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Stuart Griffiths – Para turned Photographer

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Illegal Rave, Brighton 1994, around 7am by Stuart Griffiths from Pigs’ Disco

Stuart Griffiths, a former British soldier now photographic artist, is the creator of the book Pigs’ Disco. Hegives arevealing insight into the world of the British Soldier at play. He is currently a Doctoral Candidate at the University of Ulster. His PhD research focuses on snapshot photographs and the personal narratives of ex soldiers around the UK all of whom who have served in contemporary conflict.

Here we are today, sitting with him after one of his many visits to the Imperial War Museum to discuss a few long-lost rolls of film he shot in Northern Ireland in the early 1990’s as a young army photographer, and we are listening to his stories and inspirations behind his artworks.

An interview with Stuart Griffiths


How was the visit to the Imperial War Museum this morning? Is any of your work on display there?

I’ve been accessing the photographic archives of a particular photographers collection of transparencies from the battle of Mount Longdon, during the Falklands War in 1982. When I began my research for my PhD I approached the Imperial War Museum asking them about specific rolls of film I had shot in Northern Ireland which I had to hand in when I was an army photographer. When I contacted them, they were like: “yeah, we’ve got your films!” So when I visited them they had the photographs I sold to them back in 1998 when I was a young intern at Magnum Photos.

It was your work Soldiersthat got you on our radar. As an ex-solider, how was the Army life? How would you say the Army developed your experiences attitude and outlook?

Talking to Falkland war veterans is a bit like talking to an unreasonable father. It is like “what do you know? You were never there”. These guys trained me to be a soldier so they would sort of treat you like you were in the shadows. This was the Bruce Lee generation, with Alsatian dogs and proper moustaches and all that kind of stuff.

I don’t ever regret joining the British Army. It’s part of who I am. I keep falling back to it. It’s very much central to me as an artist, photographer and writer. It was a voluntary decision. I chose to do that and I joined at 16. The 16-21 years are the informative years when you are developing. I learnt to fight, to be part of a team. Many soldiers would complete a 22-year army career, as they wouldn’t know anything else from age 16. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that at all.

I am involved with a few veteran organisations but I won’t denounce the Army. I wouldn’t say no to anyone if they wanted to join. For some people including myself it was a way out. These were the years of The Hit Man And Her television programme in the mid 80s and to get into nightclubs you needed to wear a shirt and tie. You would go in C&A and get some hideous Tropicana shirt with a matching tie and a sports jacket with padded shoulders. That was all that was affordable back then, it was all the rage. It was awful.

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Stuart Griffiths

So I guess joining the Army was life changing then!

I was a skinhead from the age of 13; I remember swapping with a school friend my Adam and the Ants ‘Prince Charming’ LP with his ‘Complete Madness’ LP. I really got into Madness. I liked their look, Donkey jackets and Doc Martin shoes. I started to find out what influenced Madness and got into Ska and Trojan reggae. I then became a mod briefly. I remember going to Beatle City in Liverpool and getting a Beatle jacket. A couple of days later I was run over by a transit van after walking in front of a bus. I never got to wear my Beatle jacket. There used to be a club in Manchester called Cloud 9 for all the Mods. It was set up to stop the Mods hanging around outside the alternative clothes shop ‘The Cave’. We were like a mini army of Mods. It felt good to be part of something. It was tribal. So after my accident I went into hospital for 6 months, whilst my broken femur healed; when I left hospital, I was back to being a skinhead.

I embraced the skinhead way of life and its attention to detail. It was about original Ben Sherman shirts, Hawkins ox-blood working boots, and the original red tab Levi jeans. Everything had to be original and I’d get these clothes from places like Uncle Sam’s in Manchester. I liked taking pride in what I was wearing. Again, looking at the kind of original archetype of what skinhead were, it was very much a working class identity which was imported from the Rude Boys from Jamaica, but there was also the cross over when it got political and right wing politics came to the fore-front with the National Front, the British Movement and this whole Skrewdriver thing which made it violent and ugly.  I remember going to a Northern Soul all-nighter in Bradford and it was like the beginning of the end of skinheads for me; we were all dancing to Northern Soul kind of music, Trojan reggae, when it just started getting real nasty. An Asian gang had gatecrashed and I remember hiding under a table, whilst pint glasses were smashed in people’s faces.

