BY BRENDAN ZECEVIC
“In 1998 I was with the soldiers of the Northern Alliance when they got into a firefight and we were encircled by the Taliban. Suddenly everyone started running and I had to go after them and running in Afghanistan means running up these f***ing mountains. The bullets were hitting the ground and spurts of dust would be coming up. Then a grenade landed few feet away.”
Chris Steele-Perkins’ career as a photojournalist has taken him all over the world. As a member of the elite Magnum Photo agency he has captured the lives of prisoners, Prime Ministers, refugees and Royalty, and travelled from El Salvador to East Dulwich and Brixton to Beirut, but some of his most enduring images were taken in SW9.
“When I came to London in 1971 I was just looking for a place to stay that was affordable and I ended up in Brixton. It wasn’t a choice, it was a lucky landing. Gradually I grew into the community here.
“The Coach and Horses pub on Coldharbour Lane was a really special place, the best pub I ever went to. It was run by a landlord called George who was Jamaican, and everybody knew George. The place was crammed with locals: old, young, black, white, and then Chubby Mullins and his Allstars would get up on this tiny stage and the band would play and the drunks would dance: It was a good night out. If I’d thought about it correctly I could have done a book on that pub alone. It was great, you don’t realise how great these places are until they change.
“I do get occasionally phone calls from people who have seen the pictures and say, “that’s my dad, can I get a print?” which is a nice thing to hear 30 years later.
“I regret that I didn’t shoot a lot more when I was there. I would take a few shots of some random things and for a while I took a series of Brixton portraits, but I just gave up on it. While I was living in Brixton I was working outside of the country so when I came back to London I tried not to work in the area I was living in.
“When the Brixton riots hit, I was in El Salvador and nothing was happening there and the place is going up in flames just 200 yards from my where I lived, so I missed all that.”
And what about the grenade in Afghanistan?
“Well I hit the ground and it just didn’t go off. So I got up and kept running. We eventually got away and then I said to myself, “enough of this.” I didn’t want to do it anymore. I wanted to see my children grow up and I made a clear decision there and then that I was going to stop. There are plenty of interesting places in the world where I don’t have to get shot at.”
“So I moved my focus to England, this curious country I’d been brought up in, and I do find it a curious country and I’ve done numerous books about England from various perspectives.
“My last book came from a statistic I read about people who lived to be 100 years old and the fact that there were ten thousand of them living in the UK and that figure is growing. There could be millions of them in the next 30 years.
“I read this and suddenly wanted to be a documenter of this new generation; The Centenarians. It’s never been like this on the planet before, 150 years ago you died at 50, not 100.
“So I went in search of these Centenarians. And asked them: What’s it like to be a 100?
“It’s a portrait of a generation, the new homo-longevitus. And the weird thing is that it’s not stopping, there’s another sub group they’ve classified and which been called the super centenarians who are 110+. And the curve hasn’t started flattening out yet!
“I find it interesting that this has happened, and somewhat miraculous that the human body is able to do that.”
Chris Steele-Perkins’ book, ‘Fading Light, Portraits of Centenarians’ is on sale now from publishers McNidder & Grace. www.mcnidderandgrace.co.uk
More Brixton images by Chris Steele-Perkins: