From the tumult of the uprisings to everyday scenes, Clovis Salmon’s jerky camera captured Black British life. As his work hits the big screen, we meet the 94-year-old known as Sam the Wheels
‘I used to keep my camera like this,” says Clovis Salmon, putting his 1960s wind-up Kodak Brownie inside his jacket so that just the lens is poking out. “Then I don’t need to do nothing. I turn around, the camera turn with me.” He swivels his torso to either side – for a 94-year-old, he is in remarkably good shape. This is how he filmed the Brixton riots in 1981, in the streets right outside the 198 art gallery where we are talking.
Today, the scene on Railton Road is of a gentrifying, multicultural neighbourhood, with coffee shops and delis. But for a few days in April 1981, this was a conflict zone of burning buildings, looting, riot police and angry people. “I saw the Black boys take away the fire engine and drive it up the road,” says Salmon. “I saw the post office burned down, the garage burned down, everything.” Salmon had to keep his camera concealed, he explains, “because if you do like this” – he holds it to his eye – “police would come and take it away, or the boys come and mash it up.”