On the walls of the theprintspace gallery in Kingsland Road, a quote is written in bold black characters.
“First and foremost the Revolution is about loving.”
Under it, a picture of a soldier waving a machine gun hangs close to another of a group of children smiling, in a chaotic and tight embrace.
The photos of “Hasta la Victoria,” the first major exhibition by photojournalist Grant Fleming, born in Stepney in the early ’60s, expose the graphic violence of the Socialist revolutions in Central America in 1988. And yet, there’s an edge to this political rage that, sometimes, even resembles joy.
“It might sound simplistic but it’s the people, that’s what keeps you going.”
Grant Fleming sits on a black leather sofa in front of white walls crowded with faces, blood and flags. He says: “Sometimes when the only option is to survive, the first thing you do is to pull together. When we’re stripped bare, all we are is specks on this planet. If we don’t support each other, we’re over, but if you have love and care for other people, at least there is hope.”
The 25 years of Fleming’s photographic career have seen him go from photographing war zones to portraying footballers, politicians and celebrities and – most famously – being the official photographer for Primal Scream for over 20 years.
For his first solo exhibition, he has decided to go back to where his photographic career first began, in 1988.
“That was the real turning point. Until 1987, I was a full time musician, touring around the world. I’d started taking pictures prior to this, covering stuff like the miners’ strike, demos and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. I realised that in those days you could be closer to the front and not get done by the police if you had a camera,” admits Fleming in his thick cockney accent.
In his early 20’s, Fleming took his bags and left home in the East End to see for himself what was happening in Central America. His travels took him around eight countries in three months.
A cockney boy with a passion for punk music, he only discovered where Nicaragua was by listening to The Clash’s “Sandinista.” But it was stepping out of a cinema in Tottenham Court Road, after seeing Oliver Stone’s “Salvador”, that he announced to an astonished friend: “I’m going there.”
“This was a proper journey, for political and personal reasons. I guess photography was an antidote for me against the music world when it got frivolous and self-indulgent. When I was going out and taking pictures I had my political head on.”
He continues: “I come from an area where in those days we wouldn’t even think politically, we just rode about trying to get some money. This said, my dad was a union man at the docks so I was exposed to the labour movement, and I’d already travelled in the early 80s trying to trace the trail of the Spanish Civil War. I was fascinated by the normal people who just went out there to fight fascism. That was a bit of a romantic ideal of war for me, and that’s what spurred me on when I realised that there was a socialist revolution going on in Central America.”
Fleming’s passion has always led him to personal involvement in his subjects. He says: “I never really have a third-person element to my photography because I’m always interested in what I portray, I just cannot be impartial.”
And involved he was, in many unlikely circumstances.
“I could have been killed so many times,” he says, dunking his Hobnob in a cup of coffee. It’s incredible to believe that this man relaxing in his blue Fila tracksuit has danced with the Nicaraguan’s president’s wife, almost fallen into the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s coffin, been kidnapped by the terrorist group Al Shabaab in Somalia, and snuck past the security at the Republican National Convention to take a shot of Ronald Reagan.
His forthcoming book is titled ‘Who Let Him In?’ – one of the common questions he was asked during his career. Laughing, he explains: “Well, it’s blagging, isn’t it? It’s about always having an answer for stuff. That’s when being a cockney helps.”
Fleming explains his ability to keep calm in the most dangerous and high pressured situations to another feature of his East End heritage: “My upbringing in the football scene meant that I was prepared when I did get into those scary situations because it wasn’t something I didn’t know about. I think the hooliganism helped me, following West Ham home and away for years… You’d go to Manchester and you couldn’t even open your mouth because of the accent, it was like going into enemy territory.”
The industry has not failed to notice his bravado: “When magazines like Loaded and GQ came around, they knew I was the kind of person who’d go to Colombia and go to the jungle. Photojournalists usually have their bulletproof jackets and they’re all travelling together on an armed vehicle. I don’t care. I do my own thing. Otherwise how are you going to know what people’s lives are like?”
The decision to finally exhibit his work only came when he returned to East London after years living in Mexico: “I was at a mate’s funeral, a sad time, and a friend said: ‘If you snuff it and all your photos get chucked in a ditch, who’s going to look at them?’ So I realised I owed it to these people. I had a responsibility to history.”
Fleming has another four exhibitions planned from his material. The first, ‘The End of Apartheid” will focus on the elections in 1994 in South Africa, when Fleming met Nelson Mandela. Soon to follow in the next few years will be his football collection, his music collection and a retrospective on his war correspondence.
In the meantime, Fleming is keeping himself busy working on his book, writing a script for a dramatised version of cult 80s series “The Knockers” and putting together a documentary on Primal Scream.
One thing is clear: this man will not be stopping anytime soon. More here.