Skins, revisited

“One image can change the history of anything” – Gavin Watson on being the photographer of a generation
By Ella Joyce | Art | 5 May 2023

‘Neville’ by Gavin Watson

First published in 1994, Gavin Watson’s inimitable publication Skins is one of the most renowned documentations of British sub-culture to date. Beginning his career aged fourteen after impulsively purchasing a camera at Woolworth’s, Watson’s photographs have inspired films, exhibited globally and most importantly, been shared between the people who stood before his lens three decades ago as a reminder of their glory days.

The ease which orbits Watson’s photographs can only come from an unbreakable trust shared with his subjects, born as a result of being in the thick of a skinhead community as it emerged, and then thrived. Striking black and white shots of his friends offer an invaluable glimpse into a pocket of history, catalysed by the arrival of Madness, two-tone and ska, in Gavin’s own words – “It was all about the music.” In spite of skinhead culture’s reputation within the media for its supposed relation to the National Front and fascism, Watson’s photography shows a world in contrast. An intimate portrait of inclusivity, diversity and camaraderie banishes any prejudice held as the question of race is dismissed, political allegiance is thrown to the wayside and unity prevails.

We sat down with the photographer ahead of the re-printing of Skins to discuss the serendipitous decisions which bought him to where he is today, the misconceptions of skinhead culture and how he knew he was living through something worth capturing.

‘Royal Wedding Day’ by Gavin Watson

Ella Joyce: How are you doing, Gavin? Congratulations on the re-issuing of Skins
Gavin Watson: I’m good, thank you. Can I just say, I am so grateful to be talking to anybody about anything I’ve done, as any artist would be. To be able to rise up through all that chaos and actually get to a place where people are interested in what I’ve done… The older I’ve got, the more I’ve become utterly grateful for it because the whole thing was connected by such delicate webs. If one of those little decisions were different or if I didn’t do something back when I was fifteen, it wouldn’t have led me to this – and that’s scary to think about. I’m no longer responsible for what we’re talking about, we’re talking about stuff from the age of sixteen to eighteen and when Skins was published I was 28 – it just became its own monster and now it’s a 30-year-old man. It’s matured and it’s gone through the process of growing up, from being printed on photocopy paper for a couple of skinheads that still existed around the world – there was only a hand full of us by the mid-90s. I wasn’t a skinhead by then, I’d been raving, it was just something I did as a kid. Then my pictures were discovered and the book was done, which I thought was going to have one pressing, no one would ever see it except me and my mates, then “Boom!” It just grew and grew and grew. It just wouldn’t go away!

EJ: Well, we’re still talking about it because it’s so bloody good! [both laugh]
GW: I’ve only just started to own that, it’s taken me until nearly turning 60 to actually own that I did that. I spent most of my life making excuses and saying, “Oh anyone could have done it.” It’s only recently I’ve been able to own it, I’ve done the most incredible things to avoid what I’ve done.

EJ: You started when you were so young, can you tell me about when you first picked up a camera?
GW: I had no interest, it wasn’t my focus. I was into comics, fantasy worlds and horror stuff, that was my world. Being a weird dreamy kid, I wanted a pair of binoculars so I could look at the moon. So I went to Woolworths with my Christmas money to get these binoculars that were on sale and there was this fucking camera next to them. That was it, I said, “I’m going to get that instead.” [laughs] Obviously that was something very, very deep going on within me but going back to the mundane reality of that day it was just me going, “Oh I’ll get the camera instead.”

‘Lee, Symond’ by Gavin Watson

“You didn’t realise you were suffering until you took an E, stood in a field and realised you didn’t have to live your life like that – always on the defensive.”

EJ: It’s interesting to think about the significance of all those little decisions.
GW: When I’ve spoken about it and looking back on it psychologically, it could’ve been because my brother took a lot of photographs and he was popular and I wasn’t, but that’s all speculative. At the time it was very much my impulsive personality, I don’t know why. I got this camera, I took it home, I took some photographs, I got them back and as soon as I opened the packet and got the photographs out, I went, “I’m going to be a photographer.” I said it to no one in the kitchen. At the bottom of the pile, working-class world I was growing up in, photography was a luxury but everyone still had a Kodak Instamatic, which was a poor man’s camera. Everybody’s pictures had heads cut off, they were shit! [laughs] They were made really poorly, but this camera that was on sale happened to have a glass lens… Again that was a destiny thing which is quite strange to meditate on. I attracted that camera, the pictures I first got back were sharp, clear, and nothing like the shit I was exposed to. I just threw myself into it and started taking photographs of everything.

