not meaning anything to you, don’t bang your head against a wall too long, you know? It’s not a particularly healthy exercise.
Absolutely. And do you think that what you’re interested in has changed over the course of your career? Or sharpened, perhaps?
Yes. I think it would be relatively unlikely for me to do anything on youth culture now, at my age. I think you mature, you learn about life, about other things – so I’m less interested in running around in political hotspots. In fact, I’m not interested in that all now. The world still interests me, of course, just different aspects of it.
And, as you say, you’re unlikely to go and seek out a project on youth culture. But I’m trying to work out as we go through this project: why are people so interested in the subject of youth? I think it’s becoming increasingly commodified; as the market grows and consumes everything, it consumes ‘youth’, too, whatever that means. It’s an arbitrary concept in itself – where does youth start, when does it stop?
Well, haven’t people always been most interested in youth because it’s the most exciting time in one’s life? The world is open to you, but gradually it closes down for most people, over time. There’s a romance there which cuts across lots of barriers. Obviously youth culture has become commodified, but you can find magazines trying to sell you silver surfer cruises all the time. There’s always somebody trying to squeeze money out of somebody or other! It doesn’t necessarily match up with the idea of what’s actually really interesting.
No. A funny thing about youth culture, I think, is that it so often relies on one being self-conscious, so absorbed by being ‘cool’. As soon as something gets commodified – say, as soon as you could buy flares in the seventies in a department store, they’re not ‘cool’ anymore. Or as soon as everyone’s wearing what you’re wearing, then you don’t want to wear it. But there is a tipping point, because all these subcultures in the exhibition, these Hell’s Angels and hippies, are constructing a community as well as marking themselves as outside the establishment. You want all your friends to be doing it, but you want to be set apart from something, too. It’s a delicate balance.
Well, it’s about trying to define who you are, isn’t it? The great existential crisis…
And what are you working on at the moment?
The main thing is trying to put together a book on Japan, from all the work I’ve done on it over the years. And in terms of new work, I’m trying to photograph families from every country in the world – approximately 200 – who are now living in London. So it’s about multiculturalism, I’m calling it ‘The New Londoners’. It’s about the evolution of the city as it moves through its history. About 39% of people who live in London weren’t born in London. It’s phenomenal. It’s a way of looking at migration which is a bit less hysterical than the current paranoia about waves of refugees, which is permeating the airwaves. So it’s about documenting again, about documenting a time which I feel is significant.
And do images do that, in a way that, say, text can’t? Or maybe photography specifically, rather than images made by painting or something else?
I’m photographing everybody, families specifically, because it’s about belonging, being here not just passing through, and I’m doing it in their own homes. Then I’m doing interviews with people as well. I think it’s quite an amazing document of our time. I’m negotiating, hopefully, with the British Library, that they’ll take it in their permanent collection because I feel that’s kind of where it belongs.
It sounds timely as well – you mentioned the rhetoric around immigration, which is especially divisive at the moment. So it seems important to cultivate a different stance – what sounds like a reasonable and interested stance, to this phenomenon.
Well, fear of the other is very easy to manipulate, and it’s unfortunate that people jump on that. Hopefully it will make some small contribution to the dialogue.