‘Syd Shelton: Rock Against Racism’ a book and exhibition at Autograph ABP, featuring a body of photos and graphics produced by Shelton, which he describes as a ‘graphic argument’. His work documents the Rock Against Racism movement of 1976-1981, a campaign set up in the UK as a response to the increasing racial conflict and growth of groups such as the National Front. A series of concerts were staged with an anti-racist theme in order to encourage young people to stand up against discriminative attitudes. Dr. Martens spoke with Shelton to find out more about his role in the movement, the exhibition and what he stands for.
The exhibition is currently at 1 Rivington Place, London, EC2A 3BA until December 5th.
Enter below for your chance to win a copy of ‘Syd Shelton: Rock Against Racism.’
When did you discover that photography was the medium for you? Did you always see yourself as a photographer?
No, I did painting at art school but I grew frustrated with, what seemed to me, an increasingly abstract academic pursuit with little means of expressing my political point of view. It was in the early 1970’s that I turned to photography as my principal means of creative expression. I loved the instant production of images. I also like the alchemy of it as well. When you go in to the darkroom and you’re never really sure if you got the shot. I love the chance elements of film and I always printed my own work.
Did you always have a political approach to your photography, or is that something that came later?
Yes politics was one of the reasons that I became a photographer and I think is still the driving force in my work. I have always thought one of the roles of the photographer is to actually try and look at the world and visually construct an argument and the idea of the objective photographer is nonsense.
When did you first become part of Rock Against Racism (RAR?)
I first became a part of RAR in 1976 after meeting founder and photographer Red Saunders. But I think the events in Lewisham in 1977 where Metropolitan Police targeted black youths and forced a massively provocative march by the Neo Nazi, National Front through a huge opposing demonstration really cemented my involvement. It was after those events that we realised that we had to put our foot on the gas and become a much more serious activist organisation. The Anti Nazi League was formed at that time too and together we went on to produce the RAR Summer of Carnivals including Carnival 1 at Victoria Park in East London. 100,000 young people marched the 7 miles from central London to the park were X-Ray Spex, Steel Pulse, The Clash and The Tom Robinson band rocked against racism.
What was your role within the movement?
As well as being on the London organising committee of RAR, I was one of the key photographers, designers of RAR’s graphic output, posters, stickers, badges and the magazine/fanzine Temporary Hoarding. RAR was a collective of designers, photographers, fashion designers, writers and musicians. I always like to think that RAR had more in common with the Dadaists in Zurich than a political party.
One of the things that was great about Rock Against Racism was that it was collaboration; and an often-changing collaboration. The core of it, people like Red Saunders, David Widgery, Ruth Gregory, Roger Huddle, Lucy Whitman and Kate Webb, were all very different and had differing political views, though the unity of it all was that we were all very committed anti-racists and all loved music.
Can you talk us through the exhibition?
I think it is my language to an extent. But I never thought of this whole project as being a narrative really, I thought it was a bit, staccato, you know, a bit here and a bit there. And it wasn’t comprehensive and it isn’t the illustrated history of RAR. In a way its much more personal and autobiographical than that. Mark Sealy, co-curator of the exhibition and Director of Autograph ABP said “The history of photography is full of missing chapters, suitcases of images waiting to be opened and archives in distress lying in filing cabinets waiting for cultural agents to enunciate their worth.” This is exactly what happened with this archive and the other co-curator, Carol Tulloch was instrumental in rescuing this work from 35 years in lying in a filing cabinet.
Do you have one image that is particularly poignant to you?
I think the image of the girl on the stage at the West Runton Pavilion in 1979 is perhaps my favourite. It was during the Ruts set and from the audience I saw her climb on the stage and take up a pose in front of the monitors. I knew I had to get the shot and so I climbed over people like a man possessed and got one chance before being bundled back into the crowd by security. Unlike digital photography you were never certain that you had the shot and I remember the long drive back to London nervously hoping my ‘Ruts eye’ image had worked. I went straight into the darkroom and processed the film and it had worked.
What do you stand for?
I stand against racism and prejudice and the politics of the Daily Mail.
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