A year later Madness came into my life, puberty properly came into my life and my world changed. My zeitgeist was two-tone and Madness so it combined with everyone being excited and me thinking I had been given the gift of being in one of the most incredible music times – because it was mine. Older people would have gone, “Fuck off mate, we were listening to Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin!” But the world was new to me because I was fourteen and there was Madness on television, they were us – you didn’t see yourself on television. If you did it was always some sort of horrible nastiness set on a council estate in Leeds somewhere and when Madness came on it was us, man. The whole thing was attached to two-tone and in the generation before us there were still a lot of West Indians who weren’t born in England, but our generation were the younger brothers of those who were born in England. That music came out of Coventry, out of those war-torn places where the kids had started to mix together – it’s beautiful. The tension was gone, then raving came along and really washed all racial tension down the toilet. It wasn’t just racial tension, it was tension of all kinds, football hooligan tension, violent tension. Societal tension you didn’t realise you were suffering until you took an E, stood in a field and realised you didn’t have to live your life like that –always on the defensive.

EJ: Skins has become a cultural artefact in its own right, at the time did you ever feel as if you were in the midst of capturing history?
GW: Yes, I did but I was a fourteen-year-old kid so I had this puppy-like energy – I’m running around with this wide-eyed look going, “Something amazing is happening here.” My mum and dad were sitting watching Coronation Street and I’d be going, “Can’t you see it?” There was nothing about it in the newspapers and if there was it was negative, but as years went on I thought I was obviously wrong, I thought I was deluded. [laughs] Life started chipping away and mates started dying, the drugs came in, the grief came in, the relationship breakdowns came in, poverty came in and the reality of life came in, all that positivity was getting chipped away. I ended up with a load of photos in a box that no one was interested in, I thought I was deluded but I was right – I was fucking right. The feeling I had which made me want to record the people I loved and what was around me was there for a reason. They’re very Pollyanna-ish, I’m a romanticist, I didn’t come in from Observer to photograph the abuse and dysfunction every one of us was growing up in, I wanted everything to look Californian. [laughs] A lot of people say they look gritty but they’re not, they’re romantic. I had no agenda, it was my positive nature.

‘Symond, Gretch, George’ by Gavin Watson

“there are no strangers in my photographs”

EJ: There’s an ease to those captured that only comes from being a photographer rooted in a scene, what was your relationship like with the people you photographed?
GW: It’s hard to explain to people what a tiny little mundane bubble I was living in and one image can change the history of anything, that’s the power of imagery. They wouldn’t have been interesting photographs if they were poorly taken and of ugly people, but my brother literally looks like a movie star. I meet modern stylists and they ask me how I set it up, I didn’t get on the phone with a modelling agency and ask for a boy that looked like young Leonardo DiCaprio, or hire a stylist who knew about skinhead fashion. They can’t get their heads around the fact these people were my mates I went to school with. People always ask, “How did you photograph skinheads?” I wasn’t brave I was a fucking coward, there are no strangers in my photographs. There are a couple I took of strangers at gigs because I was safe and comfortable in my tiny bubble with my little mates in a town no one has heard of, on a council estate no one will ever go to. I was a skinhead and I was a pain in the arse, I was angry and I was one of the worst troublemakers out of that whole gang. It’s interesting because that’s the power of photography, it made it look like our world was massive because people are looking at it from a bigger perspective, but it was a tiny mundane little world and I was at the bottom of the pile.

EJ: Skins disassembles the stereotypes which surround skinhead culture, was that important to you?
GW: It’s honest, there is no narrative attached. We were a whipping post, they’re still doing it today even though skinheads aren’t relevant. This narrative came along, they injected the right-wing skinheads, they got them to squat, they got them to smash up a few high-profile gigs, it’s called a wrap-up smear. The Sun and every other newspaper just fixated on these bizarre stories. My mates would look at each other going, “Where are these nazis?” [laughs] You’ve got a culture stemming from Black and whites uniting, sharing and mixing their music and then the world thinks it’s somehow connected to Adolf Hitler. I had a multicultural life, I had a multicultural family. It’s a real nuance of council estates, they threw us all in there and we had to bash it out together, while people can sit up high and pontificate on who is right and wrong.

“Photography has bought me wealth you just can’t pay for, experiences and connections which would never have happened if I’d been a plumber.”

‘Lee, Felix’ by Gavin Watson

EJ: Your imagery shows reality, diversity and camaraderie.
GW: That’s why I still love it. Going back to Barry, he said so many brilliant things. They sent The Times to interview him and they asked, “What about racism?” He goes, “Do you think I would’ve been a fucking skinhead hanging about with them if they were racist?” These other generations were different, the National Front-era, the heavy football guys from the 70s, that wasn’t us, we were soft Madness kids who had a couple of scraps, we were nothing like those animals. Cass Pennant’s writing explains a lot about relations at that level, and This is England is good. Our history is so nuanced, skinheads could have only been born from our history and that goes back four hundred years with our connection to the West Indies, to Ireland, to Scotland, to Africa, everyone being here for the past four hundred years. The Irish music helped create ska, it’s fucking amazing.

