I’ve always loved breakdance, graffiti and hip-hop culture. My Physical Graffiti project began while I was a student, shooting local breakdancers, focusing on the acrobatic and explosive side of their dancing, playing with how you could freeze their movements in mid-air.
I started shooting advertising in 2004, but wherever I went in the world, I’d ask the dance community in the UK if they knew anyone there and I’d link up with local dancers or, more recently, find them through social media. Whenever there was a half-day free I’d be bunking off to take these photos.
This shot is probably the pinnacle of the project. I was in Papua New Guinea, shooting a short film for a charity. Driving through the capital one day, one of the people I was working with spotted the country’s best-known breakdancer walking down the street. My companion knew I wanted to photograph breakdancers, and said: “Ah, that’s the guy you want.” He’s called George Tau, AKA B-boy Monkey Stuntz. We got the driver to stop, George jumped in our car – and we sped off. We sort of kidnapped him!
I got my camera reaction skills from playing golf on the Super Nintendo as a kid
George agreed to bring 10 dancers along to a photoshoot, and it was my idea to take them to this little stilt village outside Port Moresby. The guy in the shot, B-boy Fly – was a particularly exceptional dancer and acrobat. All the kids from the village had gathered to watch, drawn originally because of the cameras, but then they got mesmerised by the dance. There’s this amazing feeling of them lifting him up, like their energy is levitating him. I didn’t even notice the dog when I took the photograph – it was just wandering through.
Technically, it’s quite a difficult shot. Even if you had the fastest Nikon shooting 15 frames a second, you wouldn’t necessarily be able to catch the moment. You’re talking split-seconds. It’s just instinct. I always say I got my camera reaction skills from playing a golf game on the Super Nintendo when I was a kid. When you took a swing, you had to press the button at a very precise point.
The village was amazing. There were all these burnt-out cars and everywhere you looked there was rusted, corrugated iron covered in crazy graffiti. I love going to areas like this where you’re told not to because they’re too dangerous. I’m a strong believer that you create your reality: if you decide to see hate and violence then that’s what you’ll get. And if you see love and happiness, that’s what you’ll create instead. But this shoot was the ultimate test of that belief – statistically Port Moresby is one of the murder capitals of the world and you can feel the potential for violence there.
I was a drug dealer and addict. Photography and the hip-hop scene saved my life
The Physical Graffiti project has taken me from shooting dancers in the sea at dawn in Burundi with hippos running around us, to the most dangerous townships in South Africa. I’ve seen some outrageous stunts, too. One guy did a parkour-style jump off a second-storey balcony in a block of flats in London. Another did a backflip off the roof of a house in a shantytown in South Africa. I try to get stuff that’s dramatic and “big” in its shape – often, breakdancing pictures can just look like someone lying on the floor.
This photo shows a literal rising of the body. But I think it also captures the rising of the human spirit. There’s a philosophical side to the project: the dancers I photograph are often from difficult backgrounds, or have endured hardships and challenges, and they are using the expression of their bodies to bring them out of the darkness into a brighter future.
That’s my own journey, too. I was a drug dealer and addict. I was raided by the drug squad and received a caution and they said, “We’re going to watch you.” So I was kind of freaked out. That summer, aged 23, I made the decision to go to university and study photography. So I always say that photography and the hip-hop scene really saved my life.
Since lockdown, I’ve made the decision to move away from the world of commercial photography and I’m crowdfunding a Physical Graffiti photobook and the profit made on it will start a new enterprise, a holistic healing centre called Eye of the Storm, helping kids who are suffering from PTSD and trauma. It’s a leap of faith. Just like the guy in the photo.
Josh Cole’s CV
Born: Rugby, UK, 1974.
Trained: Derby University.
Influences: “Don McCullin, Nan Goldin, my life’s experiences.”
High point: “Shooting in 20-plus countries in a year.”
Low point: “Losing my direction in the commercial world.”
Top tip: “Stay true to what gets you excited about your work.”