Oi Polloi

Interview — Ewen Spencer

Published: Fri Apr 25 2014

For the last few months Ewen Spencer has been gallivanting around Europe taking photographs of young scooter bandits. Why? For a series of limited-run, photo-orientated, nicely-printed and professionally-stapled zines called Guapamente, why else? I chased him down on the information dual carriageway to find out more.

Alright, how’s it going?

All good thanks

You’ve been releasing these pamphlets/’zines/books/whateveryoucall’ems for the last few months called Guapamente. I remember when I was in Barcelona a few years ago some young guns were describing my mate’s bike as ‘guapa’. What does it mean?

‘Guapa’ by itself means pretty or maybe beautiful. Guapamente can mean brave, strong or strong willed. I heard the word through friends I grew up with, two brothers whose mother was from near San Sebastián in the Basque Country. They used it as a superlative for almost anything that we liked at that time.

The first one was in Naples, the second one was in Marseilles. Where’s next?

I’ve just returned from Florida. I was making pictures of youths on ‘spring break’. It’s a big scene down there for college kids to descend onto the beach resorts and ‘turn up’ as they refer to it. I gather that means partying. I visited Daytona Beach and Miami.

How long do you spend in each city?

I usually spend around five days to a week.

What were you looking for?

I’m always looking for youth culture. I’m looking for people with a certain style or look. Usually a look that seems in some way considered.

What did you find?

I found young people who move in groups from the city to the beach to the bars and clubs they pay close attention to their appearance. For instance in Miami a lot of Hispanic or black kids wear socks with those slip on flip flops. I like to find small nuances and cultural differences city by city.

How are you approaching the kids? Are they people you’ve talked to a bit, or are you just striding up with a camera and then getting off?

I’m usually just approaching people where they congregate. I share some of my previous pictures with them and chat a bit. Make sure they’re comfortable to be photographed. Sometimes I make a few frames and there’s nothing happening, some folk might not enjoy the experience so I leave it and move on. Sometimes it clicks and I spend the next few days working with a group of people.

What do they think of you?

It differs from place to place. The Italian kids in Naples are very, very confident so we got on very well and I made an incredible amount of pictures. The French Arab kids in Marseille could be a little more reticent but eventually would warm up to the idea. Usually after seeing images of themselves, it was fun. Mind you it was Ramadan there at that time so folk could be a little tetchy in the heat. It gets very hot and some lads were so devout they wouldn’t even drink water.

What’s the average day for a 17 year old lad in Marseilles?

Usually jumping off rocks into the Mediterranean coast. Going to the barber shop for a shape up or hi lights. Hanging around the city centre shops, maybe a Nutella crepe and an Orangina and at night ragging around on your two stroke Piaggio, smoke a bit of hash, go home when your tanks empty.

What’s the average day for Ewen Spencer?

I run in the morning two or three times a week, so I’ll drop my little girl at school and go for a run. Go to my studio in Brighton and arrange shoots or book and zine publishing work. I usually have meetings in London twice a week so I can be on the train in the morning. Otherwise I’m on an aeroplane or train going to a shoot somewhere.

Your film about UK garage was recently bumped up on Channel 4. How did this come about?

I published a photobook through Gost books about the UK garage scene that was launched late last year. It was very well received and Dazed Digital asked me to make a documentary about the scene as a kind of retrospective. So I contacted a few of the original Djs and MCs from the scene and made an eight minute short. This again had a great reception and Channel 4 liked it so much they commissioned the music nation series and asked me to expand the original eight minute film into a half hour documentary. Bingo, I’m on the telly!

Brandy & Coke from Ewen Spencer on Vimeo.

Where was the archive footage from? There’s some mint stuff in there.

The archive material came from my own photographs from back in the day or Garage Nation at Coliseum and Bagleys and the original Sun City raves. The promoters for Sun City have been very helpful. In fact most people we’ve contacted from the scene have come through.

You spent a long time photographing the garage events in the late nineties. Was it something you were already interested in, or was it strictly photography?

It was a combination. I’ve always been a soul boy. I still have an unhealthy record buying habit. The UK soul scene in the late 80s and early 90s was adopting a lot of US soulful house and garage sounds. DJs like Bobbi and Steve and Bob Jones were playing lots of tunes on Emotive and Nervous records. We loved it. I couldn’t stand rave culture. I loved original house but as soon as folk stated dressing as pirates and all the smiley face nonsense it was over for me. So I delved back into soul music around 1990.

By 97 I was in London making picture and the garage scene was making a little bit of noise. The first time I went to Twice as Nice it was just like stepping back into the soul scene for me. People were well dressed compared to the rest of the clubs in London — it was very much about the music, dancing and looking good. Those three elements are a recipe for a healthy scene and I like making pictures around scenes.

How often were you going out taking pictures?

In 97-98 I was just about making a living as a photographer so I would be on a train to London from Brighton probably 5 times a week. Most days I was making pictures. I have a vast archive from over the past 17 years looking at mainly youth culture.

What was the best club back then?

Twice as Nice at the Coliseum was pretty special.

Do you look at other people’s photos much? Who else do you like?

I like all kinds of photography. I quite like abstract work. I love William Klein, his ‘fuck ‘em all’ attitude… he’s a true auteur. I like the American, Joseph Szabo. I like old pictures of youth culture, like the Sharpies in Melbourne in the late 60s. I’m a big fan of anyone who holds their own and doesn’t cow tow to an existing establishment of photography.

Tom Wood is a great for me. I went to see him talk in Derby a few years ago. He’s always lived in and around Liverpool and taught at the local college to finance and support his work. I believe through his books and exhibitions he’s created one of the best documents of British life for our times. I’d encourage anyone to look into his work.

What else have you got in the pipeline?

I’m writing a couple of treatments for new documentary films regarding youth culture and music, style etc. I’m busy shooting campaigns for the next couple of months and I’m putting on a garage rave at a private members club in London.

What do you get up to outside of taking photographs?

I spend a lot of time with my kids and my pals. Photography takes me away from home quite a lot so I like getting back to Brighton going for a run or looking at my Lambretta and thinking “why won’t you work, you shit.”

That’s about it I think. Anything else you’d like to add?



Buy a copy of Guapamente here