An Interview with Abbey Road's Photographer-In-Residence Simon Wheatley

An Interview with Abbey Road's Photographer-In-Residence Simon Wheatley

22nd November 2020

Photographer Simon Wheatley has played an important role in chronicling the emergence of grime. Despite not being from the scene and a self-described “outsider”, he’s been shooting grime artists at pirate radio stations and on London streets since 1998. In 2010, Simon pulled his work together for the iconic book Don't Call Me Urban! The Time of Grime.

For the past several decades, Wheatley has looked beyond the lens and gotten to know the people on a personal level which, in turn, has made his images some of the most iconic. We are now pleased to welcome Simon as our photographer-in-residence, who will capture the next generation of music makers stepping into our house.

We caught up with Simon to discuss how he began his career, what the role means to him personally and advice to anyone looking to become a music photographer.


Abbey Road talks to Simon Wheatley

When did you start taking photos and at what point did you know that you wanted to make a career of it?

I was in Brazil for the third year of university and just started taking pictures of things that interested me with my mum’s point and shoot camera. For the first time, I was on my own more rather than always around groups of people in which I’d never quite fitted in. The camera became a good friend and so I stopped searching for them. My dad then lent me his SLR, an Olympus OM1, which I still have. I found a freedom in photography. I was in Prague the September after graduation and realised I didn’t have to go back to England. I ended up living in Budapest, an amazing place, in retrospect, to begin serious street photography with the uncertainties that accompanied those enormous changes just after the Cold War. I found the people very interesting, there was an introspection to Budapest that suited where I was at the time, a state of mind which led me deeply into photography, I feel. I realised straight away that was what I wanted to do. I’ve always found the camera to be something of a toy and in retrospect I did need to regain the spirit of my boyhood after difficult teenage years, having not really settled in England after moving here from Singapore. At the same time, I wanted to be serious and photography was like an extension of my studies. That’s why the very political work of Sebastiao Salgado was influential early on, but when I saw William Klein’s gritty New York pictures of the 1950s at an exhibition that summer in Prague I was dazzled by the artistic freedom, and I loosened up and became more experimental.

Have there been times when you were ready to “chuck it all in”?

There was one time. It had all become a struggle but just when I was thinking to get a ‘proper job’ I was saved by a call to photograph something for The Salvation Army on the Heygate estate in Elephant and Castle, where I ended up working quite a lot a few years later. London was tough to begin with, it was hard to get a break but I moved to Amsterdam the following year and got going with the magazines over there, becoming a ‘professional’ - much though I dislike that word. I have come to believe that we are always sowing seeds with our actions, and that probably stems from my experience that summer, when I had begun experimenting with a medium format camera for the first time on Lambeth Walk. A long-time girlfriend left me because she got tired of all my money going into maintaining my photography which was centred around a little darkroom in the bathroom of a crummy studio flat I had in Clapham South, but those pictures of Lambeth Walk I developed in there became the opening of DCMU (Don't Call Me Urban).


What gear do you use when you’re working? Is it different depending on what shoot?

I started using a rangefinder 35mm camera quite early on, a Leica M, and liked the small size. It felt more like a necklace than a camera and it’s always been the one I feel at one with. For portraits, I tend to prefer the Mamiya rangefinder which shoots on medium format film. I use the Hassleblad X-Pan for panoramic when I want to reveal a space.

How do you get a band or artist to really trust you?

I don’t know how it is that I’ve been able to fit in well during the Abbey Road sessions but perhaps because I’m very interested in the process of making music I can forget myself and my task even and veer towards nothingness. In terms of gaining trust from documentary subjects such as I’ve done over the years the only secret is time, I think. People respect commitment. I think it also helps to never take oneself too seriously - humour can be a very disarming weapon. In the grime world I’ve never pretended to be who I’m not - I’m just a middle class boy who stumbled into their lives.

What makes an enjoyable experience working with an artist?

