Cosplay, growing pains, and messy nights on the town: these images explore what it means to be young and British today
Introducing Horror Nation?, a new season from Dazed about the current state of the UK from the perspective of the young people who live here. Over the course of this week, we will be celebrating the good that is happening all across the country – the culture and the creativity, the artists and the activists, the positive forces for change. But we will also be confronting the reality that life is getting increasingly challenging for British youth, and that Britishness itself is in flux, or even crisis. Stay with us as we lift the lid on modern Britain and ask whether this really is a horror nation.
The story of modern British youth is one of resistance. Faced with a government that’s determined to crack down on fun in any form, a looming climate crisis, wildly overpriced university education, and the rollback of trans rights (and protest rights, and asylum rights, and the right to free expression... basically human rights across the board) young people in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have remained defiantly joyful and creative over the course of the last few years.
Nowhere is this more evident than in photo projects seeking to document British communities in real time, whether that’s young artists flourishing on condemned council estates within the orbit of the M25, underground ballroom scenes emerging out of Cardiff’s queer spaces, or Black British people making their mark on the country’s coastline.
Here, we’ve gathered some of our favourite photo stories that capture what it’s like to be young and British today, ranging from a deep dive into a London anime convention, to gritty snapshots of working class life in a quintessential British town. Photographer Ellie Ramsden showcases the underrepresented women of grime; Nik Hartley takes us inside a vital youth association in post-industrial Lancashire; Dean Davies shines a light on Belfast’s DIY designers, musicians, and performers. All of that and more, below.
GRANGE FARM BOOK
2022’s Grange Farm Book captures a soon-to-be-demolished South Harrow estate as seen by its young residents. Placing medium-format disposable cameras in the hands of 10 to 16-year-olds who lived in the condemned flats, the anthology – brought together with the support of the charity My Yard – puts the focus on what they found important about their home: the people that surrounded them, the ways they found to express their individuality, and the bonds they formed with one another. Even now, when the estate itself is demolished, the photo series lives on as a fittingly joyful souvenir.
WELSH BALLROOM COMMUNITY
“This is the first time anything like this has happened in Wales,” Leighton Wall, founder of the Welsh Ballroom Community, told Dazed of his trailblazing project last year. “And to be honest a part of me is surprised at how much it’s kicked off.” In a celebratory photo series, documentary photographer Laurie Broughton places this budding community against a backdrop of rugged natural landscapes and Valleys pubs, with members draped in looks fashioned out of recycled Welsh flags. In Wall’s own words: “It’s really beautiful and it’s so special, what we’re doing.”
Belfast has seen a series of devastating cuts to arts funding in the last several years, as well as waves of closures that have affected legendary venues across the city. Young, Northern Irish creatives haven’t taken the changes sitting down, though, as showcased in Dean Davis’ portraits spanning one-off personalities like drag pioneer Blu Hydrangea and photographer Macy Stewart, as well as figures from labels and collectives including Inspire the Sound and MELT.
Alfie White came to photography by accident, initially investing in a camera with the sole purpose of taking streetwear pictures with his friends, to post on Instagram. In any case, it’s fortunate (for both White and photography fans) that he did, because the soulful portraits that he’s produced in the years since capture a romantic way of life that’s seldom seen in more conventional portfolios. Born in south east London, he says that he’s drawn to acts of intimacy and moments that expose elements of the human condition, but his work is also an act of self-discovery: “It acts as a constant reflection of my own interpretation of the world.”
Many areas of Lancashire have never quite recovered from the effects of de-industrialisation, and the communities that live in those places continue to face a range of pressing problems, from a lack of economic investment, to cultural segregation. One of the organisations that made it a mission to address these issues is Nelson’s Whitefield Youth Association. Over the course of several weeks, photographer Nik Hartley spent time with the kids and teenagers of the WYA as they learned combat sports in the club’s dojo and picked up life lessons along the way. “I just recognised the WYA as being a good thing,” he tells Dazed. “I wanted to photograph it in an honest way.”
HOME IS NOT A PLACE
“For me, home is like a vibration,” photographer Johny Pitts told Dazed in 2022. “More than anything, it’s the people around you… your friends, your family, and your community.” For many Black Britons, this concept of home can also be complex, bound up with bleak histories and ongoing political divides. (The country itself, Pitts notes, is a “strange, amorphous thing”.) Alongside the poet Roger Robinson, the Sheffield photographer spent a year touring the British coastline in a Mini Cooper to capture this complexity. The result: Home Is Not A Place (2022), a book of photographs that explores every facet of Black British youth, from Margate to Land’s End, to Glasgow and John O’Groats, documenting the decline of the nation’s small towns and high streets as it goes.
TOO MANY MAN
Since the early 2000s, no genre has quite captured young life in a British city like grime. Like any music scene, though, grime isn’t without its problems – most notably, perhaps, a significant lack of airtime for female voices. In Too Many Man, a project that borrows its title from Skepta’s 2009 track of the same name, photographer Ellie Ramsden set out to address this imbalance. Featuring influential figures form the scene, from Lady Sovereign to Lioness and Debris, the photo book also introduces us to a range of other creatives, including poets, journalists and videographers, who continue to break new ground. “We get to the point where everyone says grime is dead,” says Ramsden herself, “and then it’s still very much alive and kicking.”
LONDON ANIME AND GAMING CON
As we’ve already established, life in Britain can be bleak for young people, but thankfully there are ample opportunities for escapism, as well. The surging popularity of anime with British teens is just one example of their desire to find comfort in fantasy lands, and this is partly what drew photographer Betty Oxlade-Martin to 2023’s London Anime and Gaming Con in Hammersmith. “Teens spent months putting together looks for each day, refashioning household items and working with varied budgets and timescales,” she says, capturing the resulting costumes in a unique photo series. “It seemed to be a moment for building confidence and making friends.”
MAGIC PARTY PLACE
With its title lifted from a neon sign that photographer CJ Clarke spotted one night in his hometown of Basildon, Magic Party Place lays out the gritty, energetic reality of growing up in working-class England. Spanning house parties, rowdy pubs and clubs, and the gatherings that spill out into the street, the photos – taken over the course of a decade – capture young people who have grown up against the backdrop of Britain’s infamous drinking culture, where Friday and Saturday nights remain king. Shunning stereotypes and teenage clichés, however, Clarke instead turns his lens on “the massive generational disconnect” across the country, and the failures of a “society [that] is not really set up to help or incorporate non-conformists”.
What comes to mind when you hear the words “coming-of-age” – bruised knees from failed attempts at skateboarding tricks? Scrappy, Skins-esque house parties? Avoiding adult responsibilities for as long as humanly possible? From 2015, Brighton-based photographer Ben Gore’s Second Adolescence has it all. Comprising a year’s worth of images, the series documents the transition from his suburban family home to a new life in Brighton. “It was my first time living away from home and working full time, and, as I was in a new place, I was seeing with fresh eyes,” he says. “The photos themselves are moments that caught my eye as part of the experience of growing up.”