Flipping marvellous: Meet the free-runners turning the world on its head

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The photographer Josh Cole discovers how breakdancers and free-runners are casting new light on urban ghettos across the world.

When he was growing up, Josh Cole took a heightened interest in the local graffiti, and also in the mostly hooded types who created it. He considered it a noble art, one which made the drab environs of his hometown of Lewes, near Brighton, look less monochrome. This was a fascination that would later take root as he forged a career in photography. Now 38, and a veteran of many advertising campaigns, he is about to launch his first photographic exhibition, in London's Hoxton. Called Physical Graffiti, it features breakdancers and free- running enthusiasts from around the world trying to brighten up their own drab environs.

"The concept of early graffiti was to make ghetto areas look more beautiful," says Cole. "I wanted to take that idea and make my photographs of slum areas [in cities such as Kigali, Shanghai and Jeddah] look more beautiful by using the bodies of the dancers. Hence the title Physical Graffiti."

But Cole had another aim, too: to challenge the view we all too often see of the developing world. "We tend to get fed only negative stereotypes," he says. "I wanted to show that a lot of people in the developing world are just as k positive, energetic and productive as anyone. These photos, for me, represent a phoenix rising from the flames."

Despite their two-dimensional format, his pictures are thrillingly alive: the man caught, mid-somersault, on a hot Durban morning while motorcyclists stop to gawp; the chap in pure vertical flight above a group of men on the Burundi shoreline; the jobsworth security guard berating the photographer himself in Lithuania, while behind him free-runners bound along concrete walls.

What most comes through in his work is the sense of connection between the photographer and his subject – something always striven for but not always achieved.

"Anywhere I go, I seek out the local hip-hop scene," Cole explains. "Hip-hop people are basically my extended global family, and a lot of them come from the street. I'm a raw little nutcase myself, so we bond. That's how I managed to get the shots: by connecting at a deep level."

Cole talks about his hometown in the kind of dismissive manner that people who still live there would not thank him for. He did not like Lewes, its claustrophobia, its smalltown mentality, and he longed to escape. His parents were hippies, and he was surrounded from a young age by a bohemian drug culture he would, soon enough, find himself helplessly drawn into.

"I was a bit of a naughty boy," he concedes. "After school, I worked a bunch of rubbish jobs and got myself into a lot of trouble – drugs, a bit of dealing."

He wasn't a particularly covert dealer, and the drug squad, having monitored his movements for several months, soon swooped. "But I was lucky. I didn't get sent to prison; I got away with a caution." Yet it proved the kind of wake-up call police always hope cautions to be. Having already attained an A-level in photography, Cole chose to study the subject at degree level, and enrolled at Derby University. "Anywhere really, so long as it got me away from Lewes and the scene I was in."

But Cole did not fare particularly well in higher education. His tutors, he suggests, had little time for either him or his working methods, and having already submerged himself in what passed for Derby's own underground music scene, he found it difficult to get on with his fellow, and perhaps more straight-laced, students. Most nights were spent at local music venues, taking photographs of both those up on stage and in the crowd, and shortly after leaving university, he landed his first major advertising campaign, for Levi's.

Over the following decade, he shot work for Nokia, Nike, Lucozade and Nintendo, his commissions taking him around the world. He elected to stay on in each territory after the job, invariably seeking out the more deprived, and notionally dangerous, areas in order to develop his own portfolio capturing urban culture, from which Physical Graffiti emerged. In these situations, he had to live by his wits, but then Cole, you fancy, wouldn't have it any other way. "I don't feel fear," he says, "and I'm not the nervous type. But were there hairy moments? Yes, plenty."

The Congo proved particularly challenging, he adds. "Sometimes you have to go in heavy-handed. It's not ideal, but you've got little choice, really. You know, you might encounter the guy who owns a particular street, someone who is completely chaotic on methamphetamine, who doesn't best understand what you are doing and is, shall we say, a little unpredictable…"

But he insists he never feared for his safety, and what was most required by the team of fixers he employed wherever he went was little more than crowd control.

"If you go to certain parts of Africa or India and you're white, you become an object of fascination. And if you have a bunch of cameras with you, even the most quiet streets can be transformed in a matter of minutes: suddenly you're surrounded by 200 to 300 people." He laughs. "Some places, they have no concept of personal space." k

However, Cole says he doesn't want to give the wrong impression here. Everybody else already does enough. What he wants, with his work, is to celebrate those parts of the world rarely celebrated, to find good within them. His next project is a documentary film to be shot in the UK which will allow sympathisers and the instigators of last year's summer riots to have their say. "All sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds have something to say," he suggests. "We need to listen."

Physical Graffiti is at Hoxton Gallery, London E2, from Wednesday to 6 August (joshcole.co.uk)

Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Film
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence