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Syd Shelton’s Rock Against Racism

September 16, 2015
by the gentle author

Syd Shelton’s new exhibition ROCK AGAINST RACISM organised by Autograph ABP opens at Rivington Place in Shoreditch on 2nd October and runs until 5th December

Brick Lane 1978

Photographer Syd Shelton‘s enduring fascination with the East End was sparked by a childhood visit from Yorkshire with an uncle and aunt more than fifty years ago. “My cousin was was working in a mission somewhere off Bethnal Green Rd,” Syd recalled, “It was a scary part of London then and I remember my uncle looked out of the window every few minutes to check the wheels were still on his car!”

“The day I left college in 1968, I came down to London and I have worked here ever since, photographing continuously in Hackney and Tower Hamlets,” Syd admitted to me.

In the seventies, Syd became one of the founders of Rock Against Racism, using music as a force for social cohesion, and his photographs of this era include many affectionate images of racial harmony alongside a record of the culture of racism . “It was an exciting time when, after the death of Altab Ali, the Asian community stood up to be counted and the people of the East End became militant against the National Front,” he explained, “In 1981, I got a studio in the Kingsland Rd and I only gave it up recently because the rents became too expensive.”

Syd’s portraits of East Enders span four decades yet he did not set out consciously to document social change. “I never started this as a project, it’s only when I looked back that I realised I had taken swathes of pictures of people in the East End,” he explained, “So now I come back and spend a day on the streets each week to continue.”

“I say I am not a documentary photographer, because I like to talk to people before I take my picture to see what I can coax out of them,” he qualified,“Taking photos is what makes my heart beat.”

Bethnal Green 1980

Linda, Kingsland Rd 1981

Bethnal Green 1980

Bagger, Cambridge Heath Rd 1979

Columbia Rd 1978

Jubilee St, 1979

Petticoat Lane 1981

Brick Lane 1978

Aldgate East 1979

Brick Lane 1980

Hoxton 1979

Tower Hamlets 1981

Brick Lane 1976

Jubilee St 1977

Brick Lane 1978

School Cleaners’ Strike 1978

Petticoat Lane 1978

David Widgery, Limehouse 1981

Sisters, Bow 1984

Sisters, Tower Hamlets 1988

Bow Scrapyard 1984

Ridley Rd Market 1992

Ridley Rd Market 1992

Ridley Rd Market 1995

Whitechapel 2013

Shadwell 2013

Brick Lane 2013

Dalston Lane 2013

Bethnal Green 2013

Photographs copyright © Syd Shelton

You may also like to take a look at

Bandele “Tex” Ajetunmobi, Photographer

John Claridge’s East End

Phil Maxwell’s Brick Lane

7 Responses leave one →
  1. September 16, 2015

    Great photos, very atmospheric. Love the tough guy poses of some of the youngsters. Valerie

  2. Ros permalink
    September 16, 2015

    excellent set of photos. Really enjoyed studying them.

  3. Peter Holford permalink
    September 16, 2015

    There is a harshness to these photographs that certainly reflect the times. I was a steward on an Anti-Nazi League rally that marched from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park, Hackney in 1978. In spite of our numbers and the police presence there was an intimidating atmosphere with the skin-heads and others hurling abuse and, occasionally, more solid objects. The march finished with a huge open-air Rock Against Racism event with the Clash, Tom Robinson and Aswad. More photos here:

    When I walked around the same areas a couple of years ago it was hard to equate it with the 1970s. Some things have got better!

  4. September 16, 2015

    Farrs School of Dancing nowadays

    very good photos

  5. September 16, 2015

    Brilliant photography, a real artist with the camera at work here, but proving the point yet again that black and white photography creates atmosphere in a way the colour never does.

  6. September 16, 2015

    I have a different memory of the Vic Park Rock A Racism, 78.
    I was born and and bred in Stepney and was part of Tower Hamlets Arts Project, who helped staff the event.. We were told to expect some 5 – 8000 people – 98,000 turned up! And yes – there were large amounts of Skinheads – but I was surprise that it WASN’T as an intimidating atmosphere (in the Park, at least) as I’d expected.
    In fact – have a memory of my gf at the time, ordiing a long line of scary looking Skins, to settle down if they wanted to buy a cup of tea. It was a remarkable empowering event for my 18 year old self.

  7. September 18, 2015

    These photographs are an amazing historical record. Many thanks.

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