Life & Culture

Photos Exploring What it Means to be Young in Britain

Exclusive: photographer Ewen Spencer previews his new book, Young Love – a snapshot of British youth culture at the turn of the millennium

“I just go out and take photographs, and follow my nose,” says Newcastle-born photographer Ewen Spencer, who is now based in Brighton. Since picking up a camera at the age of 21, following his nose has led Spencer to Northern Soul nights, garage raves and grime shows, as well as plenty of your run-of-the-mill British nights out. He’s one of the most crucial documentors of British youth culture and has devoted the best part of his career training his lens on the nation’s young people – in all their boozed-up glory.

Having already published UKG (documenting the early days of the UK Garage) and a series of zines titled Guapamente (which focussed on European youth), Spencer is set to release his latest title – a glossy, coffee table book titled Young Love. Spanning over 56 pages and published in a limited edition of 1000 copies, this hardcover features a selection of his photographs taken between 2000 and 2001.

This was an interesting time in Britain and, photographically speaking, a formative one for Spencer – garage had died and with no alternative expression of subculture rising to take its place. Spencer was enlisted by style bible, The Face, to find out what it meant to be young in Britain and travelled up and down the country taking photographs of teenagers from across the social spectrum.

Here, Spencer reflects on the images featured in Young Love, the nature of youth and what makes British youth unique.

“Suddenly garage was dead and I’d been very attached to that. Before that I’d always photographed Northern Soul which was something I was very interested in personally – I’m a soul boy. So the idea of photographing what it meant to be young in Britain in the absence of a defined subculture at that time was very appealing to me.

The Face would regularly send me to different parts of the country – from a sixth-form disco above a pub in Rossendale, Lancashire to a country club full of boarding school kids in Rock, Cornwall. Those pictures were like an overview of what it meant to be British and young, which was more of a universal subject than garage and grime.

The great thing about photographing young people is that we’ve all been there, so it’s a universal subject. It’s a human moment; a joyous and also quite tragic time. It speaks of the human condition but in quite an extreme way. It’s probably what we’re still going through, but at that age it’s like an experimental laboratory.”

“British youth are excitable. They want to live for the weekend. The idea that you work hard during the week and play hard at the weekend is something I grew up. Where I come from, Newcastle, that’s what we did – it was ingrained in everyone in the North-East at the time, that you’d go out at the weekend and really tear it up.

None of these images are staged. I just found them pottering around with a camera and a flashgun. Everyone likes the one with the guy who’s sitting with his head in his hands and the couple, who look like a really beautiful couple, kissing. I think we’ve all been one of those three people at some point in our lives.

The edit for this book is very much about love. People hanging onto each other as if they’re never going to let go. Lots of laughter. Lots of red faces. That picture speaks of love, what it means. The highs and lows of it. The absence of perfection within love that you realise once you get older. Love’s never perfect, it’s messy innit?”

Pre-order a copy of Young Love here.