Life & Culture

Photographs of Skinheads, Taken by a Skinhead

“We had to rebel”: Gavin Watson’s images of his peers in 1970s and 80s Britain offer an insider’s look at skinhead culture

By the time Gavin Watson had left school at the age of 16, he had already amassed more than 10,000 photographs of his friends, taken at a council estate in High Wycombe, during the time the second generation of British skinheads were coming of age in the late 1970s and early 80s.

Watson first encounted the Two-tone movement – which fuses ska, punk, and new wave – when he was 14, when he caught Madness on TV in 1979. 40 years on, Watson has come full circle with his new book Oh! What Fun We Had (Damiani), which launches at Donlon Books tonight and features never-before-seen photographs chronicling the rough-hewn kids who transformed skinhead culture into a global phenomenon.

“What’s crazy to me is I took so many pictures,” Watson says on the phone from his London studio. “I couldn’t afford to do it. No one ever paid me to do it. No one ever saw the pictures. I just took them for no real reason, except that I enjoyed taking them.”

Watson’s images have stood the test of time, and reflect the truth of skinheads – one which contradicts the mainstream media’s conflation of the subculture with the National Front. Here, the photographer talks us through his new book, transporting us back to a time when a group of marginalised youth became a threat to Thatcherite Britain because they refused to kowtow to the status quo.

“The politics of the music started me on this journey. I became a skinhead because of Two-tone music, where blacks and whites came together. We had grown up with all the West Indian kids. The second wave of skinheads came out of that connection: us going to the same schools, having parents in the same factories. The working-class are on the frontlines; they are the ones who have to live together. They are the ones that don’t have the power – but they have the power in their clothes, their art, and their relationships.

“I didn’t want to be a rebel; I wanted to be normal. I was a shy, sensitive child that wanted to be an artist, but I just felt I didn’t have much of a choice in the environment I was growing up in, which was extremely violent. I didn’t want the pictures to show that. I never photographed any fighting or the grief that poverty brings. I didn’t want to photograph the abuse and the violence. It was part of my everyday life. Why would you expose your friends’ darkest secrets?

“People ask, ‘How come there are not photographs of fighting?’ Because I was fighting! I’m a skinhead. I’m not going to photograph while my mates get beaten up. I wasn’t some bloke pretending to be a skinhead to get the photographs. I was a big six-foot, angry fucking skinhead. I was one of the main fighters in our gang. They would have crossed the road from me if they had met me when I was young. When you’re 14, 15 you go to Holland with your mates. We’d be walking down the street, and the crowd parted like the Red Sea. They had never seen anything like that back then. It had that power back then. It was unbelievable.

“There was never a problem until it was all engineered. I was part of that very brief zeitgeist before it was kidnapped by the powers that be and weaponised. There was a small bunch of mercenaries that they put in a squat in London, and the media ran continuous stories on ‘Nazi skinheads’. Then that goes abroad and idiots pick it up as if it’s real.

“Nothing has changed. It’s got a lot more solidified. I used to feel isolated about how much bullshit was out there that we saw through at an early age. We had to rebel. I’m glad the next generation woke up and started to piss off these people in power – it’s beautiful!”

Oh! What Fun We Had by Gavin Watson launches at Donlon Books on April 30, 6.30–8.30pm.