On the fringes
In the 2013 documentary 12 O’Clock Boys, a young Baltimore boy dreams of joining the ranks of a group of urban dirt bike riders who wreak havoc in his home city. After seeing the film, photographer Spencer Murphy wondered whether a parallel community existed in London. When he discovered he was onto something, he embarked on a mission to document the riders and quad bikers that come together at weekends, doing stunts on the city’s outer industrial estates. The result is Urban Dirt Bikers, a new book published by Hoxton Mini Press that sheds light on a deeply elusive subculture unknown to many.
Nothing about the process was easy, at least to begin with. Used to being categorised as thugs or members of criminal gangs, Murphy says he found the riders wary of anyone outside their circle. After several months he was invited to a ride-out, and from there the project started taking shape. Over the weeks he built trust and eventually started taking portraits of riders, broken up with mid-air shots of their stunts – vivid flashes of bike against grey dirt and sky.
For Murphy, the project makes sense. Continuously interested in the outskirts of society, his previous projects including capturing a disused park in Orlando and an off-grid eco community in Runnymede. But there’s a sensitivity in the Urban Dirt Bikers series that underlines its sentiment – that these are real young people, doing what they love. “I hope people will see that there’s something deeper to these masked, tracksuited youths on bikes than being a menace,” he says below. “I hope people realise that these are individuals that have found an outlet they love and being a nuisance is secondary to that, something that most of them wish could be avoided.”
Charles McQuaid: How did the project come about?
Spencer Murphy: After seeing the American documentary 12 O’Clock Boys , I was on the lookout to see if the culture had developed in London. I started to see small packs out on the road where I live in North East London but had no way of finding them in their habitat. Eventually, after months of unanswered emails, I joined Instagram and started following and contacting riders. I was close to giving up when one finally replied and invited me out on one of his group’s ride-outs.
Charles: What was it about this group that appealed to you?
Spencer: Initially it was the dynamism and style that attracted me to the culture, while the repurposing of city streets reminded me of the attraction skateboarding had for me as a young man. Where one person would see a bench, we would see an obstacle to perform tricks on. But what sustained that interest and kept me going back for a year was the people and the community that had formed around the seemingly innocuous event of wheelie-ing a bike.
Charles: What was your first encounter with them like?
Spencer: Beyond seeing them fly past me beforehand, my first experience was going to an abandoned air strip with Izzy and his team the Supa Dupa Moto’s – it was quite a tame introduction as it was just those guys at a quiet, out-of-the-way spot. My next experience was a baptism of fire – an industrial estate where it was more of a free for all, with about 50 masked men congregated at the end of a road, taking turns to pull stunts up and down a long strip. I have to admit to being quite nervous that day, and had I not known Izzy, I’m not sure how I would have gotten on. The appearance is really deceptive though, you’ve got all these kids and young men on big loud bikes, in tracksuits and mostly in masks in a large group at the end of a hidden dead end road – I think anyone would find that frightening – but they do try and subvert their scary reputation, and other than during their occasional appearances in hip hop and grime videos, they don’t play up to it. Almost everyone I met was friendly, respectful and polite. One of the riders told me of the lengths he went to to shed that reputation: “If an old lady were to come down this road, you’d see us all switch off our bikes to make sure she wasn’t frightened.” They don’t want to propagate the reputation that they are criminal gangs or thugs on bikes, so once they knew my intentions were correct then they were quick to accept me and make me feel at ease.
“One of the riders told me of the lengths he went to to shed their reputation of being thugs or criminals: “If an old lady were to come down this road, you’d see us all switch off our bikes to make sure she wasn’t frightened.””
From ‘Urban Dirt Bikers’ by Spencer Murphy, 2017.
Charles: Were there any characters that stood out to you?
Spencer: Many, they were all characters. I think that’s the nature of any sport that attracts a group of misfits. Again I compare it to skating because that’s what I understand but individual extreme sports attract a certain type of non-conformist. So you may be a shy kid but when you get on your board or your bike that’s your self-expression.
