— Ashley Verse —

On grime, fashion, community, chance meetings, life in Mitcham, music videos, opportunity and the importance of shaping your own world view.

(All images submitted by Ashley Verse)

In June 2015, I interviewed Steven ‘Cheeky’ Cee — DJ, promoter and engine room behind Eskimo Dance — for a piece on the legendary grime event for Boiler Room. We met at Boxpark in Shoreditch and meandered between the various bars, walking and talking, before setting up stall at Cook Daily to grab some food. Before our interview began, I noticed a guy with a camera sat in close proximity and it was only as our chat progressed that I realised he was there to shoot us. He was quiet but assured, snapping only at choice moments, capturing the essence of our conversation and the energy and passion Steven spoke with. As our talk drew to an end, punctuated by an impromptu chat to Wiley on the phone from Cyprus — a moment snapped by the photographer — I was finally introduced. “This is Ashley”, said Steven, “he’s been taking some photos for us”. We fist-bumped, said a quick hello and swapped details — “It’s just @AshleyVerse on Twitter”, I recall him mentioning. The photos were in my inbox within 12 hours and nearly five and a half years on, I can still say that Ashley Verse took my photo once. 

(Steven Cee & Me (Tomas Fraser), June 2015 — Credit: Ashley Verse)

Now widely considered one of the UK’s leading young music and fashion photographers, Ashley’s work has graced magazine covers, album covers and national newspapers. His shots have become iconic, etched long in the memory of fans and contemporaries, but the biggest compliment I and many others who know and work with him can pay, is his character — his success hasn’t changed him; he has remained an unaffected human being. As we catch up, bleary-eyed on Saturday morning, there are genuine smiles on both our faces — this is the first time we’ve caught up in over two years.

“This year actually started quite positively for me”, Ashley says, “I was still touring, I’d gone and shot a bit of Paris Fashion Week for the first time and I was literally thinking about hitting up the different fashion weeks across Europe for the summer but obviously by March … game over.” As a freelance photographer working across predominantly music and fashion, gigs, events and in a broader sense, travel, form Ashley’s lifeblood; without them, work can be difficult to come by. But, for someone who lives life constantly on the move, has the impact been wholly negative, I wondered. “At first, it annoyed me”, he concedes, “because I wasn’t ready to stop, I wanted to carry on working. But after a while, it taught me how to utilise time for myself a little bit better. Like a lot of people, I started running all the time … it had a nice effect on me. For me personally, because I work freelance, I never have the consistency to be able to go to the gym or have a routine. I’ve never had a routine when I think about it. Like if I wanna run every morning, what am I gonna do when I’ve got an 8am call time? The next day I might have a concert from 9pm ’til 3 in the morning, it just never added up, so after a while I realised it was nice to have a set pace.”

Ashley grew up in Mitcham, South London, where he still lives today, the son of Bajan and Jamaican parents. The area was and remains incredibly diverse, with communities formed block by block, street by street — a spirit Ashley carries with him to this day. “There’s a bond between everyone”, he explains. “We all live on the same block, we all interact with each other … we always had youth clubs and growing up and I remember like, in the summer, we’d always be going to Thorpe Park and whatever through the council’s youth club scheme. My estate has always been a community in that sense.”

He attended Rutlish High School, a popular all boys school in the area — an experience he describes as “boisterous to say the least.” His school years, 2004-2009, also coincided with grime’s meteoric rise and fall; from explosive, Mercury-prize winning art form (Dizzee Rascal – ‘Boy In Da Corner’) to tracks being banned on the radio and derided in the press (Lethal Bizzle – ‘Pow! (Forward)’. “Everyone was playing it in the playground”, recalls Ashley, “everyone was sharing it on bluetooth, infrared, Limewire … the music was flowing. Everyone wanted to spit bars in the playground, at lunch time that was all people were doing. Sectioned off in one corner of the playground, everyone’s got the latest Ironsoul, Flukes … some kind of instrumental … and everyone would spit. It was a real mixture of different energies, especially being at a school with no girls around, but it was a good time that taught me a lot.” Was Ashley ever tempted to MC, I ask. “Ah yeah of course, we all did”, he says, breaking into laughter. “I loved it though, we used to have little clashes in the playground, at certain times we’d do like, off the top freestyles where you weren’t allowed to spit your bars. It was fun, it was competitive and the energy was always good. Aside from that, we’d be listening to other people’s music anyway, especially local spitters. We had a lot of road rappers around in South, as well as grime. That was where I first got in touch with it all.”

