Exclusive Interview: ‘THIS IS GRIME’ photographer Olivia Rose on capturing Grime in 2016

'THIS IS GRIME' photographer Olivia Rose discusses capturing Grime in 2016...

Grant Brydon

3 years ago

By Grant Brydon

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As more than just a genre of music, photography plays a vital role in the way that Grime has spread through the hearts and minds of young people throughout the UK and beyond. Through the photography of people like Simon Wheatley, Ewen Spencer, Tim and Barry – distributed in publications such as RWD Mag – kids everywhere would learn the Grime way of life, the fashion, the attitude.

It’s not surprising therefore, that half of the story of seminal Grime book, THIS IS GRIME, is told through it’s imagery. Alongside the oral history collected by legendary Grime journalist Hattie Collins, the all new black-and-white imagery of Olivia Rose captures a snapshot of where Grime is at in 2016. The award winning portrait photographer emerged herself in the scene for five months; from chasing Skepta as his success continues to snowball to seeking out enigmatic heroes like Durrty Goodz.

In the first of two interviews we’ve conducted on the making of THIS IS GRIME, we caught up with Olivia Rose to discuss the photography in the book – from challenges faced along the way to her favourite shots…

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When did you first get involved with THIS IS GRIME?

Hattie’s obviously had the idea in her head for 15 years, but we worked on a “Ten Years Later” Grime portfolio for I-D last year in the Summer. We did a three day Grime shoot, and I think it was because Hattie saw that I got along with the guys really well, I’m happy to smoke a joint and just be chilled about things. It was after that that Hattie was like “Shall we do a book?” And I was like “F**k it, yeah let’s do a book.”

The idea was solidified somewhere last year, then we hooked up with the publishers in January. And then the book is now out! So it’s been a very short turnaround.

A lot of other similar books aren’t shot by the same photographer – but this has a really nice cohesion because all of the images come from one person. How important do you think that was?

I think in many ways you could have created a book as beautiful or more beautiful, had you used lots of different photographers and all of the archive shots. And I’m sure there are people out there feeling like that’s missing from the book. But for us it was about documenting this moment in time right now, the beginning of 2016 where everything’s gone international, there’s this massive resurgence. And i think for us it was about documenting that as a whole. From an aesthetic point of view, one of the reasons I shot everything in black and white – apart from the fact that it gives things a certain gravitas – was because I’m shooting all of these people, we have a short turnaround. If I’m shooting in colour we’re going to have to think about another six elements when we come to design this thing, on top of just what images can sit together. So for me it quite important that it was me shooting the whole thing. It comes across now as a really amazing body of work, and I think specifically, it documents this one time.

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I really liked the way you dealt with the challenges that come with shooting everything at this time – you couldn’t shoot Crazy Titch for example, and it doesn’t look like Skepta sat down for a shoot. I guess there were moments where it would have been easier to go to archive imagery. How did you deal with those challenges?

Those are pretty much my most exciting pictures in the book – the ones that were a challenge to get. Skepta wasn’t up for sitting down and posing and giving us time like some of the other MCs were, but I followed that boy around for five months. If anyone told me Skepta was going to be somewhere, I would be there, trying to get the shot.

Same with Titch, just thinking outside the box. We tried to get permission to shoot, but that didn’t happen in the end. So it was about “How do we represent Titch?” And as I was saying before, because we focussed on this very specific moment in time, Titch isn’t actually out in the public for us to take a picture of him, so in many ways it feels really right that we’ve used – it was an image of Hattie’s that I then laid under the broken glass and reshot – so that feels very much like a memory in contrast to some of the stuff at Her Majesty’s Establishment, where he’s now residing. Obviously that’s kind of a new image, it doesn’t have Titch in it, but it gives you a sense of where he is now, and what his life is like now.

I think in many ways that was kind of my favourite part of the book, all of these challenges. The other thing was, anyone that anyone told me it was going to be impossible to get – like Durrty Goodz for example, I’d be like “Ok! I’ll take your impossible!” So there were quite a few people that we pulled out of the woodwork, just because I’m literally obsessive, I’m an obsessive person, and if you tell me I can’t do something I’m going to spend the next two months doing it.

Why do you think capturing this time was an important thing to do?

