Chris Steele-Perkins is a British photographer and member of Magnum Photos, best known for his depiction of Africa, Afghanistan, England, and Japan. Steele-Perkins was born in Rangoon, Burma in 1947 to a British father and a Burmese mother; but his father left his mother and took the boy to England at the age of two. He went to Christ's Hospital and for one year studied chemistry at the University of York before leaving for a stay in Canada. Returning to Britain, he joined the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, where he served as photographer and picture editor for a student magazine. After graduating in psychology in 1970 he started to work as a freelance photographer, specializing in the theatre, while he also lectured in psychology.
By 1971, Steele-Perkins had moved to London and become a full-time photographer, with particular interest in urban issues, including poverty. He went to Bangladesh in 1973 to take photographs for relief organizations; some of this work was exhibited in 1974 at the Camerawork Gallery (London). In 1973–74 he taught photography at the Stanhope Institute and the North East London Polytechnic.
In 1975, Steele-Perkins joined the Exit Photography Group with the photographers Nicholas Battye and Paul Trevor, and there continued his examination of urban problems: Exit's earlier booklet Down Wapping had led to a commission by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation to increase the scale of their work, and in six years they produced 30,000 photographs as well as many hours of taped interviews. This led to the 1982 book Survival Programmes. Steele-Perkins' work included depiction from 1975 to 1977 of street festivals, and prints from London Street Festivals were bought by the British Council and exhibited with Homer Sykes' Once a Year and Patrick Ward's Wish You Were Here; Steele-Perkins' depiction of Notting Hill has been described as being in the vein of Tony Ray-Jones.
Steele-Perkins became an associate of the French agency Viva in 1976, and three years after this, he published his first book, The Teds, an examination of teddy boys that is now considered a classic of documentary and even fashion photography. He curated photographs for the Arts Council collection, and co-edited a collection of these, About 70 Photographs. In 1977 Steele-Perkins had made a short detour into "conceptual" photography, working with the photographer Mark Edwards to collect images from the ends of rolls of films taken by others, exposures taken in a rush merely in order to finish the roll. Forty were exhibited in "Film Ends".
Work documenting poverty in Britain took Steele-Perkins to Belfast, which he found to be poorer than Glasgow, London, Middlesbrough, or Newcastle, as well as experiencing "a low-intensity war". He stayed in the Catholic Lower Falls area, first squatting and then staying in the flat of a man he met in Belfast. His photographs of Northern Ireland appeared in a 1981 book written by Wieland Giebel. Thirty years later, he would return to the area to find that its residents had new problems and fears; the later photographs appear within Magnum Ireland.
Steele-Perkins photographed wars and disasters in the third world, leaving Viva in 1979 to join Magnum Photos as a nominee (on encouragement by Josef Koudelka), and becoming an associate member in 1981 and a full member in 1983. He continued to work in Britain, taking photographs published as The Pleasure Principle, an examination (in colour) of life in Britain but also a reflection of himself. With Philip Marlow, he successfully pushed for the opening of a London office for Magnum; the proposal was approved in 1986.
Steele-Perkins made four trips to Afghanistan in the 1990s, sometimes staying with the Taliban, the majority of whom "were just ordinary guys" who treated him courteously. Together with James Nachtwey and others, he was also fired on, prompting him to reconsider his priorities: in addition to the danger of the front line:
. . . you never get good pictures out of it. I've yet to see a decent front-line war picture. All the strong stuff is a bit further back, where the emotions are.
A book of his black and white images, Afghanistan, was published first in French, and later in English and in Japanese. The review in the Spectator read in part:
These astonishingly beautiful photographs are more moving than can be described; they hardly ever dwell on physical brutalities, but on the bleak rubble and desert of the country, punctuated by inexplicable moments of formal beauty, even pastoral bliss . . . the grandeur of the images comes from Steele-Perkins never neglecting the human, the individual face in the great crowd of history.
~ Philip Hensher
The book and the travelling exhibition of photographs were also reviewed favorably in the Guardian, Observer, Library Journal, and London Evening Standard. Steele-Perkins served as the President of Magnum from 1995 to 1998. One of the annual meetings over which he presided was that of 1996, to which Russell Miller was given unprecedented access as an outsider and which Miller has described in some detail.
With his second wife the presenter and writer Miyako Yamada, whom he married in 1999, Steele-Perkins has spent much time in Japan, publishing two books of photographs: Fuji, a collection of views and glimpses of the mountain inspired by Hokusai's Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji; and Tokyo Love Hello, scenes of life in the city. Between these two books he also published a personal visual diary of the year 2001, Echoes.
Work in South Korea included a contribution to a Hayward Gallery touring exhibition of photographs of contemporary slavery, "Documenting Disposable People", in which Steele-Perkins interviewed and made black-and-white photographs of Korean "comfort women". "Their eyes were really important to me: I wanted them to look at you, and for you to look at them", he wrote. "They're not going to be around that much longer, and it was important to give this show a history". The photographs were published within Documenting Disposable People: Contemporary Global Slavery.
Steele-Perkins returned to England for a project by the Side Gallery on Durham's closed coalfields (exhibited within "Coalfield Stories"); after this work ended, he stayed on to work on a depiction (in black and white) of life in the north-east of England, published as Northern Exposures.
In 2008 Steele-Perkins won an Arts Council England grant for "Carers: The Hidden Face of Britain", a project to interview those caring for their relatives at home, and to photograph the relationships. Some of this work has appeared in The Guardian, and also in his book England, My England, a compilation of four decades of his photography that combines photographs taken for publication with much more personal work: he does not see himself as having a separate personality when at home. "By turns gritty and evocative," wrote a reviewer in The Guardian, "it is a book one imagines that Orwell would have liked very much".
Steele-Perkins has two sons, Cedric, born 16 November 1990, and Cameron, born 18 June 1992. With his marriage to Miyako Yamada he has a stepson, Daisuke and a granddaughter, Momoe.