“I went wherever there was fighting”: how Sam the Wheels filmed Brixton on fire

“I went wherever there was fighting”: how Sam the Wheels filmed Brixton on fire

‘JE I used to keep my camera like that, ”says Clovis Salmon, putting his 1960s Kodak Brownie in his jacket so only the lens pops out. “So I don’t need to do nothing. I turn around, the camera turns with me. He swings his torso to either side – for a 94-year-old, he’s remarkably fit. This is how he filmed the Brixton Riots in 1981, in the streets just outside the 198 art gallery we are talking about.

Today, the scene on Railton Road is that of a multicultural and gentrified neighborhood, with cafes and delis. But for a few days in April 1981, it was a zone of conflict of burnt buildings, looting, riot police and angry people. “I saw the black boys take the fire truck and drive it down the road,” says Salmon. “I saw the post office set on fire, the garage on fire, everything. Salmon had to keep his camera hidden, he explains, “because if you do like that” – he holds it up to his eye – “the police would come and take it away, or the boys would come run over it.”

Salmon was an amateur, but he chronicled the riots like a professional journalist. “For three days, I traveled to different places, everywhere I heard they were fighting, by bicycle. And I always take my camera with me. Everything I saw I filmed. It helped that Salmon was a local – and pretty much the only one to go out with a film camera. He came to Brixton from Jamaica in the 1950s and still lives there today. Indeed, he is something of a local legend, known as Sam the Wheels for his cycling know-how.

“Everything I saw, I filmed it”… since his retirement, Salmon has been running a bicycle repair business from his home. Photographie : Linda Nylind/The Guardian

It wasn’t just the riots. Salmon had documented Brixton’s life for about 20 years previously and continued to do so for decades afterward. He says he has about 50,000 feet of film, much of which remains invisible. Its format list tells its own story: “Standard 8, Super 8, Betamax, VHS, disc – I always make sure I have more than one copy. As such, the Salmon recordings represent a unique record of post-war British black life from the perspective of the community itself. You could take it a step further and claim that this is in fact an art form brut.

Salmon’s initial motivation for making films was to show his new life in Britain to his family in Jamaica. He first experimented with the audio tape, he says, “but it didn’t work very well. So I decided to turn to the cinema, without any experience, nothing at all. He bought a camera and a projector and began to educate himself, mostly through trial and error.

His first films were his local church services and musical performances, the elegantly dressed all-black congregation wearing hats (later Salmon was also a Pentecostal pastor). As he modernized his equipment and honed his skills, people started asking him to film birthdays, christenings, weddings, and other occasions. “I wasn’t making any money,” he laughs. “Sometimes I do things for people, they promised to give me money but they never give me. I worked here for 47 years and didn’t get £ 200. Everything is out of my pocket. It wasn’t cheap either: “A Kodak film back then – four minutes 10 seconds cost £ 5. It was a lot. But there was a store that sold Russian Standard 8 movies and it was around 30 shillings [£1.50]. So I would go there.

Salmon also took his camera out to the streets. His images capture local landmarks such as the Brixton Market and long-missing shops, clothing and vehicles. He records everyday life: children playing in the street, mothers sweeping the sidewalk in front of their houses. He also photographed some of the early protests of the growing Caribbean community: restaurants, neighborhood playgrounds and the cash and carry wholesale store.

As his skills developed he began to edit his footage into short films, adding his own voiceovers, almost taking on the role of a tour guide. He mixed images and sounds from other sources, such as TV news or his gospel records. The effect is often similar to that of a collage: admittedly disjointed, but distinctive and strangely captivating. It could quite easily coexist with the work of avant-garde filmmakers of the time, like Derek Jarman.

“I’m determined to involve him in the cinematic conversation,” says Mark Sealy, director of art agency Autograph, which focuses on race and cultural identity. “I think he’s very special. He didn’t do any cultural studies or photography degrees. It’s just someone who wanted to load this camera up with film. Sealy is showcasing Salmon’s work at the Barbican in London later this month as part of The Decolonising Lens, which features diverse perspectives in photography and film. Our understanding of modern Britain, Sealy argues, is incomplete without them. “I have often said that the history of black Britain still lies under people’s beds. He’s always here to be – I don’t like the word “discovered”, but I think he’s still here to be recognized. “

Salmon arrived in the UK in November 1957 as part of the Windrush generation. He still remembers the train journey from Plymouth. “When we got to London we saw a lot of houses with chimneys at the top and we thought, ‘Boy, there is a lot of work in London. Lots of factories around! ‘ Houses in Jamaica of course did not have chimneys. Sadly, Salmon remembers how unwelcoming Britain was to Caribbean immigrants at the time. “My biggest mistake? He laughs. “I only bought a one-way ticket! In Jamaica, Salmon ran a successful bicycle shop, earning between £ 3-400 a week. In the UK he was lucky enough to win £ 5. He eventually found work as a cycle mechanic and excelled at building wheels – twice as fast as his white colleagues, which caused friction.

Salmon is undoubtedly the reason the Brixton riots happened: “The police. They were to blame when they introduced the laws. Then, as now, “sus” laws, which allowed police to arrest and search suspected criminals on the streets, were disproportionately applied to people of color. Aggravated by high unemployment and crime rates in the 1970s, they exacerbated the deterioration of relations between black communities and the Metropolitan Police.

Salmon remembers driving his car near Clapham and being stopped by two police officers who refused to believe the vehicle was his. Another time, he was informed that his son had been arrested on suspicion of pickpocketing. Police said they caught him in the act, even though his son was at work at the time and had a foolproof alibi. It was unfair but Salmon took no further action. “Because if you attacked the police, they would attack your son. Many young black people of the time went to jail because they [the police] put things on them whether they are guilty or not. Many parents were afraid to send their children to the streets, or even to go and buy something at the store, because they always ended up at the station.

Still filming… Salmon says Brixton is “100% better”. Photographie : Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Salmon’s films shot in the aftermath of the riots show a landscape of overturned cars, burnt buildings still smoking, streets littered with police, firefighters and onlookers. The people of the community that he interviews in the streets are frank in their opinions: “Jobs, money, the National Front and all the rest, we had just enough, so we explode”; “Black youth? I think they are just defending themselves ”; ” They [the police] caused all of this.

Although the problems persist, Brixton today is “100% better,” says Salmon. “You can walk freely now. You can see black boys with white girls, black girls with white boys, everyone is one now. Where white Londoners once refused to rent him a room, now his neighbors are watching over him.

Since retiring, Salmon has run a home bike repair business, but he hasn’t stopped making movies altogether. Sandi Hudson-Francis, who spent two years making a Salmon documentary called Super Sam, gave him an iPhone he had a lot of fun with. Meanwhile, 198 is currently digitizing 62 reels of Salmon footage for its archives. He is happy to see his work finally recognized.

“I feel on top of the world now,” he says and there is hopefully more to come. No one really knows how much material is buried in Salmon’s house, not even him. “Someone asked me the other day, ‘Sam, how did you manage to make so many movies?’ I said, “Determination”.


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