Well for me, I dip in and out of things, and there’s been a lot of features around the book where people want to put me in that “Women Of Grime” thing, which I’m not. I’m the first person to hold my hands up and say I’m not a woman in Grime, I’m an outsider looking in. I’m not Even Spencer, I’m not Simon Wheatley, I haven’t been around for 15 years. Nobody’s shot at me while I’ve been shooting Roll Deep back in 2002 or whatever. So in that sense it had to be this way; I don’t have my own archive of 15 years worth of imagery. But what I do and what I think I’ve brought to the table is that all of my work is based around subculture, and mostly male-dominated subculture. Some of the images that I’ve shot, I feel like I’ve got because I’m not necessarily fan-babe-ing, I’m not the person who’s 100% up to date with who’s got beef with who, so some of my shoots were actually quite a funny process. Sometimes the MCs were testing me, testing what my knowledge is, but at the end of the day I’m the photographer, I’m not here to pretend to be a massive Grime head. That’s not what I do. So I think in a way I’ve brought something different to the images because of that.

Which images are you most proud of?

I think Durrty Goodz, the spread, that was such a brilliant day. I’m bloody pleased that we got the image of Skepta shooting his video in Visions. It was such a trial to get a decent double spread that represented him, so actually coming up with that was brilliant. It was the harder to get ones really, that I’m most proud of. Dizzee’s a really good one,we flew all the way to New York for that. It was at the Boy In Da Corner gig in Brooklyn and he was just loving the fact that he was giving Hattie his time. We could actually hear the crowd going “Dizzee, Dizzee!” He was meant to be on stage and he kept saying to his manager “No, let me give Hattie another five minutes.” He did his part and then some, so it was totally worth it flying all the way there.

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Who were the most interesting MCs to shoot?

Well I didn’t shoot him, but getting to know Titch has been one of the most interesting parts of this process. Me and I are now pen pals, it’s just the most random thing ever. That was amazing and I didn’t even get to shoot him.

D Double E gives me such a good picture every time – he’s got such an amazing face, so photogenic, really legendary face that one! And I think he’s one of the funniest guys in Grime as well. For me that’s something that’s really important about the genre, it’s music you can genuinely laugh to, all because the lyrics are clever and the lyrics are funny. D Double E gives me that, so when I was shooting him, I think there’s a grid of four where he’s laughing and smoking his joint. It looks so much like him to me, that character. So always D Double!

Whats the most important thing that you’ve learned from this process?

Probably how wrong the general perception of Grime and Grime MCs is. Like I said, I’ve always worked on subcultures, I’m often shooting with black and mixed race people, there’s such an element of race when you’re dealing with Grime. But the difference in public perception I’ve noticed when I’ve told people who don’t necessarily know about the genre, what I’m shooting, the reaction to me going and spending four hours alone with a Grime MC. People are genuinely frightened for me, and I find that to be nuts. Some of the most wonderful, sweet, amazing people that I’ve met on this journey are the ones that somebody else might – on face value – point out and say “Oh my god, he looks scary! What was it like shooting with him?” But I think the thing that people miss is that these are the guys that aren’t on the road anymore, they’ve gone into the studio. They’ve done s**t with their lives, they’re the poets, they’re the artists amongst a different social standing, a different group of people. And I think really, I’ve just learned that that perspective on who they are is so wrong.

And the other thing, I didn’t know how much of a family these guys are. It is deep! I mean down to everyone’s dads and mums, you can literally trace the generations back. That was another amazing thing to learn, how deeply rooted in family Grime is. And it’s lovely that that continues through the generations, seeing people like Jammer who really bring through the new MCs, support them like they would have done twelve years ago. It’s such an amazing thing to see, because I don’t think people are always like that across other genres – there’s usually a lot of competition. And actually within Grime it feels like everyone is nurturing each other, and if a new person comes through and that means someone from back in the day is getting work, then that means that everyone is happy.

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THIS IS GRIME by Hattie Collins and Olivia Rose is available now (Hodder & Stoughton). Buy yours here.

Look out for our interview with author Hattie Collins dropping tomorrow.

For more info on Olivia Rose, head here.

All photos by Olivia Rose for THIS IS GRIME

Interview by Grant Brydon.