Photographer Simon Wheatley isn’t the kind of guy you usually find hanging around shady east London estates. He doesn’t anymore, he can’t. His conscience got the better of him.
At his book launch for Don’t Call Me Urban! The Time Of Grime at Rich Mix arts centre, he is dressed in crisp khaki trousers and an airy white shirt, happily hobnobbing with the trendy Shoreditch arts set.
The 41-year-old’s accent gives away his public school education, as he tells me of his new-found fondness for yoga and plans to move to India and get “under its surface“.
But just a few years ago, the Singapore-born snapper was rolling with the toughest Grime crews in our slice of the city, capturing on film the drugs, music and turf-skirmishes that filled their daily lives.
“My upbringing was very different to the people in the book. But I got to know them just from being there.“
A man in a dark sweater catches Simon’s eye. I recognise him from one of the photos in the book.
They bump shoulders warmly. “Grab a beer man, I’ll catch you in a bit,“ he says to him.
The project had started as an architectural study of east London’s urban regeneration, taking Simon to tower blocks of smashed windows, where a new music scene, Grime, was taking root.
“The youth were running wild,“ explains Simon, while nodding his head to a bass heavy song that’s coming over the gallery’s speakers, “and they’d seen me around as they’d been growing up, so I got access to their lives. I was clearly not one of them, but I became a kind of mascot.“
He had a DJ contact and, after receiving a commission from underground music magazine RWD, soon found himself shooting the explosion of a scene that would soon make household names of Dizzee Rascal, Tinchy Stryder and Wiley.
He formed close bonds with certain crews. Others weren’t so welcoming.
“Some looked at me and thought I was the police. Sometimes you’ve got to work at making a connection, but you’ve also got to know when to just leave it and bounce.“
His photos are up-close, iconic and gritty and feature microphones, mixers, knives and cannabis.
One shows hooded youths holding another over a tower block balcony. Simon was powerless to stop it.
“It was futile. I got fed up,“ explains Simon. “I could put my views forward but I could only say so much. You can mention your take on certain things – the lyrics, the feuds. But you say it once or twice and then what?
“You find yourself being a bit of a youth worker, a counsellor sometimes. But they wouldn’t always listen.
“I grew tired of the moral compromise, being part of situations I didn’t agree with but not being able to do anything about it.“
Feeling there was nothing left to photograph, he stopped, just as some of the youths once found stalking torn-up tenement buildings were showing up in diamond encrusted music videos sipping champagne. The project had lasted for 12 years.
“It’s seen as something glamorous but it’s not. Most of those I met are in similar places. I’ve moved on, and upwards maybe, but the subject tends to stay. It’s complex.“
As I make my way out, Simon spots the man in the dark sweater. “What’s up man? Long time, huh?“
Don’t Call Me Urban! The Time Of Grime is at Rich Mix until June 24. The accompanying book is available from all good bookstores now. Details: 020 7613 7498