“Everyone wanted to spit bars in the playground, at lunch time that was all people were doing. Sectioned off in one corner of the playground, everyone’s got the latest Ironsoul, Flukes … some kind of instrumental … and everyone would spit.”

After finishing school, Ashley attended Brit College, where he hoped to study and eventually make music. He’d studied piano at high school, as well as classical courses — “I got to Grade 5” he says, looking around his bedroom wall for the certificate — but had also started Media Studies as a GCSE option. “Media just clicked with me like that”, he says, clicking his fingers, “so as I was applying for Brit, I decided to change my decision and apply to study Media. I didn’t really have an idea of what I wanted to do yet, but I knew I wanted to do something within media.”

It was a decision that’d change the course of his life. After a year studying, he decided that he wanted to focus his energies on music videos, inspired by his love of the slick, US rap and RnB videos he’d watch on MTV Base and the grainy, DIY cuts he’d catch on Channel U. “It was after a year at Brit that I got my first camera”, Ashley recalls. “I started shooting music videos for people that lived locally mainly … friends that lived nearby, local artists that I’d heard of or people I’d grown up listening to. At the time, I actually starting working with Stormzy, but he fitted into that bracket for me at the time … he was someone my age, my bredrins were telling me he was hard and that I should work with him … I mean that’s kinda how it came about. He’s from Norbury so it wasn’t far from where I was and he was just one of a number of local artists making noise at the time. I think the videos are still on my YouTube channel, which is probably over 10 years old now.”

“With everything going on, especially with the birth of SBTV and your GRM’s and Link Up TV’s, it felt possible to me”, continues Ashley. “Music videos felt like a real opportunity at that age. There were a lot of people at that time who wanted to be the next SBTV … everyone had a something TV channel, mine was IMTV. It was a big motivation and I actually said this to Jamal (Edwards) the other day, he was a big inspiration to me early on. I remember the days he had a normal job and walking into where he was working and being like ‘you’re SB … like, what are you doing here?!’. I had no concept of the world at that point or how anything worked, so it gave me a dose of reality to see him still grafting.”

As one of only two people in his local area he recalls having an industry-standard camera — the other being his friend Jake, who was more into photography than music videos — Ashley soon found himself in demand. “Sometimes it’d just be people asking me to take photos of a house party or something like that”, he explains, “but I remember I had one friend who decided he wanted to model. It didn’t amount to being a great portfolio or anything like that, it was just me shooting him in the park … like we had no clue … but it worked for him. He got signed to AMTK as a model and even my mum had been telling me to do photography for ages and I was always like ‘nah, don’t wanna do that’. It wasn’t until little things like that happened that things started to fall into place. By the time I turned 18, I could start going to clubs too … and also take my camera along to catch live PAs.”

“My first ever live show that I remember shooting was … Skepta at XOYO in 2011”, he continues. “The photos from that night are so old that I don’t even have them on a hard drive anywhere but I know they’ll be floating around on my Facebook. I wouldn’t have called myself a photographer back then by any stretch.” Did he just pitch up with a camera, or was he invited, I wondered. “I was actually invited by Julie Adenuga. We used to work at the Apple Store together when I was a temp. I had no idea who she was in terms of who her brothers were, she just always had great energy at work. Eventually I found out from some other people there and she was cool with it, but I guess at that time, she would have had people drawn to her because they’d know her brothers were JME and Skepta. I was just drawn to her because she was sick. Once I’d told her, she was like, ‘do you know what, Skep has a concert next week, do you wanna come along?’ and that was it. That was my introduction to shooting shows.”