I thought about joining the British Army from a young age. It was either that or going to Art School, because I was good at drawing. I joined the Army cadets, aged 15. I remember making that conscious decision, that I wanted to join the British Army and get away from Warrington the juvenile delinquency, the dabbling with drugs and the robbing of cars. I saw the Army as a way out.

I wanted to be an Airborne Warrior. Although when I was in 3 Para I was applying for many training courses, stuff like physical training instructor or the patrols cadre. The ‘art thing’ slowly took over when I applied for a photography job. It was the only job I applied for and got. This was the most artistic thing that the Army could offer me; I embraced the photography like some bug I could not shake off. Photography replaced my rifle in a weird kind of way.

Talking about your photography post Army. We love how you cover a wide range of contemporary societal issues, they are very inspirational, revealing and closely related to British culture. From the Homeless project to the Protest girl, what is your inspiration of these works?

My early photos were mostly about boredom, photographing for the sake of photographing. I had the idea that these images would be a starting point to paintings or drawings. They were part of the initial research.

I was heavily influenced by comic books as a kid. 2000 AD, Mad Magazine, Marvel & DC Comics. I was always looking at life like it was weird and hilarious and not to be taken that seriously. Some people would call it dry humour; you needed plenty of this to survive in the British Army. If you were sensitive soul, you wouldn’t get anywhere.

After I left the Parachute Regiment, all I wanted to do was go to weird places and photograph it. The first plane I ever flew in I parachuted out of it and the first place I travelled to was Belfast.

When I finally got into the University of Brighton, I embraced photography more when I got a 6×6 Rolleiflex camera. I went to Albania in winter 1996, just before the country exploded into anarchy. I was deadly serious about going to strange places and make interesting photographs. I was thinking as a news reporter, I always wanted to do all that but ‘its all about what you cannot see’.

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Paratroopers off duty, after a rave by Stuart Griffiths from Pigs’ Disco

Tell us more about the project you are working on? 

I started to do a lot of writing and I got the manuscript of Pigs’ Discotogether, and Ditto published that. When that came out it was fantastic to have a book made up of my writing, photographs and drawings. The Mail Online ran a piece soon after it was published. There was something like 478 shares with 4 minutes. I went from being excited to feeling anxious by all the ‘in-coming’ of abuse on social media. I think the Ministry of Defence had to release a statement on the comments saying these ‘incidents’ happened over a generation ago and that there were only a small proportion of guys that were taking illegal drugs etc. around that time and it was before Compulsory Drug Testing. It was ‘good’ publicity for the publishers, but quite weird when you’re in the firing line. I’ve worked for the national press and I’m aware that all publicity is good publicity, but that Mail Online piece really did rattle a lot of cages. I’d now become controversial but also felt I’d become a victim of my own notoriety.

It was around that time that I applied for the PhD scholarship at the University of Ulster. I couldn’t even afford a flight to Belfast for my interview. So I did it on Skype and thought, you know what? I’ve failed miserably. About a month or so later I was told that I was being offered a scholarship. That was a lifeline.

Like with Pigs’ Disco, I’ve been known for photographing soldiers, the injured and the homeless. I wanted to move away from it, I felt like I was in a pigeonholed and trapped. I did some fashion stuff for Vice, but it just didn’t work out. I think I was too known for the Army and veteran stuff. When I was first offered the PhD my research idea was a lot different to what I have now but it took a lot of soul searching, my research is basically about what I have been doing most of my life, my supervisors helped me realise this. Its was always about the the photographs! It was like an epiphany; just when I thought my books where some form of closure on my military experience, they are in fact the beginning. Like the opening of Pandora’s box; it was like  “I’ve been called up once again”. I realized at that moment, that my whole life would always be central to the ex-soldier issue and I learnt to be comftable about it again.

