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Jamie Hawkesworth
Whitby Gothsvia

The photographers who captured the best of UK subculture

Gender queer club kids, Irish hip-hop renegades and Muslim sneakerheads: these photographers trace the most radical youth movements

While it may not seem like it today – with David Cameron’s big bland face all over the place like a really persistent rash – Britain is a treasure-trove for subcultural movements. Though it’s hard to see it now with our clubless streets, Britain once existed in the centre of a glorious transformative melting pot, where movement after movement rose from the social gloop to give the rest of society the finger. From the 70s onwards, the tribes of modern Britain defined fashion, music and style decade after decade: punks, goths, skins, garage, Britain had it all. Here we give a shout out to some of our favourite photographers covering those backstreets, the great documenters of the cultural movements that built what it means to be British today.


Clubbing is dead, lads. Clubbing is a cadaver above a craft beer pub on Brick Lane, pinned into place by hundreds of pieces of cereal. Nobody told designer/club king Charles Jeffrey that, thankfully, who went about setting up LOVERBOY, a birthday party turned regular celebration of the gender-queer community. Jeffrey, who graduated from Central Saint Martins, then went about photographing all the people there and the results are amazing. A sense of renewal runs through the photos, of reclaiming wasted potential and transforming normality. 

Girls with horns stand side-by-side with lads eating what appears to be a banana dipped in blue ink. Getting normal people to turn up to a club dressed with a large target painted on their head may sound like a joke, but Jeffrey’s photography revels in the power of transformation. In Jeffrey’s own words: “It’s gender-queer, it’s powerful, it’s misfit, it’s angry, it’s sweaty.”


Karen Knorr and Olivier Richon made their Punks collection while students at the Polytechnic of Central London and actively encouraged interaction with their subjects. Less documentation than a celebration, the photos are enthused with a sense of presence and immediacy. Streets are transformed into sets; dance floors into stages. Everything is here – the swastikas, the pins, the chokers. Through the lens of Knorr and Richon, their nonconformist aesthetic becomes an act of political confrontation.


Born in Beirut, Toufic Beyhum spent a year photographing the finest pairs of trainers he could find at Brixton Masjid during Friday prayers. Highlighting the boxfresh beauty of a fine pair of kicks, his work also tells the story of dedication – from street culture to religion, to wanting to look fly in front of God. Beyhum’s work shows a softer side to worshipping and reminds us that you don’t lose your individual personality when you dedicate yourself to a higher cause.


They’re almost all gone now. The towers that lurk empty in the background of Smyth’s shots, broken Brutalist promises of a better future. Smyth’s photography of Dublin’s emerging rap scene is a testament to how place shapes character just as much as character shapes place. Originally constructed in 1966, the towers were supposed a symbol of hope for the residents, but the years of economic downturn took their toll. Poverty led to isolation, which led to violence, which led to drug use, which led to police intervention, which led to an emerging Dublin rap culture. 

While Dublin’s most recent musical experts are The Script (fucking hell), Ballymun was a musical melting pot where the Pogues met N.W.A. Smyth’s photography captures the end of a special place, where a grim reality coddled a unique set of talents.


Sometimes fate can easily be mistaken for chance, as Niall O’Brien discovered after moving in with a group of young punks called the Kingston Brew Crew in south west London. Irish-born O’Brien began following them on their adventures from Brighton to Berlin, for two whole years. "There's something beautiful about capturing the spontaneity of youth. It's something everyone can relate to on some level, even if they can't immediately identify with this mad group of punks," he said, at the time. O’Brien’s work attempts to balance the desire to document with the awareness that too much intimacy can alter the shot. His documentary style results in photos that are intimate but distant, voyeuristic but equally nostalgic.


We’ve got four things to thank for Gavin Watson’s work: Top of the Pops, the band Madness, Doc Martens boots and the woman who found his photos many years after the movement had died out. Watson – who became a skinhead after a chance encounter with Suggs on the telly – spent years gravitating around the ‘Wycombe Skins’, during a time when the movement was peaceful and racially inclusive. His 1994 collection Skins covers the endless nights of mayhem around High Wycombe: the fashion and the passion of being a skinhead.


Jamie Hawkesworth never meant to be a photographer. He was up in Preston studying forensic science when, perched over a fake crime scene with a camera, he decided that photography was his calling. He began to start documenting the local teenagers for Preston is My Paris, in an attempt to capture the time we’re living in now. Citing Johnny Stiletto, Nigel Shafran, as an inspiration, Hawkesworth’s work teased along the fine line between fashion and naturalism.

After a tip off from a mate, Hawkesworth headed down to Whitby to document a large goth festival. He found them by the church made famous in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and, to his surprise, they were happy. Goths get a raw deal, don’t they? Everyone’s either telling them they’re depressed or to go outside and get some sunshine. It’s not fair, is what it is. It’s prejudiced. It’s like assuming all clowns are happy. It’s not that simple. Hawkesworth’s work with them strives for the new, the undocumented, and unearths the reality hidden beneath reputation.


Garage was one of Britain’s more underappreciated and short-lived musical cultures. As the French film, Eden showed: it was huge one day and gone the next. Ewen Spencer, however, was there for the actual fucking thing for Sleazenation and dropped tons of revealing shots in his book and documentary Brandy & Coke for us to cherish. From the Old Kent Road to the backstreets of Vauxhall, Spencer’s work shows the uniquely British faces behind pirate radio. Rendered in monochrome, his subjects seem slim, moneyed, even boisterous, a golden age when everyone was living for the weekend.


Think of a skinhead and nowadays most people will think of a bald white dude in an England tracksuit moaning about immigration and drinking White Lightning. But McKell, back in 1979, captured the movement as it began to grow within inner city London – from north to east London – and self-published this work in the notoriously rare book Sub Culture. “I don’t like society. But they don’t like us either,” which titles one shot, is a common theme. Captured almost entirely in black and white, the work champions self-expression on the streets of pre-gentrified London in a way few collections can rival.


Griffiths, an ex Paratrooper, is most famous for his work documenting the secret rave culture within the British troops. His collection Pigs’ Disco focuses on the armed forces in Northern Ireland during The Troubles and presents an intriguing look into the conflict between unity and youth. As well as work uncovering Hasting’s hidden youth, Griffiths has gone undercover in Liverpool with a hidden Leica camera in an attempt to capture the unseen gangs that still thrive within the backdrop of the city. His work plays in the hinterland between the fragile individual and the strength of the collective.