“I was actually invited by Julie Adenuga. We used to work at the Apple Store together when I was a temp. I had no idea who she was in terms of who her brothers were, she just always had great energy at work.”

Although still obsessed by the idea of directing music videos, Ashley would become more and more enamoured with photography over the next few years. Still in his late-teens, his work behind the lens wasn’t met by instant, overnight success; it was a slow and gradual build. He was still shooting predominantly local artists in Mitcham and although now a regular at shows in London, he was still unaware of how far his work could travel. “I saw that there was potential for growth”, Ashley concedes, “but it wasn’t until about two or three years later that I really started to take my photography work more seriously. I used that time to really hone my skills but the main reason I switched my focus away from music videos was because I got frustrated. Because I’d been studying the techniques, I tried to start writing treatments and bringing these stronger ideas to life, which I didn’t really know how to execute, but artists at that time and at that age did not wanna read a treatment. It was always just ‘come to my estate and we’ll shoot’ and after a while I got tired of that. It felt limiting, it felt like the ideas weren’t vast enough and the fact that I could go to a club, take my camera and get a couple of photos started to appeal more to me.”

In the years following, Ashley setup camp in the photo pits of some of London’s most iconic venues. From Brixton Academy to Visions in Dalston, if there was a grime event going down, chances are you’d find Ashley, camera in tow. Alongside other breakout photographers like Vicky Grout, Courtney Francis and Blaow, his lens was responsible for capturing the raw energy of grime’s second coming. “When it was just us lot … Vicky, Courtney, Blaow … stepping into the pit back then, there was no one else there”, Ashley explains, “and because of that, we developed our own community. It wasn’t long before we realised it would only be us in those pits, you know.”

From those vantage points, Ashley captured era-defining shots; Drake coming out with Section Boyz at XOYO in 2014 on the night he shunned the BRITS, Skepta and Novelist at Visions, which saw Skepta perform ‘It Ain’t Safe’ with A$AP Bari for the first time in 2015, as well as countless Eskimo Dances, radio sets and headline shows across the country. But what is it that makes a good shot? What does Ashley try and convey in his live photography? “Energy”, he says assuredly. “That’s what a lot of the artists were putting out and filling the rooms with. I quickly learnt as well that being in the pit is a prime spot for being in the middle of all that energy. I shoot shows like a fan, like I’m meant to be in the crowd … I will dance, singalong to every tune and people at the end are like, ‘did you get photos or?’ … I live the experience the same way the crowd live the experience. Being in that pit, you’re in the middle of the artist putting out energy and the fans giving it back. I’m literally standing in the middle of that flow, so I catch the energy from both sides. That for me, is what I always want to capture on camera. You don’t always get that from crowd shots, but you always get it from shooting the performer … you can see how much they give.”

(Drake w/ Section Boyz @ XOYO, 2016 — Credit: Ashley Verse)

“I quickly learnt as well that being in the pit is a prime spot for being in the middle of all that energy. I shoot shows like a fan, like I’m meant to be in the crowd … I will dance, singalong to every tune and people at the end are like, ‘did you get photos or?’ … I live the experience the same way the crowd live the experience.”

“One of my first photos that went viral or felt viral to me at the time”, Ashley continues, “was a photo of Skepta and Novelist. It was the first time I’d gone to Visions because it was rumoured that Skepta was meant to be turning up. I just wanted to see it and find out what was going on. He went there to launch ‘It Ain’t Safe’ with Bari there and I got this one photo that I put up on my Instagram and he reposted it. My phone was pinging so much that I thought it was a phone call. I remember I was watching a film and I thought to myself, ’it can’t be that important, I’ll get it in a second”. I finished the film, looked at my phone and my notifications were going mad. That was then first time I realised that this could be a tangible thing. I knew at the time I was taking photos because I loved it, but I didn’t have a vision for it beyond that. It was still very much a hobby at that point, I was still working retail … but at that time it felt like all of a sudden, there was potential for it to be a real thing. That whole period even made me feel like I understood grime better. Obviously I’d been listening to it for years but experiencing that energy, I didn’t understand it until I picked up a camera.”