I would like to feel able to say that the privilege of discovering the labour of love means all work should be enjoyable. But that’s a bit utopian, as difficult moments do come our way too. I would guess they come down to ego mostly, so I suppose the more that’s eliminated the better.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

Inspiration is precious, it can arrive at any moment. I don’t know exactly but I do enjoy good arthouse cinema. I read a lot of spiritual books for a while too. The message becomes very similar in them, though I’d like to think that much of what I’ve read has inspired me, particularly the Taoist philosophy.

This year is Don’t Call Me Urban’s 10th anniversary. Can you explain more about this project and the name of the book?

I began with those medium format experiments on Lambeth Walk, and after about four years, while I was living mainly in Amsterdam, I felt the project a bit dry. I had wandered around taking pictures mainly of the ‘brutalist-era’ architecture, as a controversial urban regeneration project unfolded very slowly, but I’d also asked lots of people to pose for portraits so I’d become acquainted in the area. I decided to put the medium format aside and take my small cameras into their lives so I could operate more intimately, and found myself following the wayward youth mainly. Mostly they were white boys who had become very enamoured of black culture. I moved back to London in 2003 and lived in Limehouse and the grime movement was very local to me. Roll Deep shot their first video down the road from my place and the youth I met around the sets that day went on to show me what grime really was. Roll Deep at the time was being hyped as the next big thing after So Solid Crew but they were busy with photoshoots and stuff like that whereas their ‘youngers’ were still living the life of grime. Don’t Call Me Urban! as a title perhaps reflects that choice I made to focus on those youngers rather than the famous grime crew, my interest being behind the glamour, the reality of actually being ‘urban’, even if the portraits of the ‘urban music’ stars are an essential part of the book too. You could call the title a protest against commodification. It’s great that hip hop gave post-civil-rights America a voice but the culture has become very reductive. Grime’s obsession with sportswear, usually manufactured by corporate giants, is a manifestation of that. ‘Urban’ has become a concept of limitation for the black community, a prison of the mind, and I hope the series of photographic experiments that I eventually assembled into DCMU to reflect my experience of ‘the hood’ encourages some contemplation of that.

What did you find most fascinating about capturing some of grime’s early moments?

The energy on the streets that came with it. When I heard the sound of grime I saw pictures I’d been making with the wayward youth in Lambeth. The confrontational essence of the genre was fascinating though also disturbing of course, the way knives suddenly became so commonplace and guns too. But there was a sense of hope when Dizzee Rascal blew. Boy in Da Corner was proof that success could be achieved, though at the same time the hope seemed so forlorn, and I found that gulf fascinating, as well as the absurdity of rampant material aspiration cloaking grim social reality. But I had fun too - there was a sense of humour around grime that seems to have disappeared with Drill.

You said Philip Jones Griffiths was an inspiration to make the book. How was this so?

Vietnam Inc was the benchmark of a photobook. Philip’s coverage was so thorough. He was extremely committed to his subject, and the fact that he went back to Vietnam to make another book, Agent Orange, thirty years later reflects that. Those pictures of people born with deformities from the effect of the Americans spraying chemicals to defoliate jungles where the Vietcong were hiding moved me to tears, and a year later I became close to Philip when I joined the same agency. He became my mentor, he had recently moved back to London from New York and was unwell, so he would be home most of the time working on a book about Cambodia and I would often visit him. He was extremely principled and entirely ethical, and probably there will never be a greater photojournalist as that era is over with the ubiquity of smartphones and the way they have things covered. Phillip passed away before DCMU was published, but when I was putting the book together I felt I needed to make something that he would respect as being good enough.

In that scene, who were some of the people you most enjoyed working with?

Scratchy was always friendly and fun, and now he’s become very conscious too, which is so inspiring. Bruza was a nice guy. Ears felt like the gentleman of grime. I liked Stormin too. RIP. Riko was always very funny and welcoming too. I also had my warm moments with Jendor, down in Lewisham. And in recent years I’ve been there a lot again, working with The Square who were really important in bringing grime back although they never get the credit that others do. Elf Kid is one of the most soulful people I’ve ever come across, and I would comfortably call him and the producer Lolingo my friends. Lolingo is very meditative. I’m still involved with grime, it’s good to see the growth.

You are now working as Abbey Road’s photographer in residence. What does that role mean to you?

