SIMON WHEATLEY: THE PHOTOGRAPHER WHO CAPTURED THE BIRTH OF GRIME

SIMON WHEATLEY: THE PHOTOGRAPHER WHO CAPTURED THE BIRTH OF GRIME

by Christopher Kelly
15 min
Simon Wheatley ©

At the dawn of the 2000s, whilst mainstream media derogatorily dubbed and discarded Grime music as the sounds of “Urban” angst from an unruly underclass, a handful of photographers, recognising the raw artistry that was unfolding, took to the streets and studios of London to document the genesis of the most influential British genre since Punk. Armed with a Leica M and an insatiable interest in the authentic, Simon Wheatley somewhat accidentally became the chief chronicler of Grime after his 2010 publication ‘Don’t Call Me Urban: The Time of Grime’ became widely regarded as the most complete and culturally accurate historical record of the genre.

Whilst many other content-hungry creatives focused on what Grime could do for them, Simon’s gratitude to grime has guided him to the forefront of British music photography. His heartfelt hopes for the scene and genuine friendship with many members of Grime’s most prominent crews have distinguished him from the flocks of culture vultures seeking to profit off the authenticity of others. He is dogmatically dedicated, ruthlessly raw and although he would never confess to it, he is unquestionably one of the most influential British photographers of the 21st century.  

Although Simon has become synonymous with Grime, his lens has landed on numerous subjects throughout his career as he followed his camera back and forth between Brazil, Hungary, India, The Netherlands, Hong Kong and the UK. After first finding a friend in photography whilst away studying in Brazil, Simon became enamoured in the pursuit of photographic perfection. Music may be his domain but political documentation is his discourse: drawing on classic compositional standards learnt from legends like Sebastio Salgado and a gritty unchained Klien-Esque playfulness, honed during his quest to find the “poetry” in photography.

Today, Simon can be found in the sonically sacrosanct hallways of Abbey Road, bumping into Nile Rogers, Craig David and his old buddy Hak Baker, whilst serving as in-house photographer at the world’s most prestigious recording studio. On the 21st, he can be found in front of his laptop, combing through the countless entries to this year’s Abbey Road Music Photography Awards thanks to his official position as judge of Hennessy’s Championing Scenes category.  We sat down with Simon to reflect on the inner and external journey photography has taken him on, reminisce on the relentless and raucous nature of early Grime, and break down the basics of entering this year’s Abbey Road Music Photography Awards.  

Simon Wheatley ©

In many ways, you and your contemporaries are like hip-hop historians. Without you and Risky Roadz, we wouldn’t have much quality documentation and archival imagery of what has turned out to be the most influential British genre since Punk. If you agree, why do you think it’s so important to capture these fleeting countercultures as they begin?
Well, I suppose I am a tad reluctant to give myself too much importance for what I’ve done. I was just interested in the culture of the council estates and the socio-political issues around them. I think I was quite different in my approach to others that were around at that time. I know Risky was working at Rhythm Division and, being the nice guy he is, he became friendly with people in the scene and was really part of things. I have respect for him and his work recording that culture, though my approach was more analytical. I was very fascinated by the energy of Grime. There was this deep expression of frustration, angst and alienation, that’s what really got me interested. I thought “wow”, this is truly reflective of situations that I was seeing around London at that time.  

I was always about capturing a moment, making good pictures. Photography for me is a search for perfection, and when it comes to a composition I am very very particular and classic in my approach. I’m fundamentally a photographer that happened to come across this music, rather than a fan who picked up a camera. It was never about who was famous – when I took my first ever photo of Skepta in 2005, I didn’t know who he was. There was a big congregation of early grime folk at a studio in Greenwich that Jammer took me along to. Both Ruff Squad and Roll Deep were there too. I have some pictures of Wiley from then that nobody has ever seen yet, and Skepta was around though I hadn’t a clue who he was at the time.  

To circle back to the question, there is absolutely an importance because subcultures are reflective of socio-political circumstances, and I would like to think that my work is some form of social documentation and a historical record of what was there at that time. I do feel a sense of responsibility in that people will look back on it in years to come, and this has started to happen already as people continue to discover me as a chronicler of this movement. I’ve been editing my archive to create a definitive history of the genre, and I feel lucky that the scene blew up in the way that it did, otherwise my artistry may never have gained such exposure. I am extremely grateful to Grime.  