(Skepta & Novelist @ Visions, 2015 — Credit: Ashley Verse)

Although Ashley and co had a front row seat, he still had to earn the trust of grime’s top tier. Initially, MCs were sometimes bemused to see young, wide-eyed photographers at their shows; just what were these kids getting out of coming along to raves with their cameras? “Grime was very protective of itself at the time”, Ashley concedes, “but what I was too young to really understand was how much grime had been tarnished over time. I knew that they’d banned ‘Pow!’ from the clubs way back but I didn’t really understand the press story … whenever press had mentioned grime, it’d always be in a negative light. There was certainly a small sense of ‘why are you guys here?’ at first, most definitely. I guess people had to suss out why we were there and what our intentions were. I think myself, Vicky, Blaow etc saw taking photos as a way of showing our appreciation for what they did. Our cameras were our way of saying, ‘look, we love what you do and this is why we’re here’. Over time, people started to realise that we understood the music, the culture, the vibe and we’d start getting invites to shows and radio sets. The rise of the music, too, really benefited us … we kinda grew with it. Grime helped us all establish careers, really.”

“I think myself, Vicky, Blaow etc saw taking photos as a way of showing our appreciation for what they did. Our cameras were all we had to say to them, ‘look, we love what you do and this is why we’re here’.”

Even as an established photographer with some of the hottest exclusives London had to offer, Ashley was still unsure of what to do with his work. Entirely self-taught, the concept of approaching editorial platforms or magazines was completely alien. Instead, Instagram became his first port of call, a vehicle for not only showcasing his best work, but for building a rapport with the artists he was shooting. “Instagram was really helpful”, Ashley explains. “I’d put photos up and DM them to artists, that’s literally all I did with my photos at first. A few people would speak to me about stuff and say things like ‘have you ever tried messaging so and so at this title or that title’ and I was like ‘whaaaat?’. I had no idea back then, but over time, I learned how to build an email, how to approach people, how to reach out to magazine editors and people at websites. Bit by bit, I was able to learn the business acumen of it all too, because I didn’t have any of that when I started. I didn’t know the way to move or how to be … I’m sure there were times when I didn’t follow the rules because I didn’t know how things were done. Did I piss people off without realising? Probably, but I literally didn’t have a clue. I had to educate myself and learn as I went.”

“We all had similar intentions”, continues Ashely, discussing strength in numbers and coming up with other young photographers. “And I quickly realised if Vicky or Blaow weren’t at a show, I was gonna be at a show on my own. When you start seeing that familiar face each time, it helps you build an unspoken bond and respect, you know. We all talked between ourselves and we were all there because we fucking loved the music and wanted to take photos. That was it, pure and simple. It was a sick time.”

Aside from music, Ashley had always naturally gravitated towards fashion too. Inspired by his older cousin, who was heavily interested in fashion when he was growing up — “he’d buy a lot of Alexander McQueen and Marc Jacobs” — Ashley had always kept his finger on the pulse. His first break came via a friend, who had spare tickets to a few shows at London Fashion Week in the early 2010s while he was still at college. “As I said, I was the guy with the camera in my ends”, Ashley affirms, “so my friend asked if I could come along and take some photos. I think she was blogging at the time and wanted me to get a few snaps here and there, so I went along. It was only a small taste, but even that … like, just being there … I felt quite unwelcome if I’m honest.”

“I loved watching the shows and seeing the vibe, the outrageous outfits and what not”, he continues, “but to be honest, being young and being black, I felt very underrepresented there and I didn’t feel welcome. Even more so for the photographers … and I see it even now doing fashion shows … a lot of the older photographers, they don’t embrace young photographers or female photographers. You’ll see that the photo pits at shows are quite staggered, they’ll build it so it staggers up so you can shoot from higher and higher positions. Usually, you’ll find female photographers sitting on the floor at the front and I was discussing this the other day, they really don’t embrace other people. These guys have been shooting for 25 years plus but they’re just not ready for a new wave of photographers. I still feel like that’s the case.”

