Recording a Sea Change in Folkestone

“Folkestone is a hidden gem – inspiring, by the sea, relatively affordable, and only an hour from London,” says Lee Brodhurst-Hooper. “It is easier for me to be a photographer here. I can afford to be an artist here, and I couldn’t in London. There is a thriving creative community, with lots of active, enthusiastic, friendly people who want to push the agenda for the town forward.

“But at the same time it is a town struggling with its identity. As one of the 10% of most deprived areas of the country, it has high rates of deprivation and low scope in terms of jobs and careers. There is dilapidation, it is rough around the edges, there are barren spaces and roads you should avoid.”

Originally from the Midlands, Brodhurst-Hooper moved to Folkestone two years ago, after a long stint living and working in London. Studying first at the University of East London and then on the prestigious MA Photography at the London College of Communications, he had built up a successful career in trendspotting, picture editing, and photography in the capital, but found himself disenchanted with the way of life there.

“Having my son made me reassess my priorities,” he says. “I’d lived in London for 12 years and it felt like a very expensive bubble. I’d lost the passion that brought me to London in the first place. I was lucky really – it didn’t feel like it at the time, but a nasty landlord and getting burgled were the impetus I needed to jump ship.”

From the series Sea/Change © Lee Brodhurst-Hooper

Finding a new home in Folkestone, he discovered a diverse community of people – incoming artists attracted by the lower cost of living and initiatives such as the Folkestone Triennial, refugees who have ended up in the port town only 30 miles from Calais, and locals who have lived there for generations. Brodhurst-Hooper was intrigued by the tensions that gentrification and the new-comers had raised, and started shooting portraits of Folkestone’s residents in December 2016 – just a few months after the Brexit vote, in which Shepway [of which Folkestone is a part] voted 62.2% to Leave.

“Along with Dover, Folkestone is located at the gateway to the European Union,” says Brodhurst-Hooper. “There is definite feeling of change happening…Like Hastings and Margate, seaside towns like Folkestone were once Victorian holiday meccas, but social deprivation and cuts mean they are now fighting to evolve, re-evaluate and find a purpose. 

“I was intrigued by documenting the reality of its inhabitants, something I hadn’t seen portrayed in the various articles in the press writing it off as another gentrification project,” he continues. “When picking the people I photographed, I was particularly interested in showing youth culture and the younger generation – through them I wanted to show the sheer diversity of Folkestone’s inhabitants, from young refugees to young creatives. I wanted to document not only the changing landscape, but what Folkestone’s next generation of inhabitants looks like.”

From the series Sea/Change © Lee Brodhurst-Hooper

Brodhurst-Hooper describes himself as shy but says he never feels inhibited taking portraits, as when he does so “it’s my role to make sure that my subjects feel totally at ease”. Always carrying a camera [“even if it’s a walk to the supermarket, there’s always a chance I might spot someone I want to approach”], he approaches strangers on the street, explains what he’s working on, and asks for five minutes of their time.

“Approaching people can be hard, but I used to take photographs on the streets of London, so I learnt the hardest way in terms of gaining trust and dealing with harsh rejections,” he says. “Being transparent and honest about why you want to photograph them is the best method, thankfully around 75% of the people I have asked have said yes.

“I try to never overstep the mark, and you can definitely tell when someone’s becoming uncomfortable and it’s time to wrap up. There have definitely been times where I have come away wishing I had more time, but it’s part-and-parcel of the process.”

Brodhurst-Hooper had a clear idea of the kind of composition he wanted to find in his images, and says that while he always tries to get a few different angles when he shoots, he usually only uses one shot. He adds that his work as a picture editor has helped him evolve as a photographer – but more in terms of the research he now brings to a project than how each image looks.

“It’s definitely influenced the way I assess my photographs – creating a clear narrative and creating easily translatable visual metaphors are something I think about,” he says. “Picture editing definitely taught me the importance of research, and of being aware of the social economic context of my projects. I never want to take photographs for the sake of style, without meaning or a story.”

Sea Change by Lee Brodhurst-Hooper is on show at Brewery Tap, UCA Art Space, 53 Tontine Street, Folkestone CT20 1JR until 25 February.

Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is the editor of BJP, returning for a second stint on staff in 2023 - after 15 years on the team until 2019. As a freelancer, she has written for The Guardian, FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, Aperture, FOAM, Aesthetica and Apollo. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy