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

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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)

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