Josh Cole's Physical Graffiti


Written by Olivia Patt
05 Sunday 05th August 2012

Just under a year ago, we spoke to award-winning photographer Josh Cole about his incendiary pictures of London gang members and his take on the riots that swept across England last August. A year later, and riot-free, we caught up with Josh to talk about his newest project, Physical Graffiti - an uplifting and personal look at some of the most impoverished communities in the world, and the role breakdancing plays in their everyday lives... 

Tell us about your newest project, Physical Graffiti.

The concept of early graffiti was to make ghetto areas look more beautiful - I wanted to take that idea and make these slum areas look more beautiful using the bodies of the dancers. Hence the title Physical Graffiti. In 2010 I had an opportunity to go to South Africa, Singapore and India with my work. It has taken the last eight years to compile these pictures from around the world and I felt like now was the right time to do an exhibition. Last year I also began directing and made a film version of Physical Graffiti in Rwanda and Burundi. This eventually became the film Yego [see below] which won a Best in Book for the Creative Review photo awards and was nominated twice (for best dance and best cinematography) at the Music Video Awards last year.


How did the idea for it come about?

I started out as a hip-hop photographer but found that the media was saturated with rapper and DJ images. I was more interested in the "forgotten" elements of hip-hop culture- primarily graffiti and breakdance. The breakdance movement came out of gangland New York in the 70's as a way for young gang members to "battle" in a non-violent way- this is a reoccurring theme in most of my work - the energy and creativity that comes from hardship, comes from the slums. Inspired by this I liked to shoot breakdancers out in the streets in the ghetto areas. As my professional life became more successful I had more and more opportunity to travel. Wherever I would go I would hook up with people from the hip-hop scene and go to shoot breakdancers in the most dangerous areas. This then turned into Physical Graffiti.

What are you hoping people will feel when they see your work?

I'd hope they feel inspired by the fact that these people come from such poverty and hardship but still manage to maintain such energy and spirit. When we are moaning about the weather and the state of public transport these people are fighting for survival and they are still more positive than us here. Everybody should visit people in the slums at some time in their lives - it's a wake up call!
Why do you think dance is such a vital and important thing in some of these ghettoised and impoverished communities?
I think its a simple way that you can express yourself. You don't need the money to buy a bike or a skateboard - you don't need a special place to practice you can just go out in the yard and do it. You can use your body to express yourself. I think that people from the slums around the world have begun to affiliate themselves with hip-hop culture. Its like the movement that started in the ghettos of the Bronx in the late 70's is starting now around the world.
You traveled all over the world for the project – was there any place in particular that you felt really embodied what you were trying to capture with Physical Graffiti?
Yes I think central Africa was incredible. In Rwanda, Burundi and the Congo the horror these people have seen is beyond description and yet the strength of character in the people I met was beyond anything I've ever seen. The time I spent there was life-changing in more ways than one.

How did you choose where to shoot – for example, why Argentina and not Brazil? Was there any particular reason you chose not to shoot in the United States or the UK?

Yes - in America and most of Europe street dance is big business and most of the best dancers are professionals. I felt that the energy of the dancers in the third world was more raw and fresh - they are more hungry for success. It feels more like when breakdancing first started in the Bronx this is what the energy must have felt like. I don't really feel it in the developed countries in the West.

It is described as your most “visually arresting and compelling work to date” – what sets Physical Graffiti apart from your other series?

I think most of my other work would be described as 'documentary' or 'reportage' work. This is my first major body of work which is concept driven. I'm not simply documenting these dancers - we are collaborating to produce works of art. 

What’s next for you?

I'm currently working on an idea for a world graffiti documentary/book/gallery show, pitching for a black comedy TV series with Sky and finishing up a hip-hop film about last summers' riots. 
See more of Josh's work at

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