Last winter I was asked to do a presentation for University of Ulster at the Northbridge PhD Conference in Gateshead and I just thought, I might as well get on with it and enjoy this, at least I’m known for something. So I thought ok, I will always be known as an ex-soldier who has photographed veterans so I might as well get on with it and embrace it fully. The most recent meeting I had with my supervisor, he advised me to carry on from Pigs’ Disco.

The photos I saw are very touching and I can sense the stories behind; can you name some stories you want to tell us the most? 

There’re so many things I learnt from those making these photographs. I learnt from Pigs’ Discoyou cannot please everyone, not everyone is going to be happy about this but you’ve got to be truthful to yourself and go all the way, I think it would be quite impossible for me not to do that.

There is one guy I photographed in Liverpool who was blinded by an RPG, which landed on his chest and disintegrated his armored plate. It blew his eyes out and I did an interview with him and I remember it was like 3,500 words when transcribed. What I saw in a lot in the young injured veterans was myself because I too was a young soldier once and could empathize with them, because of the military doctrine we shared. Although seeing them recovering back home at their mothers angered me. That these young men, who gave there everything, often fall by the wayside, or become charity cases made me feel bitter about the ruling classes and the whole Queen & Country rhetoric.

 

I was constantly reminded of my second tour of Northern Ireland when a young guy fresh from completing his recruit training was doing a patrol when both his legs were blown off after stepping on an IED in county Tyrone. Someone from that patrol was telling me that he was begging him to shoot him. That’s when I thought I don’t want fight this was anymore. I did not want to loose my limbs for some privileged public school boy politician and there cronies. When I photographed all these injured soldiers many years later I always had my own experiences in the back of my mind. I travelled the whole of the UK photographing injured veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. There were lots of guys getting their limbs blown off; it was awful. It was like the First World War.

How did you get in touch with them?

I got in touch with injured soldiers either through journalist colleagues I knew, or I’d seen something in a local newspaper somewhere. I would get in touch with a regional reporter and he would usually say write a letter to the parents and I wouldn’t hear anything for about year. Or I would be sat in a taxi and I’d talk with the driver and he would mention a friend whose son was badly injured in Iraq. There were many different ways. It was about keeping your ear to the ground all the time. There was a guy in Bristol who was the youngest guy to be injured in the Iraq war, he was just happy to show me their scars and I was like yeah, cool. It was a bit like ‘my scars better than yours’ kind of thing, which was fine by me.

Must be tough for you, it reminds you of the old days.

How it worked in my day was anyone who did not wear a red beret was simply a ‘crap-hat’ that fueled the elitism and you need this warped sense of elitism to get you through a theatre of war. What happened in Iraq and Afghanistan kind of balanced the ‘inter-regimental rivalry’ as all infantry units were doing the same sort of stuff. It wasn’t a Parachute Regiment or Royal Marine Commandos war or anything, everyone was doing it and loads of stuff was going down, because it went on for so long. The Falklands war a relativity short war, although when you compare how many soldiers lost there lives in such a short period of time, we can then begin to understand its savage brutality.

When I went to Iraq in 2005 to do a story on private security companies, it was really dangerous. No one wanted to be photographed and I’d come all this way. So I cropped the heads in most of the photographs, because this was what was happening at the time; many people were taken hostage and beheaded. Especially journalists.

My daughter had just been born and I was out here in Iraq with all these ex soldiers. I wasn’t even insured and I could hear bombs going off in the distance at 8am and at 4pm. I kept asking myself why am I doing this? So, rather than stay I got out. I went home and decided on not going to any more war-zones after that, if I did somebody would have to pay for it, like Vice magazine, who sent me to Northern Ireland and then to Siberia, putting me up in five star hotels.