(J Hus, shot for Mixmag, August 2017 — Credit: Ashley Verse)

It would be GQ that’d first reach out to Ashley on a fashion tip, purely by chance after seeing some of his music portrait work in a number of smaller, independent magazines. He received a direct message from the then picture editor, who asked if he’d be interested in contributing to GQ — one of the world’s leading fashion monthlies. “That was first proper taste of being able to go to proper shows … you know like an Alexander McQueen show or a Burberry show, Moschino and brands like that. It was completely alien to me at first. I’d find it so weird after Fashion Week, going from there and coming back to the ends … it was such a contrast but at the same time, because of everything that was going on in my ends, it felt good to have that contrast and to know that there’s more out there in the world. A lot of people that get caught up in bad situations, they haven’t been able to see enough. They don’t really know what’s really out there for them to see. People talk about disenfranchisement and not having opportunities but before you get to that stage, it’s not having the knowledge of the opportunities in the first place. People just aren’t aware.”

“A lot of people that get caught up in bad situations, they haven’t been able to see enough. They don’t really know what’s really out there for them to see. People talk about disenfranchisement and not having opportunities but before you get to that stage, it’s not having the knowledge of the opportunities in the first place.”

Just as he’d had a front row seat to grime’s 2.0 explosion, Ashley’s work in fashion also ensured he’d have the best tickets in the house to see it mesh with fashion too; a merger that he was able to document like few others. “There were suddenly a lot more high fashion streetwear brands that were appearing at Fashion Week”, recalls Ashley, “so as well as all the super tailored pieces, you started seeing brands like KTZ, Liam Hodges, Nazir Mazhar …. and tracksuits appearing on catwalks. There was literally one season of that and the next season, Skepta’s walking for Nazir. I think it was rumoured that they were working on a musical collaboration for the show, this was before ‘Shutdown’ too, but he came out and did the catwalk. It just felt amazing to see it. Even the way they did up his tracksuit, you could only see his eyes, so it was a case of ‘if you know, you know’. I got in there for the dress rehearsal and was like, ‘that is Skepta, definitely Skepta’. I managed to grab a quick two minutes with him, no more than that, and I said to him ‘I thought you were doing the music?’ and he kinda just shrugged it off with a smile, like ‘I can do it all’. I mean it had been done before with Cassette Playa who had JME and Tempa T walk in 2007, but I was in year 10 at the time so it was before me and even then, there was a big, big gap before grime was embraced at fashion shows again. The move to bring Skepta in like that did a lot for him and the fashion industry I think and really started the influx of young designers being given the freedom to be more creative and less polished. Suddenly it wasn’t just about suits and you started to see the hinges fall. There’s still a long way to go even now, but that period was so important.”

(Skepta x Nazir Mazhar, 2014)

Ashley told much of the story through his Instagram, which pieced together how and why certain MCs — from Skepta to Jammer to Tinie Tempah — were front row at certain shows and why their music was starting to soundtrack catwalks, because even by this point, the magazines and editorials he was shooting for still didn’t understand the dynamic; why had grime become so influential? It was a question other music titles were more than happy to answer, particularly Joseph ‘JP’ Patterson, who gave Ashley’s work a solid home at Complex UK, and with it, a foundation for him to build from. “He really helped me develop by giving me a place to host my photos from concerts and shows”, explains Ashley, “and he’d then find the right words or connect with the right writers to put everything together. We worked heavily together at that time, which was sick because he gave me a home. I knew that if I’d taken a sick photo, JP would be able to bring it to life.”

