Friday, 20 April 2012 It's April and it's student dissertation time once again.
In recent years I've often been asked to contribute to student's submissions, usually by answering a list of questions about my documentary work.
I always enjoy participating in this sort of thing. Not only is it good for the ego but it's also a great opportunity for me to take some time out to reflect on what I've been doing over the years. Reflection never does anyone any harm, does it?
The question I'm most often asked is, "How did you start?" That's always a very easy one and I've covered this before on my blog.
A question that I was asked last week was not "How did you start" but "Why? And what was it that motivated you to start photographing social subgroups and youth movements, like punks and skinheads? That question is way harder.
Asking me to elucidate on what my exact motivations were for starting to do this 35 years ago is very hard. And besides, anyone who ever claims to be too sure of their motivations for doing anything should be heard with some caution. Most likely my motivations were myriad, so whatever I say now might need a pinch or two of salt.
What I certainly do know was that my motivation was not to make a record of what those youth movements looked like for historical purposes. This didn't occur to me until I'd been doing it for about six months. Even then, if I’m honest, it had to be pointed out to me by Jack Schofield at Photo Technique and Sarah Kent at the ICA.
When punk started in the UK in 1976, I was 25 and just a shade too old, I felt, to be a punk myself. But I think I would have liked to have been one.
I would also most probably have liked to have been a teddy boy, a biker, a skinhead, a mod, a hippy, a goth or a new romantic. That is if I'd ever been the right age at the right time.
I was the sort of lanky, geeky, bespectacled youth that didn't naturally fit into any sort of group. I was an only child and, as a teenager, I was more than a bit socially inept. I didn't hang out on street corners with a gang but spent plenty of time trying to avoid those that did. In my mid-teens, I spent most of my time at the park playing football or indoors drawing and painting.
In 1964 I was two or three years too young to be a mod. Besides I would never have had the money to buy a scooter. Later in the '60s, I managed to be a watered down desperate-to-avoid-a-fight type skinhead and, a bit later, a watered down sort of living-at-home-with-my-parents kind of hippy. I was pretty rubbish at both.
I suppose when punk happened and I found myself in clubs taking photos of them, it gave me a chance to vicariously experience something I could never have been a part of myself. And it was a really strong sort of compulsion that drew me out to take photographs of them, three or four nights a week at a time when I didn't have a car and had to hitch quite a long way home afterwards (it was at a time when there were very few night buses).
Though I was quite good at my day job in advertising, I was getting nowhere fast. Photography and punk came along at exactly the right time for me. Just at the time when my career was flatlining, my opportunities in photography were taking off.
Although I don't kid myself for a moment that my early photos of punks were any good, I managed to get them published and shown quite a lot. Most probably for the simple reason that there was a media clamour for exactly the sort of images I had.
I was extremely lucky, I was in the right place at the right time.
By 1982, when I'd only been a professional photographer for a year, I'd already had 3 well publicised one man shows (including at London's ICA and the Photographer’s Gallery) and my work had been published in some of Europe's best known photography magazines (including the French version of PHOTO and Zoom) .
I was relatively successful quite quickly. Keeping it going proved to be the hard part.
It will, for most professional photographers these days, always be the hard part.