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An Account of Ewen Spencer’s Practice as a Photographer of Subcultures and Contempotary Theoretical Debates [Garage and Grime]
In the short period between the 1990s and 2000s, Britain’s society has been shaken by many political and cultural changes that came with the new millennium. The uncertainty of this new era brought about a great response from the different social fragments and communities, resulting in the emergence of a new and exciting grime culture. It gave the working-class communities a sense of togetherness and stability, people shared nothing but the present moment, the feel and the fun of it. All this was documented by one of the most recognized British photographers, Ewen Spencer, who, according to DAZED Magazine, built his success on the ability to mix with the subcultures, become part of them, and create relationships that would help him shape the idea of these cultural fragments (Gordon, 2017). Yet, his documentation of Britain’s hidden life can be observed as a subjective expression, formed by his own cultural and political views. Accordingly, it has to be remarked that ‘the camera can be the author of as many lies as truths’ (Gross, Katz & Ruby 2003: 29), and it is left to the observer to form an idea of the past and how it influences the present and the future.
Ewen Spencer, 2000, Open Mic
Subcultures in their essence are also highly political because of their constant and indestructible relation to institutions and society. Their emergence in itself is caused by political situations, which is the case with Britain, for instance, where subcultures emerge as a response to the structural changes in the British post-war society. The break-up of traditional working-class communities eventually leads to redevelopment (Bennett & Kahn-Harris 2004: 5), resulting in the formation of the British youth subcultures. Although the initial need for forming a community to share interests and music with is believed to be the primary cause for the establishment of these cultural fragments, the urge for being part of a group is caused purely by the political and sociological uncertainty that comes from outside a certain community. In this case, it was a reaction ‘in the name of democracy, the environment, fair trade, debt cancellation, and so forth’ (Muggleton & Weinzierl 2003: 69), an escapism from the instability outside of these groups.
Similarly, subcultures’ main characteristics revolve solely around the interests of the time, which are dictated by geography, demography, and politics. They are created and exist to compensate for something missing (Bennett & Kahn-Harris 2004: 6) and usually, are formed by the working-class society. Hence, in spite of the main belief that subcultures are merely shaped by music and fashion, they are much more meaningful. If studied closer, both music and fashion are reflecting the current events and are, therefore, also subjective. Making a reference to the teddy boys’ costumes and the mod clothes, which are both created for the entertainment and self-expression of the working-class people (Bennett & Kahn-Harris, 2004: 6), grime is also quite accurately reflecting the new millennium’s changes. Fashion at the time is more about the comfort, the anonymity, the boiler suit and the trainers. In the same way, music refers to all the heated topics of the days, using its lyrics to express feelings and opinions. Artists at the time believe that ‘their words have the power to change not only their lives, but the lives of members of their community as well’ (Alim, 2006: 107).
Ewen Spencer, 2000, Open Mic
Likewise, the death of subcultures, as they are, is caused by nothing else but the society itself, and its political opinions. After the thriving, comforting years of garage music, which only lived in times of optimism, the movement slowly evolved into grime with the start of the new millennium and was radically destroyed by the mass culture and consumerism. ‘The endless party of the 90s had ended in a biblical hangover.’ says Spencer in his documentary ‘Street, Sound and Style’ (2015). In this new era of uncertainty people start consuming and appropriating, they search for stability in money, drugs, violence.
This suggests that subcultures are destined to destruction because of their exposure to political movements, because ‘politics is deeply and inextricably inscribed into the field of culture’ (Muggleton & Weinzierl, 2003: 83). Problems with the government and the police are just a result of the new opinions that are constantly forming inside and outside the different cultural fragments. Changing of the current social situation always means changing of people’s mindsets, which eventually leads to alterations of their interests, respectively, their participation in a certain subculture, which may not be relevant anymore. People have suggested that being a part of a subculture is a lifelong commitment, however, the identification with and the participation in a subculture strongly differ, especially when the subculture no longer exists as such but rather as mass culture, therefore, being part of it becomes irrelevant. Such is the case with garage, which preceded grime and which stopped existing as a hidden cultural fragment and, influenced by the working class’s urge to make money, quickly became mass culture.
Observing Spencer’s documentary on garage and grime ‘Brandy & Coke’, it can be seen that the problems that occur during the time of the subcultures are actually destroying it from its own core. Although grime culture is believed to still exist and evolve, the same grime that appeared in response to people’s disillusionment was shaken, and later eradicated, by government problems, consumerism, and clashes with the police – the same problems that were once believed to intensify the excitement of being part of a subculture, that were thought to keep the community together against the uncertainty of the outer world, and the same causes that lead to the creation of grime itself. ‘There was little left of the harmonious spirit of the early rave. As the organized drug trip began to dominate, violence and robberies became commonplace.’ (Spencer, 2015). Gun crime, drugs, stabbing, and fights took the enjoyment out of it (Spencer, 2014).
