”Keep on rocking against racism!” – Syd Shelton’s photographs in Joensuu
We got to talk with British artist Syd Shelton, whose interesting Rock Against Racism photo exhibition opened in the Joensuu Main Library just in time for Ilosaarirock. The collage takes its viewers back in time to the end of the 70's – a time that has many similarities to the current day.
The Rock Against Racism (RAR) movement emerged in the UK in the 70s to oppose and comment the alarmingly racist features that the far-right movements of the time were showing. Racist statements were coming from the National Front party but also from famous artists, such as Eric Clapton in one of his concerts and David Bowie in an interview.
RAR organised its first gig in 1976. In spring of 1978, 100.000 people marched from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park, East End, to listen to The Clash and others give a musical answer to the narrow-minded opinions on how people should live together.
Today RAR’s strongest follow-up is a movement called ’Love Music Hate Racism’, which is organizing concerts and activity to support a more humane view of mankind.
Photographer and graphic designer Syd Shelton joined RAR in 1977. He quickly became the movement’s main photographer, capturing hundreds of concerts between 1977-1982.
The exhibition at hand is a compact take of the photos, some of them already iconic, which show the uniting and nourishing power of music. For example, the black and white photos of Mick Jones and Paul Simonon at some random backstage throw the viewer in the middle of the old days.
Syd Shelton, vou’ve photographed for decades. What things have changed most from your perspective in photography over those years?
– Obviously the technology has changed and most of my photographic work was shot on 35mm film and mostly in black and white. I used black and white film partly because my work was for reproduction in magazines and newspapers which were only printed in black and white. That meant that I developed a black and white aesthetic which is still my way of think in the digital colour age. The other major change is people’s changed attitude to being photographed. There is a dominant perception that the photographer is some how exploiting the subject which makes people more reluctant to be photographed these days.
RAR was and is still influential. What current political movements or ideas should be opposed by the force of art?
– The photographer/artist is not an objective observer of the world and always brings either consciously or unconsciously a subjective political position into the work. I have often talked about what I call ’the graphic argument ’and I am keen to use my work as a graphic argument in support of progressive ideas.
How do you react on Finnish enthusiasm to your work?
– I am of course delighted with the positive response to my work in Finland and happy for it to be shown here.
Can you share one photo’s backstory, which has – maybe just by intuition – popped up somewhat strongly during your visit to Joensuu.
– I took this photograph at a Rock Against Racism gig in 1979. The Ruts were playing the West Runton Pavilion in Cromer, and it was rammed and really hot, but also really exciting. Everyone was pogoing and jumping up and down with their fists in the air – it was mayhem.
I was near the front when I saw the girl climb up on to the stage and take up that reclining pose between two monitors. It was one of those adrenaline-driven moments when nothing matters apart from getting the shot. So I climbed over everyone’s heads and dragged myself on to the stage in front of the lead singer, Malcolm Owen. I had my two Nikons around my neck and a big old Norman flash and it just went pop. A second later I was in the air and then on my back in the middle of the audience. The bouncer had thrown me off the stage. I still have those cameras and one of them has a big dent from that night.
This was the third gig of a tour called Militant Entertainment. The other bands playing were Gang of Four and Misty in Roots. After the success of the big RAR carnivals in London, we’d decided we wanted to do a sort of “circus comes to town” where we took a rogue show of bands all around the country to different venues.
I had no idea where Cromer was, but I’d volunteered to drive one of the vans there. It was an old VW Kombi filled with copies of our magazine, Temporary Hoarding, camera gear, lights and a load of other equipment. When we arrived all we could see was a massive shed on the beach – no houses, no people, no queue for tickets. We thought we’d arrived at the end of the earth. The bands started to arrive, we set up the PA and they did their sound checks but still there were no punters. Then suddenly it was like the cavalry had arrived – a fleet of at least 10 double-decker buses came round the headland with the entire audience.
I took a lot of other photos that night, portraits of people and much more studied pictures, but for me this was the one that epitomised punk and in particular punk outside London. It wasn’t the Kings Road, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren idea of punk – this was DIY punk. The woman in the photograph probably went back to wearing no makeup and normal clothes and maybe working in an office somewhere
And maybe some special greetings to the audience of Ilosaarirock…
– I would like to say a big thank you to the people of Joensuu for hosting this exhibition and keep on rocking against racism.
The Syd Shelton exhibition is open from 4.7. to 4.8.2017 at Joensuu Main Library’s Muikku Chamber.
Text: Kyösti Kemppilä Photos: Patricia Petchenenko and Syd Shelton