Interviews, Photobooks, Portrait

Boys in the corner: Simon Wheatley’s images of Britain’s most exciting music subculture

All images © Simon Wheatley

Ciaran Thapar talks to Simon Wheatley, the photographer behind the iconic study of London grime culture, about the book’s new digital release and what’s changed since 2011.

It’s 2012 and in East London, the long-awaited Olympic Games are underway. Stratford, home to the new £537 million Olympic stadium and Westfield shopping centre, is heaving. Tourist money pours in. London, the UK and the world beyond, gets into the spirit of celebration.

Simon Wheatley is in a living room in Maryland, a poor residential area less than a mile away from the Olympic Village. He’s recording this historic moment in time through the eyes of Chronik, a veteran grime MC.

Through a haze of smoke, Chronik talks about the challenges of raising his family: “Now you want to make it a nice, white area, but what happened to the last ten years?” While he talks, he taps a Playstation controller, firing gunshots at clay targets on an Olympics video game.

“That’s exactly it.” Wheatley says, pointing at the crisp symbolism playing out on his iPad screen three years on. “He was so near. Yet the only way he could gain access to the Olympics was in a video game – in virtual reality.

The episode about Chronik (‘M-Town: The Hidden Olympic Village’) is one of seven new short films in the digital edition of Wheatley’s seminal photo book, Don’t Call Me Urban! The Time of Grime, which launched last month as an iPad app.

The original book was first released in 2011. It is an intimate, unadulterated window into the bleak social conditions that birthed grime as a music genre and subculture at the turn of the millennium.

As a social documentarian, Wheatley has spent most of his photographic career in documenting urban culture, digging for untold stories like this. “That’s where I feel most comfortable: on the margins of society,” he says. “I’ve always felt something of an outsider in London, but the grime guys appreciated me. They just found me funny — that’s how I got on with them,” he explains.

Jammer (centre, in focus) and his producers, Leytonstone. 2005

Jammer (centre, in focus) and his producers, Leytonstone, 2005