“The photographs make it look like a movie, but it wasn’t! It was boring and mundane.” Life for photographer Gavin Watson wasn’t a crazy whirlwind growing up, in spite of what his immense photographic archive suggests. He and his friends would do “what most teenage boys from 14 to 18 would be doing in a rural council estate…. We’d hang out, listen to music, and obsess about girls and relationships, and where our life is going to go, and what we were going to be doing at the weekend.” But it’s in these moments where the magic lies.
At the age of 14, Watson began photographing his brother, Neville, and his group of friends, who all grew up at the forefront of their local skinhead scene in High Wycombe. Watson’s work had no specific intention or motive behind it – “I’ve got tens of thousands of pictures that I took for no reason whatsoever” – other than simply tracing a period of pure friendship, era-defining style and real life.
However, having a camera in his hand clearly shaped how he navigated his teenage years. “I wouldn’t say I hid behind my photography but it definitely helped me as a shy person,” he explains. He also mentions its role in helping his dyslexia as well as how it gave him a channel to process his teenage frustration: “Instead of just being angry, I did something with it and expressed it.”
Over the years, Watson has insisted that he doesn’t feel sentimentally attached to his photographs, but if his work isn’t close to his heart then perhaps it’s simply too close for comfort. “I literally had no involvement in the editing [of the new book], because it’s so personal,” he clarifies. “And if someone pissed me off at 16, they’re not going in my book. I know it’s petty. So that’s why I don’t edit stuff. Because other people see things that I’ll never see.” Instead, his friend Rini Giannaki took on the hefty task of editing the book, which features images that had been carefully archived over the years by his father.
The new photobook shares its title with a lyric in the Madness track Baggy Trousers – a band he associates with the innocence of his early adolescence. “We were all just finding the world. Then we left school and went wild for a few years.” When he reached his early 20s, the essence of carefree youth began to fade. “Things got heavier and we were getting older and the future was encroaching on our youth. And then after that, the raving came along and we all dispersed really.” Watson would also go on to capture the emergence of rave culture with his photography.
Through no desire of his own, Watson eventually became known as one of the most prominent documenters of skinheads, his 1994 debut book Skins having served as primary source material for Shane Meadows’s iconic indie drama This Is England. Watson affirms that the film is more representative of his experience of the subculture than other on-screen portrayals, arguing that “there’s a political narrative with movies like American History X and Romper Stomper” that doesn’t resemble what he knew.
Intimate, vibrant and full of character, his new book is a testament to the inclusiveness and diversity that skinhead culture was actually born of, demystifying the stereotypes that skins have struggled to shake off since. Though it wasn’t specifically his intention, the book naturally helps to counter the Neo-Nazi rhetoric it has come to be associated with, and he insists vehemently that real skinhead culture – the kind he experienced growing up – is a world away from the depiction fuelled by mainstream media.
Even though Watson says he and his friends were looked down upon for going against the societal grain, it’s not something that impacted him negatively. Quite the opposite. “When I was young, when I was a skinhead, I loved it. If you’re going to be a rebel, you’ve got to have people hating you, haven’t you?” he explains. “When you see these skinhead documentaries and they’re whinging and whining about [being perceived as troublesome], I just think, ‘don’t you remember? We were fucking pains in arses!’”
Watson and his friends were part of a concentrated, local community of skins with its own particular identity. “The council estate over the road was sort of the boundary. Our town was tiny. Our minds were tiny as well,” he says. “The skinheads in Aylesbury would be very different from the skinheads 15 miles away. It was very insular until we went to gigs and then you’d meet up with people.”
Though he didn’t often venture far from his estate growing up, he’s rubbed shoulders with skins further field, like New York, where “you were always welcome”. He also developed an interest in skins beyond the Western world. When he started receiving images from “hardcore, covered-in-tattoos skinheads” in Southeast Asia, he wanted to travel there and photograph the burgeoning scene, but he claims nobody was interested in the idea because it doesn’t conform to what skinhead culture is typically defined as.
For Watson, the presence of skins in such communities defies the skewed perception of the subculture as a breeding ground for white nationalism. “It goes against the narrative so hard,” he explains. “It just goes to show that [being a] skinhead’s not about race, it’s about a working-classness, a comradery, and that is universal. That’s why, whenever there’s a strong working-class culture – regardless of religion – you’ll find people listening to ska music and you’ll find people dressed as skinheads.”
Watson mentions the word “agenda” a lot during our chat, and he clearly remains sceptical of people who use his photography for their own gain. However, it’s difficult to envisage how his work could be misconstrued. The photographs are charming and honest, the kind that can only come from someone rooted within a scene. In his eyes, skinhead culture looks like “a little 10-year-old kid with a dog next to him, not some 30-year-old fat monster from Barnsley with stickers all over his forearms”.
Oh! What Fun We Had by Gavin Watson and edited by Rini Giannaki is published by Damiani at £29; damianieditore.com