EJ: Speaking of This is England, I read Shane Meadows used your work as a big reference point.
GW: It was totally styled, they just put my book down in front of the set designer and went, “We’re doing that.” I gave him a nod in my second book. I was getting these phone calls, “Gavin, have you seen This is England?” I’d heard all that before and everyone was like, “Gavin he’s just made your book into a film.” I saw it and I was like, “Okay…” It’s a beautiful thing for me, it’s incredible. It came out around the same time I brought Skins and Punks out and I had a renaissance. It was an incredible journey, I feel very lucky.

‘Neville, The Elgiva, Chesham’ by Gavin Watson, 1984

EJ: I wanted to ask you about one image in particular called Skinny Jim because it’s become one of your most iconic photographs, what was the story behind it?
GW: We went to London when we were fifteen on a rainy winter’s day, Skinny Jim was a pain in the arse. He was arrogant in the way only a fifteen-year-old can be, he had ‘I can’t die’ arrogance. I didn’t really know him that well and he was always getting you in trouble because he thought he was so hard, until my mate Stuart had a go at him in Tesco’s and I never saw him again. The rumours were Skinny Jim’s dead, Skinny Jim went off to America and started a charity, all sorts. Last year he turned up in Aylesbury at a ska gig and my mate sent me a picture of Skinny Jim, back from the dead. He looks good as well, I’m looking forward to linking up with him. He’s one of those mates you know for a couple of weeks when you’re fifteen then you never see them again. Anyway, this is even more interesting. I got this strange email from John Reyntiens and he’s the guy who’s just redone Big Ben’s stained glass, he’s one of the best in England and he goes, “Can you do some portraits of me?” As it turns out, he lives in Beaconsfield up the road from High Wycombe and he was in a band with Skinny Jim’s elder brother. So that picture had always connected with him, and it makes his life a little bit rebellious as well. It brings him back to his punk thing, in this artisan world. I spent a lovely day with him, we took some great pictures and now we’re mates. He’s going to take me up Big Ben and we’re going to do some up there. Isn’t that mental? I’m just a working-class kid, this photography has bought me wealth you can’t pay for, experiences and connections.

EJ: That’s amazing. I want to touch on music again briefly because it’s such an integral part of your work…
GW: Yes let’s talk about it. It’s all music, it’s 99 percent music – none of this would have happened without music. It’s sad that the skinhead thing has been the only thing that has been politicised, it’s sad but it also makes it edgy and interesting.

“If you’ve created something like this by accident then there has to be something more than you involved in it.”

‘Skinny Jim’ by Gavin Watson

EJ: What was the atmosphere like when ska, two-tone and rave culture were brewing?
GW: Being thirteen or fourteen, you are in your own bubble. Parents are struggling, the 70s were fucking awful, three days a week they were piling bodies up outside the morgues, and everyone was nervous. There was the worst recession, there was a lot of racial tension, and then all of a sudden they thought they’d reignite a bit of nationalism by going over to the Falklands. Then the Royal Wedding happened too. We grew up with the last string of people going, “England’s brilliant.” Then Madness came out and if you watch the three documentaries they made back-to-back, that will answer your question, because I realised why they spoke to our zeitgeist. Punk was before my time, before my teenage awakening. I loved classical and I loved film scores, I was a dreamy child, and I was into very different music until Madness came on the scene. Madness and two-tone had that melodic side – punk just had this whole other energy to it. It was us against the world, we came out of punk and anyone over the age of twenty-five was a cunt. Generation X – pure and simple, I’m that generation’s photographer. When rave came along I reluctantly took my camera there. Rave saved my arse, otherwise I would have just been in a skinhead bubble for the rest of my life. I’m going to be doing an anthology book next year with my publisher, which is going to put some of that stuff out and I think people will be surprised because they’ll see pictures they didn’t know were mine.

‘Goddard and mates in the cafe’ by Gavin Watson

EJ: Do you think there will ever be a resurgence of such definitive subcultures again?
GW: No I don’t, because there is no Top of the Pops – eight to 80-year-olds saw Boy George. When you went to school the next day, your mum was talking about him and your classmates were talking about him too. It was the same with Madness. Now you’ve got to go on YouTube and search for stuff. There is no uniform and they’re just shoving shit down our throats. It’s all about the music but we’ve got no congruence. It’s all got to die, they’ve taken over, and they market us stuff we don’t like and don’t want. 

Skins has been re-published by ACC Art Books, Gavin’s prints will also be available as part of Photo London at the ACC Art Books stand along with Skins, more info here



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