Some time in early 1977 I was looking at secondhand cameras in the window of Fox Talbot, in Tottenham Court Road. Ed Barber had the same idea. That chance meeting changed my life.
I already knew Ed from the Half Moon Photography Workshop (HMPW), which I'd visited a couple of times in Bethnal Green. HMPW had quickly become a magnet for young photographers drawn to social documentary photographic theory and practice. Ed knew I was squatting and taking photographs. HMPW was thinking about setting up a group to document squatting. Would I be interested?
At this point my life was a mess. I was 27 and had no intention of doing anything except photography, but had no clue how to do it professionally. My girlfriend had dumped me for a proper, successful photographer. I was working on building sites, but broke. And the GLC had told us we would shortly be made homeless. So of course the answer was yes.
Within a few weeks the group included David Hoffman, Mike Goldwater, Bill Wise, Mike Wigg, Joy Gardiner, Dave Walkling, Ray Morris, and several others who came and went including my friend Raissa Page. It was a mixed ability group, with the ability to avoid eviction being a defining skill. Enough stability to make photos and process them was recurrent problem for some of the photographers who were squatters, and access was a problem for those who weren't. The cost of film and cameras was also an issue for those whose lives by definition were on or beyond the edge. I was relatively lucky. I'd lived in the same place for 3 years and made a darkroom in a cupboard, I had a part-time job. I began selling photos of squatting news to Time Out. And the squatted street I was living in seceded from the UK to become the Independent Republic of Frestonia, and asked the UN to send tanks to keep the GLC out.
Squatting in the 1970's was a huge subject. Housing shortage was as much of a problem then as it is now, but there were large numbers of derelict slums left to rot in a stalled economy of strikes and 3-day weeks - a safety valve and opportunity for the unprivileged to commandeer. It rapidly became a large project, and we were all doing different things, from different angles. Every month or so we'd have a meeting, partly to review new work, partly to try and settle on a coherent direction. After a year or so, Neil Slavin, the picture editor of Now! joined the group to try and herd the cats. We endlessly tried to take stock of how to knit together the disparate strands. We had lots of good pictures. What we never achieved was a unifying narrative that brought together the politics and the human. Our dilemma was that without that we'd end up with a sprawling incoherent mess, or a bunch of individual exhibits that didn't hang together. That was complicated by the nature of the group. Only David Hoffman and I had squatted long term in any one place, and the work that each of us produced was defined by that. The others were far more ad hoc, small sets produced between evictions or on brief visits.
While we were still trying to resolve all that, the Thatcher era arrived. HMPW lost its funding and the plot. Photographers doing photography were swept aside by intellectual theorists who rejected the social and political for uncontentious grant-friendly postmodern bollocks. Eventually we had nowhere to meet, pin photos on the walls, or argue, and the moment was lost. So that was that. There never was any squatting group exhibition. Most of those hundreds of photos have never been seen.
Forty years later, the wheel has turned. Housing is in crisis, affordability has vanished, squatting has been made even more illegal, the young have had their futures eaten, social housing is being repurposed into profitable property development and privatised assets. Frestonia, redeveloped in the mid 1980's, turned many of the former squatters into tenants who are now under threat from social cleansing. The hideous mausoleum to progressive housing policy that is Grenfell Tower looms in the background. Government and the red-tops have encouraged the belief that anyone who can't unaided pay today's insane housing costs out of strangled wages is a 'shirker', 'sponger' or 'parasite'.
These are the same divisive epithets that were hurled at squatters. And given the likely economic trajectory, this is all going to get much worse. In any market, there will be winners and losers, and losing at housing is a life-limiting epidemic. So now seems a pretty good time to drag these photos out of the archive and finally do what I set out to do: to tell a human story, of people just like you.
50 prints from the 'Welcome to Frestonia' series can be seen at the Frestonia Gallery, 2 Olaf Street, London W11 until November 11 2017. Full details and opening hours: Frestonia Gallery.
See more work by Tony Sleep