Simon Wheatley ©

How much has the lack of opportunities that were on offer when you were first documenting the scene fueled your desire to be a part of an opportunity like the Abbey Road Studios Music Photography Awards?  
I would say that there are indeed lots more opportunities now because of the internet. Back in the day, everything was printed and getting your work into print was not easy because the costs were so high. Whereas today, you could run say a 12 picture series online for absolutely no cost and only a few kilobytes of space. How on earth would you get that 12 picture story printed in a magazine? If you were a music photographer looking to get started, you might have been able to get a tiny image on the corner of a magazine page or maybe the odd portrait of a band, but there were only a handful of music magazines around at the time anyway and competition in photography has always been fierce. 

However, I would say that although there is more opportunity, the quality of the opportunities could be questioned. To get a sense of this, perhaps look at what has happened to journalism: with the growth of online culture, bloggers became journalists even though they might write poorly. But as long as they’re around the scene and get good access, string a few words together and hype them up a bit, then they’re legit. Back in the day, a writer had to be able to write, but that foundation seems to have gone. If I could, I would love to deepen this project with Abbey Road and cultivate the work of a handful of the best talents that enter the competition into deeper projects. For me, depth is everything – depth of approach, depth of involvement, depth of commitment. Nowadays, you can do something which might be shallow and not only just get it out there on social media but even have it snapped by one of the many online portals that are all searching for content. I think the quality of the opportunity matters more than quantity – especially for the development of the photographer. It was good to struggle, to have to be good to get somewhere, I learned a lot that way.

What will your criteria for judging this year’s entries to the Hennessys Championing Scenes category be? Are you looking for something in particular or are you going to treat each entry on a case by case basis? 
As I say, depth is absolutely crucial, particularly the depth of commitment. I want to see emotive work. And I want to find the poetry in the image, that’s very important to me – with us now living in an age where visual literacy is entirely dominated by the moving image, especially for the younger generation. I would even wonder whether younger people, as a whole, have the patience to really look at a photograph because they have endless images flying past them all the time, particularly video.  

Imagine if you were living in the 1950s before TV and you saw a printed image of somewhere else in the world, I imagine you would have really taken in that picture and noticed every little thing that was going on within the frame. Whereas now, most of us wouldn’t give it much attention. I’ve always been inclined towards poetic photography but nowadays I feel it’s no longer a question as to whether an image is poetic or not, for me a photograph HAS to be poetic. If you look at the Life Magazine photographers who were working before TV, some of their work is very poetic but much of it is also prosaic, or shall we say ‘functional’ – which was necessary at the time, as their images were the world’s primary source of visual information. 

These days with the speed of broadband, every internet channel relies primarily on video. I would say that video has the prose covered and that photography has to become poetry in order to survive or to gain its worth. If you’re going to cover a subject in a documentary way, I would argue that you are better served by doing that on video because you can tell more of a story by editing a film from your material. That’s what I feel about photography’s new place in this evolved visual environment. That’s something I’m certainly looking for, I’m looking for the poets, for the intrigue they capture, the moments that maybe didn’t happen or should we say the spaces between dream and reality. 

Simon Wheatley ©

If you had to enter this year’s competition, which image/series of your work would you choose to submit?
I would come and get you to select it for me, haha! This is a difficult one for me to answer because… do you know how many times I’ve seen my pictures? Right now, I’m just eager to look to the future rather than the past and get stuck in with my ideas for a feature film, edit my photography from the last decade I spent in India, put out my other books from London and the French banlieue, and do some new photography too. I suppose if I wanted to win and nobody had ever seen my work before then obviously I would choose a selection of my classic grime images. However, I’m always interested in new challenges and believe that an artist has to grow to evolve. So I like to think I would shoot some new work.  

Is there a current contemporary underground/subculture scene that you would particularly find interesting to capture if you were one of this year’s applicants trying to find a subject matter?  
Honestly, I don’t know. I do feel like it’s much more difficult for subcultures to emerge now. It used to be that by definition, subcultures were secret. You would hear about it first and then I guess you would have seen an image of some tatty indie band from Manchester in NME and that would be it. You would hear rumours of this guy called Wiley who was spitting at a fast pace over some kind of garage beat, hear him and others if you could tune into an east London pirate station perhaps – but it was still somewhat of a secret amongst those that knew of it. Now, because of social media, nothing can stay a secret for very long. So I’m interested to see how subcultures can exist and thrive in this environment. New realities always emerge and society always shapes itself around that new reality, so there will always be something and I’m very curious to see what that might be. 