Ewen Spencer, 1994, UKG
Yet, the exposure of these unofficial and authentic formations to the eyes of mass culture is what put a definite end to garage, grime, and most subcultures for that matter. Consequently, it can be said that the documentation of hidden cultural fragments unavoidably changes their characteristics by revealing them to a much broader public, turning them into mass culture, hence, eventually, destroying them. Equally, it can be stated that much as Spencer admires and appreciates subcultures and their ingenuity, he practically takes part in their destruction. Ironically, his respect for these creative people, whose talent he wants to document, alongside their background and experience, brings them right under the spotlight. On a couple of occasions, as well as in his documentary Open Mic, he admits helping young artists by photographing them and giving them the right connections. So, as he suggests himself, these energetic creative people from working-class families are ‘not going to turn down these tens of thousands of pounds.’ (Martin, 2014). Once more, the theory of Baudrillard is confirmed and people’s urge to document the past puts an end to the existence of its objects (1981: 7), in this case, the knowledge and admiration of this particular subculture is responsible for its demise as such.
Then another vital question starts to emerge, and it is whether this documentation can be taken as objective, or it is just a self-expression of the artist. As the book ‘Image Ethics in the Digital Age’ suggests, photojournalism is meant to express political, social, or cultural views (Gross, Katz & Ruby, 2003: 28) and Spencer is by no means an exception. What he provides is another subjective view of how subcultures used to be, and this could not have been in any other way, because people and their perceptions and opinions are subjective. That could be seen more than clearly in his interviews where he is being asked about the problems occurring in grime culture around the time he was photographing it. Spencer does give certain details about crime and aggression but is, on the whole, avoiding the problems of the depicted subcultures, or just closing his eyes for them: ‘I don’t believe in the fearful stories that you hear.’ (Martin, 2014). When asked about his work with Crazy Titch, who is at present doing a life sentence for murder, he would, again, avoid confronting the problem: ‘I was only around him on a couple of occasions […]’ (Martin, 2014).
His interest in the rather nostalgic and creative side of subcultures prevents him from turning the public attention to problematic subjects such as violence and death, and it appears he has no interest in doing so. Spencer seems to refuse to take the responsibility ‘to meet this test of politics through the work of interpretative engagement’ (Roberts, 2014: 51). Despite this, his photographs are considered a representation of a certain historical event or a narrative and we count on them as evidence, and as violence is an inseparable part of grime, it is only a matter of objectivity that it is discussed, so that it could be understood, and, possibly, changed. As John Roberts claims in his book ‘Photography and its Violations’: ‘To look at violence, in a sense, is to bring it under imaginative reconstruction.’ (2014: 53). Of course, there appears the problem of victimization of both the public and the subculture addressed – using violent images or images of death is seen as forcing the viewer to look at images that might be unpleasant or disturbing, so it is merely the photographer’s task to choose how to present his images without victimizing the public, but yet, referring to the importance of these factors.
Ewen Spencer, 2000, Open Mic
Ultimately, Spencer’s countless interviews and documentaries show that he is after all aware of both the problems that are occurring within the subcultures he photographs and their specifications, although he chooses to neither speak of them nor depict them. In fact, photography is able to ‘’bring something into view’ as an affect, as a source of empathic or nonempathic disruption, interruption, or resistance.’ (Roberts, 2014: 151) and the violence and pain of the new millennium, as Spencer is surely aware, can sell his art considerably better. Back in the 90s and the 00s, as well as at present, the media and the public eye are astonishingly attracted to ‘the prospect of mayhem, bombings, gun battles, mortar attacks, and civil strife’ (Hickey, 1996). Still, he wishes not to take the responsibility of delivering this information and bringing the subject into view. It is possible that he is aware of the fact that in times of uncertainty, such as the new era, he is more likely to get censored, or that he realizes the truth, reflected by Adorno and Horkheimer, that even ‘when artists go against the system, they only do it to make it more powerful.’ (1944: 410). His interviews, however, show that he is merely not interested in reflecting this reality and wishes to remember the undisrupted and romantically nostalgic side of the subcultures he depicts, and so to shape this image of them in the history of subcultures and mass culture he depicts throughout his career.
Consequently, as these images he delivers, which serve as artifacts of the past, are vital for the formation of society’s opinion of what culture and subculture consist of, then people are heirs of this subjective representation. Whether it does or does not meet the criteria for honest and ethical work, this documentation (along with other subjective pieces of work) is the only heritage society has of the past. Therefore the public is unable to form an objective opinion, simply because it would be based on subjective facts and it merely has to be accepted that ‘there is a fundamental gap between representation and truth.’ (Roberts, 2014: 158). Lastly, this example of Spencer’s records of life in Britain in the breaking of the new century represents quite clearly the mechanism of documentation and the relation between reality and representation. It is, therefore, up to society to form an independent opinion based on these nonobjective facts.
Figure 1: Ewen Spencer, 1994, UKG
Figure 2: Ewen Spencer, 2000, Open Mic
Figure 1: Ewen Spencer. 1997. UKG From: Ewen Spencer. Available at: https://ewenspencer.com/ukg-1 [accessed 05/04/2018]
Figure 2: Ewen Spencer. 2000. Open Mic From: Ewen Spencer. Available at: https://ewenspencer.com/open-mic-2 [accessed 05/04/2018]
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