English photographer Derek Ridgers’ new book, Skinheads 1979-1984, is a visual encyclopedia of the skinhead second wave, tackling head-on a movement marred by fear, violence, and ill repute. The book includes over 130 photographs that shed light on the skinhead revival that emerged from the 1970s punk movement, but they probably won’t change any preconceptions. The images may even warrant trigger warnings for some.
Ridgers does not shy away from taboo. He is unrelenting in his quest to document a precarious social group that is both abhorred and adored, even if that means capturing its most deplorable elements. Thirty years later, the series is still striking. The photos convey a stark intimacy that eclipses the glut of street portraiture popping up on the Internet nowadays. Given the enduring infatuation with youth cults of all stripes, I corresponded with Ridgers over email to find out what it was really like photographing skins during the onset of the turbulent Thatcher years.
How did your photographic study of skinheads begin?
I’d taken a series of photographs of punks in 1977 and these had got well published and, later on, exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. It was the first set of photographs I’d ever taken and I wanted to consolidate that early success. So I’d started to photograph a small group of kids who overdressed in an antithetical way to the punks (they later became known as the New Romantics or The Blitz Kids). I turned up at a club one night looking for them but they’d gone elsewhere. The skinheads were pretty friendly when they saw me with my camera and they suggested I take a few photos of them, which I did.
I must have been stupid. At first I assumed they were just kids dressing up as skinheads. I thought they’d probably all come from art schools or fashion colleges and they were benign, skinhead revivalists. I’d been a sort of low-rent, cheapo version of a skinhead once myself in the ‘60s, but I hadn’t seen any in London for ages. I thought the skinhead thing had long died out. I proved to be seriously misinformed.
Where did you photograph the skinheads that appear in your book? What cities, neighborhoods, and venues?
Mostly central London and a few suburbs, as well as some nearby coastal towns—Brighton, Hastings, and Southend. I went to plenty of pubs and skinhead gigs, both big and small, but as these could easily get out of hand, it was a lot less easy to take photographs there.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about skinheads?
That they are all right-wing thugs. I bet that’s what you expected me to say, right? The fact is though, during my time shooting and interviewing them, mostly they did all have right-of-center political views, a narrow social outlook, and many of them enjoyed fighting, for which they did not need much of a pretext. But skinheads didn’t start off that way in the sixties and they’re not like that (in the UK) now. I just think I was a little unlucky that the 5 years my book covers coincided with a very one–dimensional era for them.
Based on the skinheads you encountered, why do you think young people are drawn to that particular lifestyle and look?
It’s not all young people by a long way. It always tends to be people who are having some sort of a problem. Predominantly problems at home or at school and, when they’re older, problems with staying out of trouble either on the street or at work. I’m no sociologist, so wouldn’t like to come across as an amateur one, but I noticed all the skinheads I spoke to seemed to have started off by having problems at school, which led to expulsion and then problems everywhere else. Exclusion was something I heard about all the time. No one wanted them, not school, often not their parents who couldn’t handle them, not the world of work, not the prison system, not the services, no one. Until they found other skinheads and finally became a part of something.
Did you notice a change in the skinhead community as your project progressed? Did the scene become more fractured?
Not really, no. I met Chris Dean, of the band The Redskins, in 1983 and that was the first time I had ever heard left wing ideology coming from a skinhead. I read about other left wing skinheads in the years after that, but Chris Dean was the only one I ever (knowingly) met at that time. For a while, we both worked for the music magazine NME.
How did the growth of the National Front and fringe neo-Nazi groups in the UK impact the skinhead community? Was this something you noticed on the ground?
As far as I could see, the way certain far right groups exploited the skinhead movement for their own ends ruined everything. And I certainly did notice it on the ground, how could one not? In London it was never the National Front though, they seemed to have no credibility at all with anybody, it was always the British Movement. And they didn’t last long either.
And there were often older men on the fringes that one saw just hanging around for some reason. One little tin-pot fuhrer and his gang wanted to beat me up once behind the Blade Bone pub in Hoxton. I was rescued in the nick of time by Nicky Crane, himself no stranger to the odd punch up. It was touch and go for a bit, even then. They contented themselves with just ripping the film out of my camera and grinding it into the dirt.
I saw the tin-pot fuhrer again a few months later at Piccadilly Underground station. He didn’t have his uniform on or his little gang with him and he didn’t seem quite so keen to have a go.
Although the skinheads you photograph appear outwardly aggressive, what were the actual interactions with your subjects like?
95% of them were fine. They were almost all friendly and polite and, save the incident above and one or two other thankfully brief occasions, I was never threatened or attacked. Apart from at the seaside or at the odd gig, I never saw them cause any trouble either. Most of them are no more dangerous than any other random collection of young men, and they’d be a lot less so than some.
Did the skinheads you meet convey an understanding of the subculture’s origins, particularly its connection to Jamaican rude boy culture?
In the era covered by my book, I do think that most of them understood the movement’s beginnings. But there was an element of cognitive dissonance about it. Otherwise how could they possibly have had the social the views they had?
What do you find appealing about documenting club and street culture?
Appealing is not really the right word. During that period I had a strange compulsion to photograph skinheads and a lot of other youth groups. In the years since I’ve come to realize that I was probably trying to vicariously relive a more interesting youth than I’d actually had myself.
Photographs by Derek Ridgers. “Skinheads, 1979-1984” is available now on Omnibus Press.