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Soldiers by Stuart Griffiths

Tell us more stories from your photographer life?

When I did the Liverpool gangs they all dressed in black. All the gangs dress in black in Liverpool and they called themselves ‘Soljas’ which began as a Sunday Times magazine feature in response to Reece Jones murder. It got very intense meeting drugged up gang members with firearms. There was one guy who pulled out a loaded MAC-10 machine gun out on me. He cocked the weapon I thought oh shit, this bastard is going to spray me with bullets.

Despite this, my journey to the Congo was by far the most traumatic event of my life. The civil war had just begun and I just got my photo permit sorted after 3 weeks of being there. It was quite frustrating, as you couldn’t really take any photos unless you had a special photo-permit.  As soon as I had my special permit I was taking photographs of soldiers running. Then I realised they were running at me. They wacked me in the head with their rifle butts and I was taken through all these jeering crowds, through mock executions and then tied to a totem pole naked and whipped with rope and military brass-buckle belts. It was brutal. Then I was interrogated and imprisoned for a few days and they were trying to accuse me of espionage. They tried to catch me out but I just stuck to the truth.

 

There was a moment when it got really intense. Just after I was released from prison I was taken to another agent who wanted to know if I had taken any more photographs. They drove me back to my hotel at gunpoint. I was staying in a place called the Guest Hotel, the cheapest hotel in Kinshasa for $5 a night. They thought all journalists get paid big bucks and all stayed at the Inter Continental Hotel, but I was a freelancer. I remember they saw my room and looked at it as if it was the most disgusting thing they had ever seen. I had this bag of exposed film on the desk in my small room and I put my Domke camera bag on top of it. Sweat poured from my head, whilst a gun was pressed to my temple. The agent kept saying, “don’t be sacred”. Luckily, they never thought of lifting the Domke bag off the green satchel of exposed film of photographs of a church Exorcism and a local zoo. They let me go in the end. It was a high adrenaline adventure loaded on the anti malaria drug Larium.

 

When I came back to England I was living in some run down pub in Acton Town thinking: what am I gonna do with my life now? At one point I thought about joining the army again. I was lost and very poor. I thought leaving the army would easy. Although it had left such a big impression it was really hard to shake off. Even when folding my clothes I’m reminded of the military.

 

I never did join back up with the army. I went travelling instead. Went ‘on the road’ in homage to Jack Kerouac. After living in the mountains of Portugal and working farms and the tourist season, I began writing what would eventually become Pigs’ Disco.When I returned to England; I had no money, but I was offered a job working as a paparazzi photographer. I was living in the homeless veterans hostel in East London and photographing the rich and famous at night. People like Kate Moss, coming out of yet another celebrity gathering. I worked as a pap from 2000-2002. It was like filling a huge supply and demand vacuum after the People’s Princess (Diana) died. Everyone hated the paparazzi then. It was around this time I met the love of my life, this cool chick who was the only female paparazzi working in London at that time.  We are planning to work on a book together on our paparazzi archive in the future. We managed to get all our original negatives out of the agency before it folded.

 

I could have had a fruitful career of being the conflict photographer for a tabloid Sunday newspaper, but I was working at a rival newspaper when the opportunity was given to me. The guy who ended up doing all those war jobs lost both his legs in Afghanistan. Journalists are bigger targets than soldiers. If a journalist is killed, it is more newsworthy than another story of a dead British soldier. Although I very nearly got to cover the Afghanistan war for GQ magazine, but they sent celebrity photographer David Bailey instead.

I noticed that you worked with Skepta last year? Did you shoot his album cover at last? (Since Skepta’s shout out on twitter saying “If Stuart Griffiths shot my album cover.”) How did that come about?

