Inspired by his own time behind bars, The London Vagabond’s analogue portraits offer a momentary glimpse into the lives of the city’s ignored and overlooked
Gritty and raw are two words most associated with The London Vagabond’s work. Choosing to focus his lens on the overlooked, the avoided, the lurkers, the people that society purposefully likes to ignore, TLV’s street photography gives a glimpse into the lives of wanderers. Completely unstaged and unplanned, he captures the subject in their own environment; how they are, where they are.
Having had several run-ins with the law whilst fighting for his creative freedom, TLV’s visceral portraits and photos of urban subcultures are politically charged and controversial, inspired by his time behind bars. Below, we meet him to find out more.
Why do you call yourself The London Vagabond?
The London Vagabond: Since 12-years-old I have had a number of different pseudonyms. I grew up around people that built their reputation on a name they had given to themselves.
Most of them started off by painting graffiti and built their reputation on that, as soon as they gained a certain amount of notoriety they moved onto bigger, not necessarily better, things. It made sense for me to create an alter ego.
Where does your interest in portraiture stem from? Who are you influenced by?
The London Vagabond: People love watching action films and reading crazy stories. What (if) real stories full of adventure, violence, love and heartbreak could be told to you with true emotion straight from the person’s mouth?
The portrait is a way of me showing that I have heard their story, I have listened to their darkest moments. I have had the pleasure of shaking their hand and the honour of being in their company - I'm a storyteller.
“The portrait is a way of me showing that I have heard their story, I have listened to their darkest moments. I have had the pleasure of shaking their hand and the honour of being in their company – I’m a storyteller” – The London Vagabond
Why do you choose to focus on urban subcultures? What is it that you wish to reveal?
The London Vagabond: It's what I relate to most. I have the utmost respect for non-conformity and the unorthodox. I want to show these peoples’ stories as well as them being interlinked in my story. I want to document now; the things I see that other people may not get a chance to or choose to be blind to.
Tell us about your upbringing. Where were you born, what was your childhood like, what were you interested in and how did you get involved in photography?
The London Vagabond: From age eight I was jumping out of windows and running away from home. I never had a bad childhood; both parents were there while growing up, my mum was my world. But I wanted to rebel. I hated rules and boundaries. I never wanted a bedtime. I didn't want to be told what I could and couldn’t do.
My brain’s always been drenched with graffiti and subcultures. I grew up on hip-hop; from day one I was schooled on how that whole subculture began. Looking back, hip-hop was the catalyst in my passion for documenting subcultures.
As my graffiti evolved from tags to pieces, photography became more relevant. I wanted to document the entire process, not just the places but more importantly the people.
You’ve spent time behind bars for your art. Tell us what happened and why you were jailed.
The London Vagabond: British Transport Police decided to do something called a 'pro-active initiative', stepping up the amount of patrols in my area. As the ‘ring-leader’ of SMT crew, I was constantly surveyed, police would sit outside my house and I was raided at least 10 times in the space of a year and a half… this resulted in a two-year sentence. I was refused bail three times and ended up spending five months on remand in the madhouse which is Feltham – full of the most hyped-up youths that London has to offer.
I was then transferred to Wormwood Scrubs, a complete shithole which some of the UK's most infamous prisoners have passed through. I then spent a further five months in a place called Highpoint AKA Knifepoint.
The judge called you a “talented artist” before reading out your sentencing. What was going through your mind at that point?
The London Vagabond: When the judge passed down the sentence, all I could do was laugh. I knew the sentence I was going to get; I told my mum, my crew and even my barrister. I wasn't surprised at all. I turned to both of my boys that were in the dock and I smiled because I was happy they got shorter sentences than me.
I’d already been on remand so it made no difference to me going back down the steps to the court cells. The papers portrayed the judge as lenient, he was still just following sentencing guidelines and doing what he was told to do.
What did that experience teach you? Did it put you off being an artist?
The London Vagabond: My time inside only bred more hatred towards the system.
Your Home Street Home series is invasive and raw. What's the idea behind it?
The London Vagabond: The series wasn't a conscious decision; very few of my projects start with a set plan. Home Street Home gradually came about after a few years spent wandering London late at night shooting what I always have: lurkers, the displaced, real people...
Over time I collated a body of work that I thought was worth putting together; a series of sorts. The series is part of a bigger vision.
I think (the word) “invasive” is wrong, most people featured consented to their portrait being taken. I respect people and a lot of the time I have gained their trust, although not all situations can rely on consent. The people whose privacy I enjoy invading is the yellow men. I enjoy being aggressive and not having their permission while I capture them choosing to enforce “laws”.
How do you choose who you want to photograph? Are there certain criteria you go by?
The London Vagabond: I'm not sure if I actually choose them or if sometimes they choose me. I had no idea what I was looking for. Some days I would shoot three-four rolls whereas other nights I wouldn't take a single photo.
The people featured in this are characters that I would regularly encounter, people I imagined the public would ignore. Sometimes I just wanted to know who they were and their story. I guess it’s intrigue.
Explain your creative process in terms of working exclusively with 35mm films.
The London Vagabond: All my cameras are car boot and charity shop finds, never more than £30. I don't shoot with light meters, I don’t pay for film, I work with what I have. I’m not yet self developing so I’m limited, although that's soon to change.
“If this was happening in another era there would be mass riots and picket lines. The people have gone soft” – The London Vagabond
What do you think of London, and Britain, in 2016?
The London Vagabond: Britain is being torn apart by the powers that be; gentrification is rife in all the UK’s major cities. There’s a mass social cleansing going on underneath everybody's noses. Affordable housing is being torn down at a ridiculous rate, one council estate at a time, completely unreported.
These flats and houses aren’t being torn down and replaced for the people that have lived there for years, the working class are being pushed out and the rich are replacing them. If this was happening in another era there would be mass riots and picket lines. The people have gone soft. Estates are one of the only places left that still have some sense of community.
London’s targeting one of the last underground subcultures that is left, the squat rave scene. The media portrayed the events at Scumoween as a riot and that the ravers incited violence. I was there and the police came prepared for what I can only describe as war. The people reacted. I have photos of police with tasers out for a bunch of girls in Halloween costumes, dogs biting girls (who were) causing no harm… that's the state of Britain.
See more photos from The London Vagabond here