Simon Wheatley


How and why did you come up with the concept behind ‘Don’t Call Me Urban?’

The ‘urban’ word has somehow drifted into popular parlance, without ever having been defined. So called ‘urban’ music figures certainly objected to it – and the objection crossed the spectrum. Obviously the conscious hip hop poets were natural opponents of a word that has been seen as a more marketable way of referring to ‘black’ but i also remember being with flowdan and riko from roll deep and they were wondering, in an ironic way, what exactly ‘rural music’ might be! That was in 2005, and it was in that same year that i was in a new cross music studio with the manager of the essentials. He was just freestyling and ‘…don’t call me urban…’ flowed out amongst his jumble of words. Maybe it was the way he looked at me at that moment – somewhere between a command and a plea – but suddenly i thought to myself… ‘that’s it, that’s the title of my work.’ the essence of what i was doing was to reveal a social condition, to look behind the glamour or the cool element of ‘urban music’. Of course there was still some way to go in terms of photographing the council estates oflondonbefore i was ready to conclude the work but the concept begun to emerge then. And if you study the layout, you will notice that i begin the book with images that are primarily of a social nature, even if some of them came about via contacts made through music.

‘Don’t call me urban!’ works on 3 levels for me: firstly, as a message to society as a whole to look closely at a very complex social reality rather than indulge in easy stereotypes. (and to those who accuse me of perpetuating negative stereotypes with my pictures, i answer, “read the texts” – which are explanatory and attempt to provide some context for understanding a situation that is undeniably); secondly, it’s a message to elements of the mainstream media and the world of commerce who tend to glamourize what it is to be black with this ‘urban’ word; thirdly, i hope that young people will recognize that the ‘urban’ stereotype has really had a reductive effect – tracksuits, trainers, baseball caps and all that other stuff from corporate america. It’s cultural imperialism and the result, perhaps logically, is cultural poverty. I think that black british style before this ‘urban’ thing ever came about it was so much richer and more creative. Many black youths tell me they ‘feel’ the title to my book, but then i see the very same people perpetuating those stereotypes and not only with dress. Fast food culture too. This ‘urban’ thing is a trap that i wish people would escape from.

Was there a planned social conscious approach to the project or has this grown organically as the project progressed?

I begun with a story about urban regeneration, or ‘gentrification’ – as critics labelled the process. It was a socially concerned project from the inception.

How did you get such an intimate access to the people and groups in your photographs?

That’s my gift. I can’t explain it, and i’ve given up trying to. As the years go by i realize i’m a bit mad and that’s probably helped!

Did you face any initial resistance?

Sometimes, especially at the beginning before i was really a music photographer and had that credibility.  But even after that there were some dark places where suspicion reigned.

You have captured some prominent grime artists in your work, were you very aware of who you taking portraits of?

Only dizzee rascal was a real star when i photographed him, but even then i’d already learnt that as the photographer you have to be in charge of the situation and the subject. So i wasn’t concerned about how big a star he was becoming  – though i’d be aware that i’d have less time because of his busy schedule, which is never a bad thing because it really helps to focus.

Roughly how many hours did you spend meeting, observing and taking pictures of people?

I could never calculate how many hours this project took me. All i would say is that patience is fundamental for any significant documentary undertaking, and that belief in what you are doing – in your story – is your sustenance. I made several real friends along the way and i continue to be in touch with them. It doesn’t feel like i made a huge effort really, it was just what i did. Having said that, i remember doing an interview with the british journal of photography in 2006 and estimating that i’d spent roughly 3 days of that past year just waiting for people to show up!

People throw around the term D.I.Y music now but do you think ‘Grime’ helped to pioneer bedroom studios as a credible way to make important music?

I imagine so, but i think that this question is best answered by the producers (and emcees) themselves. Ask someone like rapid from ruff sqwad.

How do you think you time working with RWD magazine influenced the content of ‘Don’t Call Me Urban’?

Hugely. The assignments to photograph crazy titch and roll deep opened up the parts of east london where i worked extensively. I still work for rwd mag sometimes, in fact i did a shoot for them last month. Rwd art director, dacre bracey, is a good friend and it was appropriate that he did the book design.

A natural progression for photographers is to go into film making and you recently directed Roachee’s music video for ‘Sithlord’. How did this come about and what previous experience helped you?

Dj magic, who runs ‘no hats no hoods’ label and who i’ve known for some time, was aware i was keen to try my hand at a music video. He came with sithlord. I found the track dark and powerful and decided the film would have to be shot at night. I liked the way that i had a minute of instrumental to work with at the beginning to establish the character. It took some time to emerge with a concept and i actually had to keep simplifying it as i went along. There were things i wanted to put in but there was not really the space for an over-complex narrative and also i ran the risk of losing coherency given the short format. Sound photographic fundamentals are obviously important but otherwise  previous experience was limited. I’d played around a decade ago, making a couple of hood videos with a little camera but i see this as my first serious effort, my debut if you like.

Having joined the Magnum, worked from extremely diverse publications from RWD to Time Magazine, as well as having a book publications and directing a music video, what future aspirations do you have?

I honestly believe that my journey is just beginning. That may seem absurd but it is really what i feel. Magnum was my school, and ‘don’t call me urban’, with its mixture of portraits, reportage and architectural images – shot with a variety of different cameras – is actually me learning photography. I continue to do photographic assignments but i’m becoming ever more interested in the moving image. Also, i’d like to go beyond the limitations of the documentary and into the realms of the imagination. In the immediate future i see myself experimenting with the music video as a path towards creative film-making. 

What advice would you give to anyone who is considering taking their photography in a similar route of documentation?

These days i’m totally digital but i think that the experience of analogue photography and all those years i spent in the darkroom developing films and printing pictures taught me two things in particular, beyond understanding the effects of light of course. I learned patience and a sense of solitude. Both these qualities are fundamental to my operation, and i believe they are important to attain somehow in this digital age, though i’m not sure how exactly. Be careful of these digital cameras, which are different from the manual slrs of the past. Obviously, when i was starting i didn’t have that terrible habit, that temptation to keep looking at the screen. This reduces the intensity of one’s concentration on and absorption in a subject as well as distracting one from the present moment in hand and the pictures it might offer the photographer who stays focussed. Also, we generally had fixed lenses not zooms – and this is really crucial. I see young people zooming in and out of things without an understanding of focal length – and you are never going to become a really good photographer this way, you are never going to learn to ‘see’, to cultivate your eye. This really takes time, it’s an evolution one must go through. And if you want to shoot video spend some years mastering stills photography first.

The process of documentation also takes time, of course. You need to understand and get to know your subject. Yes, to do something really well takes time, that’s the bottom line. Make your journey your destination. I never set out to make don’t call me urban. It just happened. The book is an attempt to make sense of all that time.

Interview by Von Von Lamunu


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