Friday 17th June 2016
Brunch Against Bigotry was slightly different to the events that usually happen at Impressions, but it’s still jam packed with amazing insight into the exhibition and the photographer’s aim. As it states in the name, the event was a combination of a brunch and an informal exhibition tour with the photographer behind Rock Against Racism, Syd Shelton.
The exhibition Rock Against Racism revisits a significant moment which altered people’s views towards politics, culture, fashion and music. It was a groundbreaking movement from 1976 to 1981 formed by musicians and political activists to fight racism through music. The photographs by Syd Shelton capture the many moments of Rock Against Racism in all its glory.
Before the brunch had even begun, it was great to see the gallery filling up with a wide variety of people from different age groups and backgrounds and how everyone easily connected with the movement. I think it’s amazing to see how Rock Against Racism is accessible for almost everyone who visits, for those who grew up with it and those who are just learning about it now. You could almost argue that the exhibition is applicable within society today as racism remains to be an underlying problem within society.
You could tell that the majority of people present were very eager to meet the man who has managed to capture such iconic moments in Rock Against Racism. I was excited to hear about the stories behind some of the iconic pieces and to learn more about what society was like during the 1970s.
It was an informal walk and talk around the gallery with Syd leading the talk and exploring the turmoil that was happening during the 70s.
I was really surprised to hear how normalised racism had become, and how such hatred towards non-white people was almost encouraged by some political groups. From a personal perspective, I was shocked to hear how terms such as ‘paki bashing’ were used very casually and how non-white people were automatically characterised as being muggers or murderers, it was a bit too surreal. It was also scary to hear how the National Front were gaining more followers and power at the moment, that they were becoming very popular amongst the public. (I’m glad it isn’t like that now.)
I also felt inspired when I learnt that the Asian youths of the 70s were also prepared to stand up against racism and pave a way for the new generation of south asian children born in the UK.
But despite the power behind racism during that time, it was reassuring in a way to hear about the great success of Rock Against Racism and how no one even anticipated that it would last for more than a few days. It was great to hear how punk and reggae bands and singers came together and wanted to put an end to the horrendous racial abuse. The photographs really show the explosion of UK reggae and punk combined.
When looking at some of the photos, you can see that there’s a story or a conversation happening between the person being photographed and the photographer. And it definitely sounded like Syd had many interesting encounters when shooting the majority of photos present in the gallery. The photograph with the two skinheads for example was definitely an interesting story to tell. He explained how in order to get some sort of reaction from them, he began to provoke them by saying things like, “The National Front is rubbish.” That definitely got one of the skinheads clenching their fists in anger. I was surprised and amazed at how he didn’t get punched by one of them.
Skinheads, Petticoat Lane East London 1979 © Syd Shelton, courtesy of Autograph ABP
Another story that I thought was amazing was a photograph of the lead singer from Sham 69, looking back towards the photographer. According to Syd, the lead singer received numerous death threats from skinheads and racists, telling him to stop performing. What is truly amazing is how he ignored these lethal threats, despite being advised not to attend, and he literally burst onto the stage and was met by thousands of fans.
Jimmy Percy and Sham 69 Carnival 2, Brockwell Park Brixton, London 24 September 1978 © Syd Shelton, courtesy of Autograph ABP
To be honest with you, I could just go on and on with listing all the different stories that Syd mentioned in the talk, like how an eager fan jumped on stage and he managed to capture the shot before being thrown off. I feel that these stories really illustrate the power and determination behind the Rock Against Racism movement and how it hasn’t really faded. It’s actually amazing to see that he’s managed to capture all of these amazing shots, these photographs almost give the digital camera a run for its money. When he explained how it’s almost like a gamble when working with camera negatives, it makes these images all the more special as they were literally captured in the moment, no re-dos or second chances. But despite that, he said that there’s something magical about working with negatives and how there is something special about the abstract nature of black and white photography, how it can take something away but at the same time bring something new into the image.
If you’re reading this so far and you’re thinking “Hmm… I really like the sound of that exhibition!” Then please come over and become enveloped in the punk/reggae atmosphere of Rock Against Racism. And if you want to hear more from the photographer Syd Shelton, then please book a place on the In Conversation: Syd Shelton and Carol Tulloch on the 23rd July, 2.00pm to 3.30pm.
For more information on the exhibition visit Impressions Gallery website here