"I would never have been able to talk in front of people if I hadn't been a skinhead," says Gavin Watson, smoking a roll-up in a cloudy beer garden just outside London. Now wearing a dark trench coat and flat cap instead of boots and braces, he is friendly, quite intense, and extremely into playing Dark Souls on Playstation.
You'll know Watson for his photo book Skins & Punks—which contains exactly what it sounds like it'll contain: lots of photos of skins and punks in the 1970s and 80s. Watson has also worked in music and fashion and published two other photography books. He owns neither of them, though, saying he's very "no-paternal" about his work. He just gives it all away.
He's launching his fourth book soon—We Were Here 79–89, a collection of hand-picked candid photographs from his youth growing up as a skinhead—which is why we're here in this pub garden, talking about work, life, and the past.
VICE: Why do you end up giving all your books away?
Gavin Watson: It's better to be in someone else's house than mine, isn't it? I know what the photographs look like and an artwork is never complete if there's no one else seeing it—that's why I give it away. I have to talk about the photos, but it's the observer's job to make up their mind on what the image means to them. I've done my job—I've taken the photographs, people like them, and they're out there. There are so many labels immediately attached to my imagery, which is why I very rarely describe what's going on, even though I get slagged off for not doing it.
"Why is there no explanation?" people ask. Mate, you know where skinheads came from. Look at that picture and make a fucking story up in your head. Where's that little kid gone? Where's he going next? Where he's been? That's the joy of photography to me. You might need to know the basics—this was taken in High Wycombe in 1982—but if you want, "This is Neville, son of an Irish priest, the skinheads came from blah, blah…" then no. That's not what I do. That's other people's job.
Plus, at this point, this was just you taking photos of your mates, right?
Yeah, until I was 28, those were just pictures of my mates—I thought I had about 60 images that were worth anything. My life was living in London, trying to make something of myself, whether it be acting or photographing, just trying to find my way. The skinhead thing was just a past thing that was in a box somewhere—until in 1994, when it exploded again. Before, there was just this "youth culture" box in Camera Press—a warehouse that looked like something straight out of Indiana Jones. I'd go out, photograph my mates, do a couple of prints, and put them in that box. I'd get £50 [about $65] here, £50 there for the pictures—I didn't think much of it. Back then, they ended up getting printed somewhere in Zimbabwe or ended up in right-wing publications about skinheads gone mental. I fucking hated that. It wasn't about that. I ended up having almost 100 photos in that box. But back then, skinheads were still everywhere, and they were considered valueless, really, unless you were doing an editorial about them.
Talking about right-wing publications—that was always an issue for the skinhead movement, wasn't it?
The skinhead movement was such a universal thing, and the right-wing skinheads are just as much part of the subculture as the black rudeboys from Jamaica. They're all part of it now—part of the fabric of the culture. You can never go away from the roots, though: It comes from the mix of black-and-white. That must drive the right-wing skinheads nuts.
The Yanks were the ones who started defining everything and pigeonholing it. That wasn't a skinhead thing—not where the roots come from anyway. I think the Mexican working-class get it and the Indonesian working-class get it—they understand that skinhead is away from any labels; you stand on your own, and whoever wants to judge you, judges you. That was the joy about being a skinhead, the misconstruction. People trying to take something that was basically uniting blacks and whites together—especially in the 80s with the Specials and Madness, the whole two-tone movement—and destroy that by shipping in some weird Nazis that came out of fucking nowhere.
It's politics. These kids are singing about freeing Nelson Mandela, then all of a sudden there's 30 vicious, horrible skinhead Nazis who live in King's Cross and smash up every left-wing gig—that's a bit odd, isn't it? All of a sudden, everyone's saying skinheads are Nazis. They were manipulated. If you're an angry, murderous fucker, you'll use any excuse for it.
The media making shit up just made it stronger for me—until I was 23 and went raving, then I thought: I don't have to prove myself to anybody.
How did you go from being a skin to raving?
Adventure drew me to rave culture, and it was an age thing—23 wasn't 23 like it is now, where these fuckers still think they're teenagers, just going off to college. Also, rave was a lot less defined than skins, so it wasn't as easily demonized. It was sports clothes and indistinguishable long hair, letting the differences go. It was one of the most powerful ideas ever. Also, because there are no hooks—there's no Twiggy, no Rolling Stones—everything was faceless, so it came, went and changed everything, but it's not looked upon with the same fondness as the 60s because it didn't breed that level of labels and attachments that the mainstream media might've got a hold of. Rave was like a dam bursting, washing away a lot of attitudes. It was zeitgeist—raving and the Berlin Wall. That was all fine until 9/11. I remember raving and thinking, If the world carries on like this, man, we're going to have a good time. Ten years later, we can't have none of that.
What was the importance of subculture for you?
It was there for me through those years of becoming a man, because there was no guidance. There were no role models—they had gone. Your dad was so grim and in such a fucking dead end that you couldn't look up to him and say, "I want to be like you." There were no initiation processes.
When you're young, all the creatives are in the art group or are a bit fucked up at home—half of those are going to become the skins, the punks, the hippies. Not the stiffs who can do the exams and do it properly that felt like they were doing the right thing—the kids in subcultures are the ones that deep down inside thought, There's something wrong with this: Fuck off, you don't get it. Anger has so much energy that it can build empires—it's passion. If I didn't channel at least some of it into art, I'd be fucking dead.
At the time, young men were ruthless and directionless, and when you're like that, you grasp onto things like pride. Pride is natural, but it can be manipulated and guided, especially if you're just 16 and full of testosterone and anger. If you've had a pretty hard time of it in society, either living with your parents or in a children's home, you'll attract things and then end up fighting the same person that you are. Full of anger but with a different fucking hat on. I mean, we've got 100 years of psychology to make us this way, man—this stuff isn't magic. You'd think we were still stuck in the 1950s with the way the mainstream media reports on these things.
People want the demons, so they can continue in control. I was demonized—the [skinhead] world the mainstream media wrote about, my photographs prove them wrong, don't they? I wasn't paid to do them, and that's why they're real. Now, if they weren't, and the Observer came in, we'd be stood all against the wall looking angry. But no—we're happy, we're laughing. We were kids.
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Watson is currently raising money to publish We Were Here 79-89. Donate to the Kickstarter.