This photographer’s latest project, Leavers, is a love letter to inner-city youth
Some years ago, on a hot and sticky July night, photographer Lewis Khan was wandering the streets of his native Vauxhall when he was caught off guard by the laughter and bustle of a local school prom. The event was just ending, and a cascade of sparkling dresses and shiny suits began to gush out onto the road. “It was this beautiful juxtaposition,” Khan remembers: the fiery excitement of youth, burning through a humdrum concrete jungle.
Each year, for the next several years, Khan found himself coming across the aftermath of the same school prom. “The atmosphere always seemed to be about pride, self-esteem, and celebrating yourself,” he says. “It felt too special not to record.” And so he reached out to the school, and asked if he could.
What started in 2018 was a four-year ritual, which saw Khan attend the South London prom each summer. Generation by generation, he captured the poignant, pivotal moment before teenagers turn into adults; the last hurrah before they venture into the real world. The resulting project, a moving short film and image series titled Leavers, is something of a love letter to inner-city youth. Picturing kids throwing their arms around one another, jeering, gesturing, and grinning from ear to ear – creased sashes wrapped around fresh checked blazers, and plastic crowns sat atop heads – Leavers fizzles with intimacy, nostalgia, and unbridled joy.
“I wanted to make sure that these London teenagers were seen first and foremost as people,” Khan reflects. “Even as a white cis male, I remember what it felt like to be stereotyped back then. People treat you with distrust, and you’re vilified for the space you occupy; add factors like being a person of colour in there, and the impacts of those stereotypes grow exponentially.”
After three years of shooting the event, Khan had amassed so much footage, but was unsure what to do with it all. Until one day, he found himself reading Caleb Femi’s acclaimed book of poems, Poor, which explores the experiences of young Black boys living in 21st century Peckham. “As I was reading, and thinking about the environments and people that Caleb describes so poignantly,” Khan says, “the prom footage, and all it represents, came back to me: joy, pride, self, place; vulnerability, discrimination, and learning to make your way in the world.” After Khan reached out, Femi went on to write and voice a spoken word piece entitled Glass especially for the film.
“All my homies are homes,” reads Femi softly over the soundtrack of ‘Dansaki’ by Lara George. “I will never lack a place to sleep: any one of these shoulders doing a madness on the dance floor. High rise, arms high. We know the price of life.”