On the 20th September we were very fortunate to have Syd Shelton come and join us for the evening. Syd is best known for his work with Rock Against Racism during the 1970s. This was a time of growing racism, and racial tensions…it was also a time when music demonstrated its power to drive awareness and change.
Over the course of two hours, Syd talked us through his early years travelling from Yorkshire to London to South East Asia and onto Sydney in Australia where he became a shunter on the railways in 1975. Perhaps not quite the start you might expect, but it was there he became an activist, helping Aborigines acquire land rights. This spurred him into creating a series of photographs which were published in six double page spreads in the Nation Review. This, he said, was the start of his career, and helped him develop his ‘ activist eye’ before returning to England in 1976.
Racism was being normalised in the UK by TV programmes such as the Black and White Minstrels, and Eric Clapton declaring support for Enoch Powell. A Sunday Times journalist, Red Saunders, wrote to the highly influential music press aiming to start a rank and file movement – within weeks there were 800 letters of support and Rock Against Racism was born. Syd was soon at the heart of the movement.
Using his Nikormat camera and usually a 28mm lens, Syd made photography integral to RAR over the next five years…documenting the protests, the music festivals and carnivals. He wanted to take photographs, but not the same as other photographers, believing that the photographer is not an impartial observer but someone who creates a graphic argument. Syd emphasised the importance of the conversation between photographer and subject and explained how a simple aluminium camera case could be used as a platform to get the right angle for a shot. His passion took him to Northern Ireland (his work can be seen in The Falls, published by A Fistful Of Books), onto the picket line at Grunwicks (ironically a film processing plant) and to the estates of Lewisham.
Syd told the story of RAR over five years, illustrating that history with some spectacular and iconic black and white images, whilst providing plenty of anecdotes for us to enjoy. For those that couldn’t make it to the meeting, Syd’s Rock Against Racism book is being republished as a second edition in October. You can also see more of his work during October at the Atlas Gallery in Marylebone, and The Lucy Bell Gallery in St Leonards.