Rock against racism, Syd Shelton

Showing in Bradford’s Impressions Gallery is Syd Shelton’s Rock against racism (RAR). BBC Arts summarises the context:

Rock Against Racism was a groundbreaking movement which staged marches, festivals and concerts from 1976-81 with the aim of fighting racism through music. Activist, photographer and graphic designer Syd Shelton was in the thick of it, shooting performers including The Clash, Aswad, Pete Townshend and Misty in Roots and documenting demonstrations across the UK. He was also one of the key designers of the fanzine Temporary Hoarding. As an exhibition of his photographs from the period go on show in Bradford, Shelton tells BBC Arts the stories behind 12 of his favourite shots, and explains how Rock Against Racism was formed as a reaction to the toxic politics of the era.


I visited Impressions Gallery to see the work for myself and note the following areas of particular interest:

  • In the video installation that accompanies the work, Shelton explains that he did not envisage the photographs as a single piece of work but more as a disparate record of events unfolding in the movement around him. It wasn’t until later that his wife persuaded him that the photographs were worth making into a book.
  • The photographs combine portraits and documentary photos of RAR events, all shot in black and white. I found the combination of portrait and documentary highly effective; it was as if viewing the broader story of the social context, interspersed with the stories of individuals in the movement.
  • The photographs are often posed, with Shelton explaining that he preferred this approach to a Cartier-Bresson style decisive moment ethos; apparently the photos were of little interest to the photo-editors of the time because of their preference for the traditional decisive moment. While they are posed, they have a candid spontaneity that makes them feel of the time and place they were taken.
  • The prints were on aluminium sheet – a good idea for a travelling exhibition; I’m unsure of the economics of this approach but the format removed the need for framing and glass, so I would assume cost-effective.
  • IMG_0139An interesting touch in the exhibition was the use of glass cabinets to display memorabilia, posters and original contact sheets of the photographs. Seeing the marked up contact sheets with their tactile feel, has encourage me once again to look into a more organic approach to producing ‘contact sheets’ from digital image files.
  • Many of the photos were composed to show context to the main subjects – whether rows of police in the background, or a street sign recording the location of the photograph. This added a sense of historical interest to the photos.
  • Shelton has demonstrated in the press coverage of the exhibition, the captions that accompany the photos and the newly released book of the work that he kept good notes on what he photographed. Almost 40 years after the events of RAR, these provide invaluable contextual information and allow the story to be told and presented as a record of popular history. This is something I need a process for in my own practice.

An enjoyable and informative exhibition!


Autograph-abp [website]. Syd Shelton
Rock Against Racism. Available from: [accessed 5.8.16]

BBC Arts [website]. Rock Against Racism: Syd Shelton on shooting a turning point in British culture (2016). Available from: [accessed 5.8.16]

The Guardian [online]. Rock Against Racism: the Syd Shelton images that define an era (2015). Available from: [accessed 5.8.16]


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