Story of a picture: Police chase skinhead in Wood Green, 1981

In 1981, a series of youth riots broke out across Britain, starting in Brixton in April and spreading across the UK in July. Unlike in Southall, which saw the now famous standoff between Asian youths and skinheads, groups of mostly white skins joined the riots in Halifax and Bolton, or – as in Hull and Sheffield – they started their own.

Ditto in the north London district of Wood Green, where according to local Labour MP Reg Race “crowds of 400 to 500 youths – black, white and of Mediterranean origin – roamed around Wood Green High Road”. Fights with the police and looting ensued, resulting in 50 arrests and, according to press reports at least, 26 injured cops.

The picture seen here was shot by photographer David Hoffman on Tuesday, 7th July 1981, when the riots reached both Wood Green and Manchester. The skinhead is being chased down the corner of Alfoxton Avenue and West Green Road in Harringay, which is close to Turnpike Lane tube station. Matt Crombieboy spoke to the photographer.

What’s the story behind the picture?

I don’t know anything about the specific details of this photograph. I don’t know who the skin is or why he’s being chased. I do know that he only got a few steps further before being arrested.

I’d been late hearing about the rioting in Wood Green and by the time I got there, it was almost over with police breaking up small groups of young people and chasing them away from the area. I only shot a few frames before it was all over, and this was the best of them.

What youth styles were prominent in Wood Green on that day? 

It was a similar mix of youth as I saw at Brixton and other disorder at that time. Mostly – but not entirely – male, a mix of black and white, t-shirts, jeans and trainers. There were a few skins with Dr Martens, but fashion wasn’t a prominent feature.

Was the picture published at the time?

I forget who used it, but I think it was used at the time in newspapers, mags, probably TV too. Since then it’s been used a fair bit in mags, books, and even on designer t-shirts.

How long had you been a photographer then? 

I started working as a photographer in 1971 or 72 but went to college 1973-76, and it became my full time job from the summer of 1976.

You’ve been taking an interest in rioting, demonstrations and such throughout your career. Why is that?

For me, photojournalism has always been concerned with addressing the constraints of the state and the confrontation between state and citizen. Photographing protest is a visually exciting way of exposing the issues of power and inequality that photojournalism has always been concerned with.

The interface between opposing forces of protest illuminates both the nature of the change being called for and the nature of the state opposing it. The photographs I produce are intended to make these forces visible to a wider group than just the participants and in that way to democratise protest so that all of society is to an extent involved in the issues that relatively few bring to the streets.

What were your thoughts on the riots as they were occurring in 1981?

I can hardly remember my thoughts from last week, let alone nearly 40 years ago. They were probably a mix of things. Surprise at seeing how easily the steady safe order of the streets was broken by unorganised, incoherent protest. A grim satisfaction at the Swamp 81 chickens coming home to roost [Swamp 81 was a stop-and-search law put in place in that year – Editor]. Fear. Determination to be at the heart of the disorder and to make strong, honest images. And a wish to use the opportunity to move my career forward.

We saw another outbreak of nationwide riots thirty years later, including in Wood Green. Did 2011 feel like a rerun of 1981?

No, not at all. 1981 was about opposing deliberate organised police oppression and racism and the anger that had been built over decades. 2011 was an immediate reaction to a brutal and unjustified individual police killing. It rapidly descended into mass looting with organised gangs looking to create diversions to assist in a rash of robberies.

Many thanks to David for the interview and for letting us use his picture. More of his work can be seen at the David Hoffman Photo Library.

Photo 26-04-2019, 19 48 03
Same location in 2019
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