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Don’t Call Me Urban: Simon Wheatley

The London-based photographer talks about the controversial new pictures in his book

Over the past few years, urban subculture has seen a magnificent rise from low-end silhouetted darkness to a bright, brilliant and powerful artform, through the mediums of music, (Dizzee Rascal, Tinie Tempah) films (Kidulthood) and now art. Photographer Simon Wheatley has recently released a book (titled ‘Don’t Call Me Urban! The Time of Grime) documenting the often controversial and always stunning culture of urban life. Arriving at his Bethnal Green studio, Dazed sat down to speak to Wheatley about art, culture and of course, snapping photos.

Dazed Digital: First up, why’s the book called Don’t Call Me Urban?
Simon Wheatley: It looks behind the glamorisation of urban life which has arisen. To be urban is not a joke, to be born urban is not a joke and in the context of at least this country its a harsh reality and I think that the mainstream media have been shallow in their portrayal. It’s an attempt to go a bit deeper into a complex issue and to go beyond the stereotypes of the right wing media.

DD: How did you get to photograph these people?
Simon Wheatley: Initially I was drawn to the tragedy of late 60s and 70s social architecture. Lambeth Walk was a poignant example. After a few years of focusing on the architecture I had got to know some people on the estate. They was a group of youngsters who would tolerate me for a little bit, a few days at a time. I’d just speak to everybody, I don’t really have any limits. If you look at standard contact sheets people tend to be further away and get closer to the subject but I start close.

DD: Would you say one of the biggest challenges was coming as an outsider?
Simon Wheatley: It wasn’t a challenge. The most important thing was to be real to them. Okay, I’m a public schoolboy but I don’t try to be someone who I’m not. I think they respected that. However, the lesson is when someone takes you somewhere you stay. If that person goes, you go. You don’t hang around with people you’ve just met. I got a bit complacent and it got messy. Some people were really negative, they didn’t want to know who I’d photographed, what I’d done for magazines or what I was doing on a social level.

DD: What happened?
Simon Wheatley: They were getting fed up with me. They asked me to leave, so I left. I’ve always had the idea that love conquers, but love can kick your head in. I walked off really slowly and I should of just moved fast. I waited at a bus stop and thought ‘uh oh’. I could see members of that negative posse coming closer - I just took off and ran!

DD: Carry on...
Simon Wheatley: I ran into the main road and they caught up with me. Everything was a blur after that, I saw one punch coming for me. At the back of the crew I saw one guy pulling out something... I don’t know what it was. If I was lucky I thought it was CS Gas. The next day I’d never been so grateful for life.

DD: How’d you escape?
Simon Wheatley: I saw a Mercedes driving down the road and just ran in front of it. The car stopped and the guy told me he’d been watching the situation develop. I jumped in the backseat and slammed the door. I wish I’d had a camera and the composure to photograph. I could see all the faces pressed against the back of the car.

DD: That sounds mad! So who inspired you to make this book?
Simon Wheatley: My mentor was Phillip Jones Griffiths. He had cancer and he was a big part of me. I used to spend a lot of time with him. He set the benchmark for me. In terms of making a book, which would stand the test of the time, Phillip inspired me. That was the level I wanted to reach.

DD: Do you have any advice for young photographers?
Simon Wheatley: I would say you’ve got to look at the moving image now. You’ve now got to be a multimedia journalist, especially with the iPad and everything out. If you’re going to just put stills on a website it looks kind of dry now, without audio or moving image. However I feel that still photography must be the poetry, it still must be very good. Video is the prose and photography is the poetry. One thing I’ve learnt is that if you want to photograph well, you’ve got to photograph from inside.

DD: What are your future plans?
Simon Wheatley: I’ve put together a book on Amsterdam. I’m working in India. It’s a very complex place. I’m still getting on the inside there. I’d like to shoot music videos here as well with people who dare to be different. There’s much more scope with filmmaking than still photography. I’d like to shoot Roots Manuva.

DD: Finally, what do you hope people will gain from your book?
Simon Wheatley: In the 60’s and 70s the black British subculture was a lot more interesting but now it’s very conformist, everyone’s wearing a hood or a baseball cap. Sometimes I’ll meet a youth and they’re adhering to it and they’ll say “don’t call me urban”. It is a harsh portrayal and I would hope that some people would look at it and think, you know what, I’m not going to be that. I would also hope that some of the people who identify themselves in my book would be introspective and look at their own life and think about this urban stereotype.

Text by Ryan Bassil

Don't Call Me Urban! The Time of Grime Exhibition; Fri 3 Jun to Fri 24 Jun / 9am - 6pm / Rich Mix, 35-47 Bethnal Green Road, London