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Chris Steele-Perkins was born in Rangoon, Burma, in 1947. His father, a British military office, abandoned his Burmese mother and bought Steele-Perkins to England when he was two years old. He grew up in a small seaside town with no real ethnic community. The sense of displacement this early upheaval caused has shaped not only how Steele-Perkins sees the world, but also how he captures it in his photography.
Steele-Perkins studied at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, studying psychology and working as a photographer and picture editor for the student magazine. After graduating in 1970, he began to work freelance, moving to London in 1971. His early commissions took him to photograph the relief effort in Bangladesh in 1973, as well as to document poverty in Glasgow, Belfast and London.
He joined the Paris-based agency, Viva, in 1976, where he travelled to photograph wars and disasters abroad as well as marginalised communities throughout the UK. In 1978 he was commissioned to photograph Enoch Powell’s constituency of Wolverhampton on the 10th anniversary of his “Rivers of Blood” speech. Steele-Perkins photographed the local youth clubs and day centres and the communities that gathered there. It was in one of these tiny youth clubs that he shot one of his most iconic photographs of a group of young women dancing to reggae. Steel-Perkins published his first book, The Teds in 1979. The Teddy Boys were the first mass expression of British youth culture in the 1950s, often linked with gang violence, and The Teds captured the Teddy Boys revival at its peak in the 1970s.
Steele-Perkins joined Magnum soon after the publication of The Teds, eventually serving as President from 1995 to 1998. He continues to work on assignments in the developing world, but seems to always come back to Britain, which he has described as “a strange place – funny, complex and sad. Distance yourself from it, experience other cultures, then look again. That strangeness becomes almost overwhelming”.
Publications and Awards
Chris Steele-Perkins has published several books, curated exhibitions and received multiple awards. He was awarded the Robert Capa Gold Medal in 1989, and most recently won the Royal Photographic Society Terrence Donovan Award in 2008 and the Arts Council GB Award in 2010.