I’m grateful to be able to observe the creative process, especially as I’ve found myself composing music in recent years. I began by making scores for my short films and then playing the sarod, as I’ve been in Calcutta a lot for the past 12 years. I appreciate the diversity of genres at Abbey Road, as my own tastes are wide. You don’t need me to remind you that it’s also an honour of course, and let’s see how it evolves. I’d like to bring in people I’ve known who would be interesting for Abbey Road, like Hak Baker. He’s as original grime as any.

When shooting a recent session at Abbey Road, you mentioned that you are rarely very happy after a photoshoot? Why is this and do you think this could actually be a positive thing?

That was after I had shot the portraits, on film, and one never knows how it will come out. I’ve delivered so many assignments over the years, but it’s interesting the way that doubt lingers. I read a quote a long time ago that the artist is full of doubt, and that uncertainty after a shoot is just something I live with, perhaps as an antidote to complacency even.


For the lock-in session you shot on both film and digital. What do you prefer?

If I was to stop photographing today and reflect upon what I’ve done I would say that I enjoyed the film days immeasurably more. But shooting film has become a bit of a gimmick now. What is the point of shooting film? For the ‘look’, one often hears. But the effect of a great many type of films can be created digitally with software anyway. Shooting film was a process, it was what we had to do, not a stylistic decision. It was much more involving than digital photography tends to be. However, a digital camera can be used in the same way simply by putting a piece of tape over the back so the image isn’t visible. The darkroom was such an important part of being a photographer, though I don’t think that plays a part much these days. I do prefer shooting film myself because it was my habit as much as anything else, also the way I filed and stored my work with the physicality of contact sheets rather than on hard drives. My film cameras are old and very personal to me and I’m enjoying using them again. My two Leicas are like my children, I used to sleep with them around my neck when I was living in Amsterdam’s youth hostels. The reportage of the session was shot on a digital Leica rangefinder, and I appreciate that it enables me to work in the same discrete way but with the immense convenience that digital provides. I find myself using my old film cameras more now I’m back in London. It’s good to be getting back into photography again, it’s been a while. For me digital was never quite photography but it is the future and I have had to adapt.

Do you have any pointers for people that are looking to become photographers, or more specifically, music photographers?

Photography is something so very simple that I would go so far as to say that it doesn’t exist. It’s just a reflection of one’s interests. A music photographer should obviously have an interest in music but what disturbs me with what I’ve seen around grime photography is that most people who restrict themselves to shooting ‘music and fashion’. I find that quite sad. I understand that not everyone wants to be a social documentary photographer, though I also find it banal and even offensive to the memory of those I’ve known when I hear the phrase ‘reportage style’. Reportage is not a style but a genre of photography that people have committed themselves to often at great personal risk. I don’t know what advice I can give. I became a music photographer rather incidentally. At the end of the day I’m a storyteller and photography just happens to be the medium I have mainly used up to now. I certainly feel qualified to advise people on their approaches to story-telling, but photography itself? Composition and lighting are very instinctive things. All I can recommend is to maximise awareness, and martial arts and yoga can be very beneficial to that end. Photography is something of an inner journey. Those years in the darkroom were very important as the experience generated a sense of solitude and the patience that has sustained me over the years.

It was also the place where I learned about the effects of light on film, from printing my negatives, but I was fortunate to exist in an era when there was no pressure to take an iPhone picture of my contact sheets as soon as they’d dried, just to let people on Instagram know I was deep into film! I would certainly advise people not to bother with social media for a few years when they begin. The urgency of this phenomenon seems to have made it almost impossible for a photographer to develop naturally in the way that my and earlier generations did. I suppose there’s a new ‘natural’, a new ‘norm’ that one has to find a solution for, but when I tell people that I was intensely into photography for at least six or seven years before anyone really saw my pictures they are amazed. My young assistant joked that you’d be lucky to manage six or seven minutes these days before you have to post what you’ve been up to! All I can say is that photography is that inner journey, at least for me. The same with music.

Thank you to Simon Wheatley for taking the time out to answer these questions. To find out more about Simon's work, head to the link here.

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