Back in 2015, Autograph held the first major exhibition of Syd Shelton’s photographs capturing one of the most intriguing and contradictory periods in British post war history. Between 1976 and 1981, the movement Rock Against Racism (RAR) confronted racist ideology in the streets, parks and town halls of Britain. RAR was formed by a collective of musicians and political activists to fight racism and fascism through music.
Under the slogan 'Love Music, Hate Racism', it showcased reggae and punk bands on the same stage, attracting large multicultural audiences. At a time when the National Front – a far-right fascist political party – were gaining support, RAR marked the rising resistance to violent and institutionalised racism.
RAR did not have an official photographer and Shelton has produced the largest collection of images of the movement. He captured the history-making Carnival at Victoria Park, London in 1978, and demonstrations in opposition to the National Front such as the Battle of Lewisham in 1977 and the Southall Riots of 1979. In total, RAR organised five carnivals and more than 500 gigs across Britain.
Shelton photographed performers such as The Clash, Elvis Costello, Misty in Roots, Tom Robinson, Au Pairs and The Specials and their audiences, as well as taking contextual social and cultural images that informed the politics of the movement across England and Ireland.
Here we revisit some highlights from the exhibition, capturing the energy of RAR and the creative alliances of black and white musicians, designers, writers, actors, performers and supporters towards a common goal. First published by Autograph to coincide with the exhibition, a second edition of the book Syd Shelton: Rock Against Racism is now available to purchase here.
Demonstrators taking part in what has become known as the Battle of Lewisham, protesting against the presence of members of the fascist National Front. Some 5,000 local people and anti-racist activists occupied New Cross Road. A quarter of the Metropolitan police (5,000 officers), together with their entire mounted division, were deployed as escort to the National Front demonstration.
A gig following the violent police reaction to anti-National Front demonstrators in Southall on 23 April 1979 which resulted in the death of Blair Peach and over 750 arrests. The body of Blair Peach lay in state at the theatre for six weeks following the fatal attack by the Special Patrol Group of the police.
Syd Shelton is a photographer and graphic designer. He studied fine art at Wakefield College of Art. In the early 1970s he began his photography practice following a move to Australia where he worked as a freelance photojournalist for newspapers such as Nation Review, Tribune, and Digger. In 1975 he had his first solo photographic exhibition at the Sydney Film-makers Cooperative. Shelton returned to London in 1976 and established the design and photography partnership Hot Pink Heart/Red Wedge Graphics which evolved into his current company Graphicsi.
Shelton become one of the key activists in the Rock Against Racism movement (RAR). He was a photographer and one of the designers of the RAR magazine Temporary Hoarding (1976 to 1981). In 2015 the book Syd Shelton: Rock Against Racism was published by Autograph to accompany the touring exhibition of the same name. A new edition of the book was published by Rare Bird Books in 2022. You can follow the artist on Instagram here.
Read Autograph's interview with the photographer Syd Shelton in which he recalls how members of the UK’s punk and reggae music scenes united to confront racist ideology in the late 1970sRead more
A new edition of the book originally published to accompany the 2015 exhibition at Autograph
Autograph is a place to see things differently. Since 1988, we have championed photography that explores issues of race, identity, representation, human rights and social justice, sharing how photographs reflect lived experiences and shape our understanding of ourselves and others.Donate Join our mailing list