Unseen: Ewen Spencer



Brighton based photographer Ewen Spencer’s focus is primarily on youth culture, notably his documentation of the Grime scene with his 2005 series, Open Mic. To coincide with his current show England’s Dreaming, Ewen shares with us some previously unpublished photographs which were originally commissioned as a magazine feature. Taken in inner city London in areas such as Peckham, Bermondsey and Newham, he discusses the story behind this series and why the magazine decided not to run the story.


Can you tell us the story behind these photos? 


I was approached by a publication to make a piece of work concerning gangs in London (and as a consequence Britain). I worked with a writer and made contact with local outreach groups including independent colleges and drop in centres. The places I began to visit were specifically helping young people from more compromised backgrounds and situations. I would visit one or two places in particular at least two or three times a week, meeting different individuals and spending most of the time talking and listening about peoples circumstances. After a while I began to work outside of the centres and worked with people in their own environments, whether it be at home or out in the street.


Do they form part of a larger series?


They do in that the work I’ve produced over the past 15 years has been specifically about Youth Culture and adolescence in Britain. I have arrived at a stage where I’ve decided to revisit all of this work and spend more time working in the studio compiling and curating my own pictures to make a much larger body of work. A small edit from this body was exhibited this year (October/Nov) in Leeds at the White Cloth Gallery called England’s Dreaming. However it is as I say 15 years worth of images and the edit is expanding very quickly so we are exploring other ways of publishing and showing the work.


What’s happened to the subjects in the photos; have you kept in touch with any of them?


Some have gone on to be mentors for younger people, one has moved on to study law. Another was getting involved with film making and media. Some other folk I have no idea. The image may have been made in a fleeting moment and I might not see them again. 


There’s one person that appears in a few of the photographs, was there anything in particular that drew you to him more than others?


Yes the fella that appears repeatadley is a guy called Dan Dan who lived in Peckham and has now become a mentor and public speaker. He was someone that was growing quite quickly while I was attending Kids Co in Bermondsey. He progressed from being something of a youth to a man by gaining qualifications and being very conscious of his health and the wider world. He began to travel around the UK and then Europe delivering speeches and mentoring younger people. He taught me a lot about his own situation and how that reflected the compromised existence of many young people around him and throughout the UK. When Dan Dan had matured, the project seemed to conclude. I then moved to researching and making pictures in Birmingham and began to focus on a young lad called Dwayne who lived in the city centre. I worked with Dwayne for a short while to make the film for Flat of the Blade, a collaboration with Massive Attack. 


Why haven’t these photos been published before?


The beginning of this work was a magazine commission, so I would submit the work with regularity back to the them and discuss how we might progress. Eventually the editorial team at the magazine decided that other topical stories were of greater importance and the images were not to be published. I’d really become quite involved with one or two of the individuals I’d been working with and decided I’d like to keep making pictures as the work was a logical progression, beside other long term photographic projects I’d been making over the past 10 years. One comment I recollect was that the images didn’t show enough “violence”. I don’t think they necessarily wanted to see people hitting one another, maybe more blood stains or weapons. I was uncomfortable with this idea and expressed my unwillingness to make these kinds of pictures. It was very amicable.


Ewen’s exhibition England’s Dreaming is on until 13 November.

Interview by Patricia Karallis.