His photographs of skins and punks have been hailed as the most important photographic record of the skinhead movement. We caught up with Gavin Watson to talk about demonisation, Dr. Martens, and This Is England.
Born and raised in a typical working class environment in northwest London, Gavin Watson began taking taking photos at an early age, documenting
– When I was about fourteen, I was Christmas shopping and went down to a store called Woolworths. There were a pair of binoculars and a camera, and I didn’t know which one of them I wanted, but in the last minute I decided to get the camera, Gavin recalls.
– When I got my first pictures back, something organic hit me. I decided there and then that I was going to be a photographer. Then I went into it as only a fourteen-year-old boy could, trying to learn as much as I could from where I could. And I just kept taking photographs, mainly of my cats and my friends.
It started out not being political
at all. It was all about the music
Around the same time as Gavin got his first camera, he became a skinhead, immersed in immersed in the world of Madness and Two Tone. With a natural talent for his newly discovered interest, he set about photographing his family and friends, consequently documenting the social, multicultural, and musical scene that flourished around him.
– It was the zeitgeist of the time, Gavin explains. I was too young to have gotten into it punk, but when I was fourteen we had for the first time cultural mixes coming together to make music, based around the sixties reggae movement. I fell in love with that, fell in love with their music, and fell in love with what they stood for. And they were skinheads, so I became a skinhead.
During the late seventies and early eighties, some skinheads came to be affiliated with hooliganism and extreme right movements, casting a shadow over the movement as a whole.
– It started out not being political at all. It was all about the music, Gavin says. But it was a very politicised time, the late seventies and the early eighties, with very manipulative politicians, both to the right and to the left. There were a lot of angry, confused people, and it was easy to use people for your political ends.
– The bottom line is that cultures like that always come out of poverty, and poor people are always being demonised. They always have and they always will. But everyone who is a sensible person or does their research will realise that Nazi skinheads were Nazi skinheads, and reggae skinheads were reggae skinheads.
Gavin’s photographic work remained undiscovered well into the nineties, when a woman researching a book on youth culture found some of his pictures in a box at a local photography facility and asked him if he had any more. After ten years of acting, astrology, and some time locked up, Gavin wasn’t very keen on pursuing a career within photography, but agreed to meet the request.
In 1994, his early work was published in the book Skins, later hailed as the most important photographic record of the skinhead movement, followed by a number of exhibitions, as well as two more books on the same theme, Skins and Punks and Raving 89.
Gavin Watson’s work is frequently cited as an important influence, notably by British film director Shane Meadows, who used the book Skins as a springboard for his film This Is England.
– Shane invited me to a screening, and when I sat there watching it I just thought ‘holy shit, this is just like looking at my book’. The imagery was so spot-on. I also thought that ‘thank God, someone is telling the truth’. We weren’t some sort of Nazi demons, we were just kids that were into music, and Shane took that across.
– I was involved in it after that, and Shane was kind enough to write a foreword to my book Skins and Punks, where he took knowledge of the fact that my work had been really important for his movie. And I was happy about it, because my Skins book got re-released, and I realised that I was still alive and got back out in the world again.
Boosted by the film and its aftermath, Gavin is now back behind the camera. In the past few years he’s been collaborating with a number of magazines, fashion brand, and music agencies, currently working with a book on the British artist Plan B and another book with music photos from the eighties.
This shoe, this piece of clothing, was a part of my life before I even knew what a skinhead was
A long-time collaborator to Dr. Martens, and has just released a limited edition series of four t-shirts printed with his skinhead photographs. A key element in the skinhead look, Gavin describes the Dr. Martens boots as an intrinsic part of his youth.
– This shoe, this piece of clothing, was a part of my life before I even knew what a skinhead was. Even when I’d stopped wearing them, I still felt a bound to them.
– I think my photographs went in line with the designers trying to get a grip on the history of where their boots came from, and the punks and the skinheads who wore them. It feels great to have your work out there in the world instead of being stuck on a wall behind glass. To know that someone is wearing a picture that I took when I was fifteen, I just think that’s brilliant, Gavin says laughing.
What are you interested in photographing today?
– I do what I’ve always done. I just love photographing and I photograph whatever I find interesting, even though I nowadays mostly photograph what I’m paid to do, Gavin says with a laugh.
– I’ve never just gone out to look for photographs. I’ve never been like ‘oh, now I’m gonna go out and see what the kids in Wales are doing’ or ‘oh I have to this project or that project’. I’ve never done a project in my whole life. I find living on this strange planet exciting, and I try to record the things around me that interest me, and that’s normally characters.
See more of Gavin Watson’s photographs above.