The son of an English military officer, Chris Steele-Perkins was born in Rangoon, Burma, in 1947. His father abandoned the young boy’s Burmese mother and took him back to England, where Steele-Perkins got his first taste of displacement; a sense that he feels colours most of his work. ‘In the small seaside town where we lived there was no ethnic community into which I could retreat,’ Steele-Perkins would later write. ‘I was seen as a Chink. So, in the heartland of Anglo-Saxon England I forged the peculiar bonds that bind me to this country.’
He was educated at Christ’s Hospital School, Sussex, and began studying chemistry at the University of York in 1966. Within a year he had ceased these studies and travelled to Canada, where he worked briefly before returning to England to read psychology at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne for three years from 1967. While at Newcastle he worked as a photographer and picture editor for the student magazine. After graduating, and while lecturing in psychology, he began freelancing as a photographer specializing in theatre.
By the end of 1971, Steele-Perkins had moved to London and taken up photography full-time. After two years of working in Britain he was commissioned by several relief agencies to photograph in Bangladesh, and 1974 saw the resultant pictures exhibited in ‘The Face of Bengal’ at the Camerawork Gallery in London. His work was also included in ‘The Inquisitive Eye’ at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art.
In 1975 Steele-Perkins began working with the documentary group Exit on their inner-city projects, as well as co-curating and exhibiting in the ‘Young British Photographers’ exhibition at London’s Photographers’ Gallery. In 1976 he became an associate of the French photographic agency, Viva.
The artist’s rare ability to move between contemporary art and photojournalism was clearly illustrated at this time. One year after joining Viva, Steele-Perkins was also experimenting with conceptual photography, in the project ‘Film Ends’. This collaboration with photographer Mark Edwards involved trawling through some 5,000 found rolls of film, focusing on the film ends; the frames that are often arbitrarily exposed by professional photographers in order to complete the roll before processing. 40 of these images were printed and exhibited in a show that toured England, France and America.
Again he switched track, returning to documentary photography for his first book: ‘The Teds’, published in 1979. Also taking the form of a travelling exhibition, this set of pictures detailed the last great wave of England’s Teddy Boys – a flashily dressed and sometimes violent youth movement that originated in the 50s. By 1981 Steele-Perkins was a central figure within the rejuvenated British photography scene, and had produced his second book, ‘About Seventy Photographs’ - a survey of pictures that he purchased for the UK Arts Council collection. Some of his work with Exit was also published and exhibited as ‘Survival Programmes’ in 1982.
More and more, however, Steele-Perkins was photographing abroad, especially in the developing nations. ‘Previously my work had been focused on particulars of Britain: poverty, subculture,’ he noted. ‘I did not have any parallel reality against which to properly assess my position.’ And so he used his travels to give himself ‘a kaleidoscope of experiences’ with which to gain a new perspective and context. Journeying through Africa, the Middle East, the Soviet Union, and Central America, he photographed wars and famine: ‘I had witnessed, photographed, and wept for the victims of the world. The starving, the dispossessed, the oppressed; those with no hope but their indomitable spirit.’
In the 80s Steele-Perkins exhibited his work from Beirut and Africa, and became a full member of the Magnum photographic agency in 1982 - after quitting Viva - later serving as president. He won the Oscar Barnack Prize and the Tom Hopkinson award for British Photojournalism in 1988, and the Robert Capa Gold Medal in 1989: the same year that his first book of colour photographs, ‘The Pleasure Principle’, was published. These pictures of British society were ‘in one sense about our hedonism and our search for a better world,’ he wrote. ‘In another sense they are about me and the ambiguous feelings I have about England.’
He continued working abroad throughout the 90s and made a series of trips to Afghanistan, chronicling not just the civil war and its aftermath, but the citizens’ way of daily life. He was there for the 1998 earthquake: ‘I walked around photographing and talking to some people,’ he wrote. ‘The evening sun raking across the utter destruction of the village bathed the scene of loss and despair in a liquid beauty.’ Steele-Perkins' work in Afghanistan culminated in a book, ‘Afghanistan’, in 2001, and a travelling exhibition. He followed this up by setting out on an extensive project in Japan, which has taken in everything from the lush landscapes of the Kumano Trail, to the contemporary streetlife of the city, to the heights of Mount Fuji. It was a move that demonstrated as effectively as anything the ranginess and flexibility of his approach, and his singular openness to all kinds of experience. In 2002 the Fuji work will be published and toured as an exhibition.
World Press Award, ‘Daily Life’, 2000
Cooperative Society Award, for the film ‘Dying for Publicity’, 1994
One World Award, for the film ‘Dying for Publicity’, 1994
Robert Capa Gold Medal, ICP, New York, 1989
Oskar Barnak Award, World Press, The Netherlands, 1988
SELECTED PERMANENT COLLECTIONS
Arts Council of Great Britain
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Corcoran Gallery, Washington, USA
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia
‘Afghanistan’, Perpignan Festival, France, 1999
‘Famine in Africa’, Barbican Gallery, London, 1985
‘Contemporary British Photography’, Centre National de la Photographie, Paris, 1985
‘Young British Photographers’, Photographers' Gallery, London, 1975
‘Inquisitive Eye’, ICA, London, 1974
‘Afghanistan’, Marval, France, 2001
‘In Our Time’, Magnum group, Norton, 1989
‘The Pleasure Principle’, Cornerhouse Books, 1989
‘About Seventy Photographs’, Arts Council of Great Britain, 1980
‘The Teds’, text by Richard Smith, Travelling Light, 1979
Images from the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip, taken in 1987/88, shown in Side Gallery as part of the NOW series of exhibitions, responding rapidly to current affairs.