Skepta got in touch with me via twitter. I was actually on a newspaper job and supposed get a picture of the Queen attending the Royal Albert Hall. I was sat in my car and the Queen drove in and I thought; ah I missed the shot. I was listening to BBC Radio 3, and having a conversation on Twitter with Skepta instead. He mentioned that he really liked my photographs of the Liverpool gangs. He said he wanted to work with me and wanted me to shoot his next album cover. So I met him at his apartment in North London; we had a chat and I gave him a signed copy of Pigs’ Disco. We talked about ideas and I went on a shoot a few months later. I was going to do the cover for his album ‘Konnichiwa,’ but this eclipsed with me beginning my PhD scholarship at the University of Ulster. After Skepta won the Mercury Award, I sent him an email congratulating him. He said he would really like me to work with him again, make some new photographs and carry on with our long-term project.

Many people over time have said to me, “yeah you’ve been there and done that and a lot of us have just stayed at home. I always wanted to do something but never quite did it”. I think that’s just the way I’ve always been: I’ve just gone out and done it. Sometimes I have thought to myself; how the fuck did I end up here? Although it does not matter if you fail, failure makes you stronger. It’s really about the journey that matters.

What is your plan now?

I’ve got a lot to get on with writing my thesis. After that’s completed, then I can think about publishing other works.  I compiled a selection of essay’s and articles titled ‘Paratripper’ but this has gone on the back boiler while I concentrate on my studies. I’ve sold the film rights to my second book Pigs’ Disco. I’ve already seen the screenplay, but it’s not quite ready to go into production just yet. Presently, I’m on the road travelling the UK meeting ex-soldiers who are participating with my research.

Underground inspires and is inspired by British subculture, both contemporary and from before. Is there a sub-culture that inspires you? Or which subculture you identify the most?

In terms of subcultures, the Parachute Regiment is a subculture within a subculture. You wore your uniform a certain way like you adapted a civilian code of dress, which on reflection was similar to that of the skinhead subculture. Being a skinhead dominated much of my youth in terms of dressing. You could get away with buying second hand clothes as a skinhead and still looking relatively cool. It was far less expensive than dressing like a football casual with all them designer Italian labels.  I was a Mod for a short time, had a Paul Weller haircut, but you know, I never quite liked the scooters. I always preferred motorbikes; they have more power than a Lambretta. When I joined 3 Para and went to Northern Ireland, the Regimental Sergeant Major told us “only two types of people have cropped hair, that’s queers and squaddies so from now on, grow your hair”. So we all had to grow our hair and blend in, should we want to go to Belfast city centre on our days off and not look like squaddies.

I remember the dark periods of 1980’s fashion. Of having to wear shirt and ties to get past the steroid abusing doormen to get into nightclubs. I never quite got into the ‘baggy raver’ look, although I have owned a few bucket hats over the years. I’ve pretty much worn the same kind of clothes from the age of 17. Levi jeans and the favored shoe of the ‘squaddie’ the ‘hard wearing value for money’ Ghillie desert boots, a warm sweatshirt and a vintage hunting coat or a wax cotton jacket. I like to wear sunglasses because I like to observe life. Either Polaroid originals, or Ray-Ban aviator shooters. Films like Taxi Driver were an influence on how I looked when I was a young off duty paratrooper. Dealer boots, Wrangler shirts and a Vietnam US Army issue combat jacket. I even went through the ‘Easy Rider’ look once, wearing Davey Crockett style jackets, shark teeth beads, kaftans and biker boots. Nowadays I’m dressing very much like I did back in 1990.

I’ve never been a follower of fashion; I’d say I’ve always done my own thing. I like comftable affordable hardwearing original clothing. In the summer time I often wear bright clothing, an Aztec shirt or a pair of La Coste tennis shorts. Hunter S. Thompson had a great sense of style. I too am quite happy riding my BSA Lightning into the evening glow of the open road wearing my kalichrome aviator shooters, feeling the warm wind in my hair. If you look good, you feel good.

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