PHOTOGRAPHER Colin Jones flaunts a life story that is a picture in itself. " I sometimes feel like a bit of an oddity. My life has taken funny turns - I was plucked out of the East End as a boy, was seduced at 14, travelled the world as a ballet dancer, meeting celebrities such as Sir Kenneth Macmillan. I have no formal education, attended 13 schools, was illiterate until I was twenty, ended up in the army and then become a photographer", the Barnes resident reveals within seconds of meeting.

He takes a deep breath: "But such experiences have taught me about human life."

The first thing that strikes you about the 69-year-old is that he has a conscience. Behind his calm demeanour lies a raw hunger that wishes to capture humanity - he exudes a passion that is rare. He sympathises, empathises, lives, eats and sleeps the people he photographs, all in a bid to capture real life.

He reaches for his cigarettes in sequence: "I really am trying to give up - it's a bad habit", he rattles.

"Moral photography is hard to come by nowadays, I mean what is it with celebrity culture? Where's the truth in it? Not only is it killing photography but it makes us have a completely deluded idea about life".

Colin has lived in Cleveland Gardens, Barnes, for the best part of 35 years. But his surroundings are a far cry from his childhood abode. He was born in 1936 and spent his early years in Poplar, east London - in a "rickety Georgian house that I loved". His father served as a soldier in the wars and "some of my great-greats were leather tanners and lightermen on the Thames".

The Blitz, V1 and V2 bombings form the backdrop to Colin's childhood memories. "I grew up during the wars and the decline of the docks. The stage when the east was forever changing and London split into two cities. There was a deep cultural divide between the wealthy and the poor,"he says.

After Colin's family were evacuated to Essex, he spent the next five years in and out of 13 different schools.

He started dancing at the tender age of 12 and was seduced by his private dance teacher at just 14. He said: "She was much older and the sex was life changing."

By 16, a dyslexic and illiterate, Colin had won a ticket out of his working class existence in the form of a scholarship with the English Royal Ballet School. Whilst training as a dancer he met and married dancer Lynn Seymour in 1962. Four years later they divorced. He said: "I remember going to Vancouver for the wedding and not even knowing who my best man was going to be."

By the age of 20 he could finally read and recalls: "The funny thing is I reached for all the big books like Keats, Lawrence and Kipling."

Two years later he was called up for national service. Eventually he made it into the Queen's Royal Regiment.

"I enjoyed being in the army. It was different from the dancing stuff, but the physical hardship was the same. But because they all knew I was a dancer, they assumed I was gay."

Fresh out of the army, Colin joined the Royal Opera House, later moving to the Touring Royal Ballet and embarked on a nine-month world tour. His time as a top class dancer saw him want for nothing - chauffeur driven cars, top class hotels and exquisite restaurants - less Billy Elliot and more Rudolf Nureyev!

It was while in the Philippines that his career as a photographer began.

"We were in the capital, Manila Bay, and I remember seeing this thick, black smoke in the sky. My chauffeur told me they were burning down some of the slums," he tells me.

"I insisted he take me there. People's homes were being burnt with them still in them. The cries, screams, it was terrible. From then on I became very political."

With the photographic thorn in his side, he landed a job with The Observer newspaper alongside photographers such as Philip Jones and Don McCullin. He worked in Fleet Street for several years before turning freelance. He has since worked for many of the world's greatest magazines such as Life, National Geographic, Geo and Nova.

His list of friends reads like a who's who. Artist Lucian Freud, Eric Clapton, the late George Harrison are just a few. Even The Who's Pete Townshend once said in an interview: "I hate all photographers except Colin Jones."

During the swinging sixties Colin was asked to do exclusive photographs of The Who.

He recalls: "I was asked to do The Who's official photos for their first American tour - I declined. But I did a stint of pictures with them that I kept in a drawer for five years before I even noticed their potential. I shot them as normal lads, not rock stars. I wasn't interested in being a celebrity photographer, it didn't have enough depth for me. They were lovely guys and Pete Townshend inspired me, he was very ambitious."

Other people to grace his lens include Richard Attenborough, David Hockney and Elvis Costello.

Colin relishes photographing everyday people. Take Grafters is his highly acclaimed book that skilfully and uniquely depicts the lives of working class people. He tells an emphatic story of post-war Britain by turning pictures of poverty and hardship into beautiful dignified portraits. His pictures split and shimmy from one group of people to another, whether it's miners, dockers or shipbuilders. The point behind all of them is the same: social truth.

"My pictures of miners in Newcastle were the first I ever shot. I felt they really represented the extreme conditions that labourers worked under at that point in time," he says.

"I can empathise with my pictures because my childhood memories go hand in hand with working class hardship.

"But it's like a form of guilt. Because I come from a working class background most of my work has been with the underdogs and I guess that's because I feel I still belong there."

Step back 36 years and Colin had already mastered the art of doing people justice through his pictures of the controversial 1967 Black House project, a hostel on the Holloway Road in north London where black children in trouble with the police could reside.

Commissioned by The Sunday Times, Colin spent six months attempting to gain admission into the north London confines in an effort to record the trials and tribulations of troubled West Indian boys taking refuge. His persistence paid off.

"I was the only photographer allowed access to that place. That was a tough time.

The term 'mugging' had just started to be directly tagged to West Indian boys and eventually they got canned for everything.

"It's funny, after the Black House, I woke up one morning and realised I had no food to eat and no money to buy it with," he remembers.

"When I had no money I would just sell things. Once I pawned five cameras and my wife's engagement ring. That's when your self-belief starts to slip but you've got to taste the sour to distinguish the sweet, right?"

Between breaths, he talks about his family. His daughter Sarah gained a scholarship to read English at Oxford University and he talks well of his 32-year marriage to his second wife, 1960s model Priscilla Tanner.

It may be 50 years since the ex-ballet dancer traded his Lycra attire for a classic German 3C Leica, but the discipline bestowed upon him by the Touring Royal Ballet School still runs through his life.

"There are similarities between dancing and photography - it's about discipline. When you're a dancer you live in a closed community. For me it was like being a nun. I would get £14 a week but wasn't allowed to do anything - sunbathe, ride bikes, do sports. Photography is similar. I was never interested in being a member of companies, because it would have destroyed me. I like that I can be isolated if I want to be."

With enough camera film by his side, Colin could - quite easily - put the world to rights.

"People call me an artist," he laughs unconvinced, "but my kind of photography doesn't exist any more. Today artists are judged by how many awards they have and exhibitions they have down. But artists are unjudgable."

"My photography reflects me completely. The bottom line is that anyone can operate a camera. It's the mind that sees the image. So my images are my truth - my take on what's real and if people can see it too then that's great."

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