For all his trials and tribulations so far, Ashley’s biggest challenge has always been one he’s had to learn on the job; working with artists, teams, editorials, managers, tour managers, agents. “I felt like coming into an industry like this would be bless”, he says sheepishly, “especially coming out of retail. I genuinely thought I’d experience a different energy in music and I wouldn’t have to deal with some of the stuff I’d dealt with before. Everything has a different energy so I came into it like ‘rahhh this is gonna be sick’, but you know, even in music you can’t pick who you work with. I guess there’s always gonna be an office dickhead … they don’t go away in life. My mum always said this to me but it didn’t click for a long time … to learn how to deal with certain characters early because they’re always going to be around, in whatever industry. You’re always gonna encounter energy you might not vibe with, or an interaction that doesn’t work out the way you want it to. Once I stumbled a few times in that sense and that lesson was reaffirmed, I was like ‘alright, cool’. I mean, when I first came up properly in 2013-14, it was a lot easier to speak to artists, so I was able to build up a different level of rapport. Even though it’s different now, being able to work with whoever I liked and build that trust, has helped me get through to new artists and teams I haven’t worked with before … whether that’s striking up conversations on set or having a chat before we shoot. A big thing about working for yourself is that you should be able to work with who you appreciate and vice versa. Essentially, work with who you fuck with.”

“A big thing about working for yourself is that you should be able to work with who you appreciate and vice versa. Essentially, work with who you fuck with.”

It’s a mantra that has served Ashley well, especially with regards to Mabel — an artist he has become a go-to live tour photographer for over the last two years. “I think we’ve done three tours now”, says Ashley, “and she tours all the time, trust me. My first touring experience was actually with Chase & Status in 2015, which was an amazing experience given it was quite early in my career, but by time I got the opportunity to work with Mabel, everything was built on good energies. We didn’t jump straight to tours but I did a headline show for her first and at the time, I was getting booked by different artists or their labels or managers to come and do the odd show here and there, so it wasn’t unusual. But after that first show, I built a really good rapport with her team and they asked me back to do another headline show and another and another. Then I was on tour for a week and it suddenly became like ‘come here, come there’ and I guess I really feel like I’m part of the team now. From Mabel and management right the way down, everyone on her team brings a good vibe and that’s why I enjoy working with her so often. Her work rate is incredible too. There are so many things that I get to see being with her day-to-day … I mean the amount of work her and her team do is crazy.”

(Mabel, 2019 — Credit: Ashley Verse)

Mabel’s tours have taken Ashley across Europe, where she first supported Khalid and has since embarked on her own European tour, and all over the UK — an opportunity that he doesn’t take lightly. Not particularly well-travelled by his own admission, touring has opened Ashley’s eyes to how far his work can go and more recently, has also enabled him to connect with his Bajan heritage too. In essence, his camera has become his passport. “The camera is definitely the thing that’s taken me to most of the places I’ve been in life”, Ashley says. “I mean I’d been on holidays when I was young but nothing crazy, I really hadn’t seen that much before I started taking photos. I’ve been all over Europe, to LA and to Barbados, which is amazing for me because it’s part of my heritage … I’m Bajan and Jamaican. The fact that my camera work here has allowed me to go back home in a sense … it’s mad. It’s always a blessing when I realise how far my camera has taken me. I never imagined I’d be able to see so much.”

There are a slew of highlights in Ashley’s career so far; a first J Hus cover for Mixmag in 2017, THAT Drake image, shooting Chip’s ‘League Of My Own II’ album cover, Frisco’s ‘System Killer’ cover and forthcoming ‘The Familiar Stranger’ album artwork, alongside a lengthy list of music and fashion editorials. “There are so many things I didn’t think were possible when I first picked up my camera”, he admits, “so to work on covers for artists I grew up listening to is a beautiful thing. It’s pushed me to want to do more and hone in on my skills … I worked with Ambush on his album cover recently, Young T & Buggsey … I just didn’t realise how many avenues there are with photography and the deeper I dive, the more I’m finding.”

“There are so many things I didn’t think were possible when I first picked up my camera”

“I’ve been thinking as well”, he continues, “this time has allowed me time to think about refining and elevating what I do. If you’re always working, you don’t get time to work on things like that. If I’m boxing every day, I don’t get time to train … I don’t get time to get in the gym and work on my technique. We get so used to the speed that we work at that we forget everything else. It makes us misjudge the importance of things sometimes … not everything is the be all and end all. Just take time, de-stress and you can deal with things so much better. It feels good to be at ease right now and that energy is something I wanna maintain as I move forward.”

You can keep up-to-date with Ashley’s work via his website:

https://www.ashleyverse.co.uk/

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