Charles: It’s quite dangerous, were there any close calls when you were shooting? Did you hear about any stories of crashes?
Spencer: Unfortunately yes, I saw one or two accidents in my year with them. Then one fatal collision happened on a day when I was there but it was quiet and the light was bad so I’d taken a break. Ten minutes later we returned and there had been a head on collision of two bikes a few feet from where I was taking pictures previously. The riders name was Carlton, his memorial is in the book. I didn’t know the guy but it was a shocking experience and it had a big effect on me, thinking about his family. I wasn’t sure what the right thing to do was after that but seeing the outpouring of the community and the love they showed for him kind of made me reflect on all the extreme sportsmen I had heard about that had died in pursuit of what they loved doing, and it just made me want to try and tell the story that bit better. It is a really sad thing to have happened but I think the entire community had a realisation that they had to ride safer because of it and it got everyone discussing how they did that.
Charles: What was it like shooting them? What challenges did you have to overcome?
Spencer: It was great, but yes, definitely one of the most challenging things I’ve had to shoot. Firstly it was gaining the riders trust – they didn’t know me, and some thought I might be an undercover policeman, while others were suspicious of what I was going to do with the pictures. I shoot on medium format film as well, so the camera looks like a video camera, which confused people. The mistrust never went away for some people and I just had to accept that, but there were always enough guys out that would be receptive to what I was doing. Some would want to stay anonymous by keeping their masks on, others really didn’t mind.
The hardest thing I found about it though was that they are not the most photogenic locations. One of the busiest spots was just 10-15 minutes from my house, but it was this really ugly industrial estate, all modern grey buildings with high fences, nothing graphic and lots of converging lines. So although I was guaranteed to find people there with very little effort, after two or three visits I really felt I’d exhausted that location. One of my favourite spots to shoot was a much older industrial estate in South London, but for me that was a three hour round trip and I had no contacts there, so I’d find myself giving up entire weekends to drive down there and find nobody was out or that the police had chased them off, or the light wasn’t right. That was the spot I visited the most and I never really exhausted it because I just didn’t have much luck.
The other major challenge was capturing the action. I experimented with all sorts of cameras after realising how hard it was to shoot them using a medium format, manual focus, film camera. They ride past so fast and so close, that it’s nearly impossible to get a focussed frozen image and you burn through so much film for so little reward. I ended up going full circle though, after trying 35mm film on autofocus and even a DSLR, I realised it just didn’t really have the feel I was after. Had it been a job then I think, of course, I would have shot it digitally on autofocus or set a point of focus and asked the riders where to be but this by nature had to be more spontaneous and I didn’t want it to be a project about the tricks, so in the end I was happy that I had enough of that element to tell the story.
From ‘Urban Dirt Bikers’ by Spencer Murphy, 2017.
Charles: How did you approach setting the tempo/pace of the book?
Spencer: I worked very closely with Hoxton Mini Press on the edit and then the designer Friederike Huber on the pacing. It’s been a great experience working with them as although I had my favourites that had to be included and a clear idea how I’d like it to run, by that stage I’d gone a bit snow blind, so to have the guidance of some fresh eyes was ideal. After we’d chosen the images and briefed Fred, we basically gave her free reign and there were very few tweaks and changes after that. We all kind of got each other, so it just worked… well I hope it did.
Charles: When people close the book, what do you hope they will be thinking?
Spencer: That’s really tough. You get to this stage in a project and honestly, you don’t know what’s good and what’s bad anymore. I have a lot of friends who are artists and musicians and they will tell you the same, you go through these waves of self-doubt and then confidence all the way through until nothing is certain. I suppose beyond hoping that people like the pictures, I hope there is a sensitivity in the pictures and they will see that there’s something deeper to these masked, tracksuited youths on bikes than being a menace. I hope people realise that these are individuals that have found an outlet they love and being a nuisance is secondary to that, something that most of them wish could be avoided. I hope the riders themselves think I’ve done a good job of giving them a voice.
‘Urban Dirt Bikers’ by Spencer Murphy is out now via Hoxton Mini Press.