Syd Shelton was born in Pontefract, South Yorkshire, in 1947. He went to Leeds College of Art before embarking on a career as a photographer and graphic designer and moving to London in the 1960s. In 1972 Shelton went to Australia and began practicing as a photojournalist but he returned to London in 1976 and became one of the founding members of Rock Against Racism, a group of political activists, artists and musicians that staged concerts aiming to promote an anti-racist message. The group promoted a message of racial harmony and understanding at a time when white nationalist groups including the National Front were gaining popularity. Shelton became the organisation’s official photographer and documented the concerts and events.
Shelton’s first major involvement in Rock Against Racism was in Lewisham, when the group organised a counter protest to the National Front ‘anti-mugging’ march that aimed its racist message at young, black men. As Shelton has said, ‘at the time, if you were young, black and male in particular, then you were really caricatured as a mugger’. Soon there were several thousand people protesting against the 125 National Front marchers. He photographed the campaigner, Darcus Howe standing on top of a toilet block on Clifton Rise, New Cross, addressing the crowd. Shelton has cited this moment as important in that it was the first time riot shields were used in mainland Britain.
Under the slogan of ‘Love Music, Hate Racism’, Rock Against Racism staged 500 concerts around the UK and Shelton photographed the reggae and punk bands that shared stages and attracted large, multicultural audiences. ‘It was a fantastic celebration of diversity’ Shelton has said, ‘but also a celebration of something new, and that was punk rock as well.’ He photographed the Rock Against Racism Carnival in which 100,000 people marched seven miles from Trafalgar Square to east London whilst Misty in Roots played to the marchers from the back of a lorry. A huge concert in Victoria Park followed including punk bands the Clash, the Ruts, Buzzcocks and X-Ray Spex performing alongside reggae bands including Steele Pulse. Shelton wanted to photograph what he has described as the great mishmash of Rock Against Racism and its message of cultural integration.
Shelton has said about his work from the late 70s and 80s, saying: ‘Photography for me has always been an autobiographical tool, a sort of staccato visual diary […] I also used my photography during that period as a graphic argument, enabling me to be a subjective witness of the period which could, hopefully, contribute to social change.’ Shelton photographed the Clash, Elvis Costello, Misty in Roots, and the Specials amongst many other bands.
Shelton has co-edited and acted as art director for photobooks including ’24 Houses in Los Angeles’. He lives and works in Hove.