What is one piece of advice would you give to applicants hoping to make a lasting impression on you? 
My advice is always to do but don’t try to do. To me that’s crucial. I did an artist residency in Hong Kong and became fascinated with Taoist philosophy, while learning some Tai Chi as part of my research for a documentary about air pollution. A golden rule of Taoism is that you should never try to do something, you should either just do it or not do it.  

Simon Wheatley ©

You have previously credited photographers like Sebastiao Salgado & William Klein for expanding your usage of the camera to more experimental means, often focusing more on the story beyond the image. What lessons did you learn from these two men?  
Salgado for me was extremely fundamental but not experimental. I studied Latin American history and did my third year of my course in Brazil, where I would wander around on my own with a simple point and shoot camera, finally away from peer pressure and all the other bullshit that had made me unhappy in England. I began to find myself there and when I returned to England with some ok pictures and discovered Salgado’s work I identified with the political nature of his work. Salgado had been exiled by Brazil’s military government in the late 60s, so I saw him as this revolutionary figure too and he inspired me to find meaning in my life, to find the path that photography gave me. But I am not Salgado, I am not at that level of a super organised PhD economist that he was. I’m more of a wandering vagabond! I did have a place at a university in Chile to do a masters degree and sometimes I do regret never taking that – but one can’t do everything in life and I didn’t feel like being in a library doing lots of research. Maybe that’s the point at which I split from Salgado somewhat, even if, like him, I’m always about the story too. 

I wanted to get out into the world and for me, photography came to represent a search for freedom. Photography helped me to go on a journey of discovery both around the world and within myself. It’s been an inner journey as much as an external one.  

I would say it was William Klein who encouraged me to be more experimental. I saw his work from the streets of 1950’s New York at an exhibition in Prague’s Castle and those big grainy prints blew my mind. I thought to myself, “This is it!”. There was such freedom to the way he was photographing, and I would say that’s really when my own poetry in photography began. 

Simon Wheatley ©

You said in an interview that photography is in essence just a projection of one’s own interests. With that in mind, do you think you have a larger interest in music or people? 

I think music itself is a reflection of people. Although people can be interested in music purely on a sonic level, which I am too, when it comes to documenting subcultures or musical subcultures, the people are equally as important as the music itself. I have this new book coming out called ‘Lost Dreams’ which is a documentation of the youngers of the London postcode of E14 around the time that Roll Deep were blowing up. I met them at Roll Deep’s first-ever video shoot which DJ Target brought me to, and then I rediscovered the work a few years ago when Target asked me to look through my archives for stuff for his book. At the time, Roll Deep were hyped and I could have documented more stuff with them, but it was their youngers that were living the life of Grime. They were still wild on the roads and in the youth clubs, and that’s what fascinated me. The music held everything together somehow, but it’s a book about people and their culture.  

What’s been your favourite day of work at Abbey Road?  

I would have to say the last session, with Hak Baker, when I also played the sarod on one of the tracks he recorded. That was just the other week. Other than that, which is an easy choice as Hak and I are good friends, I would say the Nile Rogers & Craig David one because it was my first day and I was nervous as anything. I flew back from India for that because it’s not everyday somebody asks you to shoot Nile Rogers, you know? I walked into the studio and there he was, wearing some super funky pimped out jacket and sunglasses, I kinda just nodded at everyone and sat down but Craig was quick to introduce himself.  

I was just made to feel so at home that day, photographing one of the most influential people in the history of pop music. If you check someone like Pharrell Williams, you can hear the influence of Nile Rogers. His CV is just so full and it’s not even just about Chic but also producing David Bowie, Madonna, Sister Sledge and many others. This word “legend” is just so overused today, but Nile is a genuine legend. Abbey Road has now become somewhat of a home for me in London, and that first day was just so special.  

Simon Wheatley ©

Lastly, you always have your ear to the ground. Is there an MC you’re paying attention to at the moment?

I think Roachee is really interesting. I’ve been waiting for the wisdom and I always recognised that Ghetts, or Ghetto as I once knew him, would be the one to come through but for me, I think Roachee is the most interesting person out there at the moment. He’s a deep guy.


More on CULTED

See also: BXKS ON GROWING UP IN GRIME, HACK THE PLANET EP & TIKTOK

See also: STAR-GO & THE RISE OF INDEPENDENT MUSIC NIGHTS

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