First published on The Cut, 24 July 2014
The acclaimed British photographer Ewen Spencer is perhaps best known for capturing the gritty nightlife of London — but that doesn’t mean he actually wants to live there. “London is quite unforgiving,” he says as we drive through the small seaside town of Brighton, where he’s been living for over a decade. “I’ve had a lot of attempted muggings.”
Spencer is definitely more of a Brighton type — laid-back and friendly. He’s worked with some of the biggest names in the U.K.’s fashion and music worlds, but treats everyone around him with the same polite interest. We sit in hot sunshine at a café overlooking the beach, and after talking fondly about his life here with his wife and kids, he starts to explain the fascination with subcultures that has driven his photography for almost two decades.
By “subcultures” he means the pockets of the world where young people have developed their own look, their own rules, or their own music. Finding one of these is always an exciting moment, he says, because it means he can get in there with his camera and communicate that scene to the rest of the world. That’s what happened in London, where he famously documented two of the city’s most significant music scenes of the last 20 years: grime (Open Mic) and U.K. garage (UKG and Brandy & Coke).
What Spencer saw in the clubs of London, and is always seeking, is what he calls "clean living under difficult circumstances. It’s when kids aspire to be something else, and that manifests itself in something truly creative — say they appropriate a look and define it in their own way. When that look starts to happen en masse, or in a couple of different cities, and it’s gone from 15 kids to 150 — that’s the genesis of a subculture.”
In practice, this means that Spencer shoots intimate, energetic images of young people hanging out and having fun. He has the knack of quickly befriending the kids at the heart of a scene and getting the kind of spontaneous, atmospheric pictures that suggest he’s been there all along.
Right now, he’s focusing on Guapamente: a self-published zine that documents these youth subcultures around the world. So far, it's featured the kids of Napoli (Italy) and Marseille (France) — but the latest issue was shot over spring break in Miami. “All those cities are ports, and they have a history of immigration and diversity. I think when that happens, you get an interesting youth scene and a unique mix of music and style,” he says.
The Miami pictures show young people posing on the beach and dancing in the sand. Spencer talks about the teens like a zoologist observing creatures in the wild: “They’ve got a kind of mobile sound system with them on the beach, and they’ll all descend to one area. Then a few of them will really start to show off.”
He often takes one of his books with him when he’s shooting, to show people his work and put them at ease: “So they know I’m not just an oddball with a camera." In Miami, the kids were more guarded than elsewhere. “They were friendly, but they seemed to be more aware of the power of photography and what that meant. They wanted to know exactly where the pictures were going — especially the girls. They were looking out for each other, which I liked.”
Thanks to social media, this wariness is something he sees more often today than when he started shooting in the late '90s — though it’s still not the case everywhere. “People are definitely more canny about being photographed than they were. In the U.K. and the U.S., kids are constantly Instagramming. But in Napoli, for instance, they’re not hooked into social media in the same way. They’re out and about all day and all night. The kids in Marseille don’t use smartphones — they have little flip phones, which is sweet.”
Spencer is always fascinated by what the kids wear, down to the smallest and most crucial of details. “The funny thing in Miami is that the guys all wear slider sandals with black or white socks on the beach — that’s a very big look there,” he tells me, baffled. “It looks uncomfortable, but I guess they don’t like having sand on their toes. Everyone’s tanned, but they must have pale feet.” The big looks on the streets of Marseille and Napoli are quite different. “In Marseille, it seems that the style hasn’t changed for 15 or 20 years. They wear baseball caps, gaudy colors, and very small tracksuit bottoms with Nike shoes. It’s mainly North African boys. The cuts in their hair are hugely important, so they go to the barber every week or two and have lines shaved into it.”
The boys of Italy are flashier. “In Napoli, they like little Speedos and luxury, casual sports looks — a lot of Moncler, Lacoste, and Ralph Lauren … And they wear the worst jeans I’ve ever seen in my life.” He starts to laugh. “They’re skinny, and they always have elaborate pockets and strange washes on them, and sometimes studs or diamanté. A jean should never be elaborate, should it?”
Spencer comes from Newcastle, the same English city where I grew up, and I can see its influence on his attraction to “clean living under difficult circumstances.” It’s a place where most people aren’t affluent — and yet it’s a big party town.
“I liked growing up there, and it informed my work in a huge way,” he says. “Some people go out Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in Newcastle. You work hard during the week, you save up, you buy a nice outfit, and you live for the weekend. There’s something slightly sad about that, but there’s something to be celebrated, too.”
Next up, he’s thinking of shooting the ballroom-dancing scene in Europe — a different kind of escapism, but again with its own very specific look and its attempt to make life more exciting. Until then, he’ll keep observing everyone he passes, noticing how the kids are wearing their socks and hair and jeans, and wondering whether maybe, just maybe that look could catch on.
Guapamente Issue 03 is available to order now. Ewen Spencer’s Miami images are on show at Ditto Gallery in London until July 27.