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Syd Shelton’s East Enders

November 14, 2017
by the gentle author

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

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Bandele “Tex” Ajetunmobi, Photographer

John Claridge’s East End

Phil Maxwell’s Brick Lane

5 Responses leave one →
  1. November 14, 2017

    In 1978 I had to go Brixton in the early evening. Everyone told me “it’s dangerous” and “you shouldn’t go on your own”.
    I was met at Brixton tube station by the brother of the child I was visiting. He and his mate were “bovver boys”. They escorted me to the family home – and then back again, waiting until I was safely on the train. At one point a London bobby stopped us and asked if I was all right but then just went on.
    Yes, I know it had a bad reputation. But, after that first occasion I went backwards and forwards doing research and never had any trouble.

  2. Caroline Bottomley permalink
    November 14, 2017

    Love these pictures, so glad you’ve got them

  3. November 14, 2017

    Syd’s engagement with his subjects has made some great images here. He has cleverly made them do some work in addition to his own. Genuine collaboration creates strong shots.

  4. November 14, 2017

    Marvelous, iconic photographs from Syd. Great to see the photograph of the late David Widgery & the sisters from Bow take my breath away.

  5. November 15, 2017

    These photos have brought back memories, especially of the 70s: staring at the rude boys, rock against racism, believing what you wore was who you were. The latter would prove the biggest illusion. 40 years on everything and nothing has changed but the energy of these photographs is as fresh as the day they were taken.

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