Forty years of British youth: Nine photographers capture the intimate journey between childhood and adulthood

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Image: US EMBASSY from the series ‘Solidarity’ (May 2020) © Tom Sussex.

To coincide with Portrait of Britain 2021, photographer and curator Liz Hingley – who won the award in 2016 – discusses Side Gallery’s latest exhibition: Youth Rising in the UK, 1981-2021

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“Youth is wasted on the young.” It’s an adage attributed (somewhat tenuously) to George Bernard Shaw. Over the past century, it’s come to reflect a wry bitterness among older generations; the idea that young people, in their spring and vitality, don’t appreciate what they have. But the words seem to take on new meaning in light of the past year and a half. The Covid-19 pandemic has seen young people’s lives suspended more than any other demographic: unable to have fun, go to school, plan their futures; unable to live out some of their most formative moments. Indeed, worries of ‘wasted youth’ feel pertinent – but a far cry from something they’ve inflicted on themselves.

Youth Rising in the UK, 1981-2021, currently on show at Side Gallery, Newcastle, explores the nuances of British youth over the last 40 years. Amongst the works on show, Alys Tomlinson’s portraits of Precious and Jack, taken from her series Lost Summer (2020), capture teenagers in their back gardens, dressed in outfits they would have worn to prom. Under Tomlinson’s soft gaze, the sense of grief and longing is palpable; not simply for a party in a function room, but for something – anything – to mark the significance of their finishing school for good. Many of them weren’t even able to sit their final exams.

Precious from the series ‘Lost Summer ’(2020) © Alys Tomlinson/HackelBury Fine Art.

Such work is undoubtedly poignant. But, musing on the show’s title, curator Liz Hingley is clear: Youth Rising is an exhibition about hope. “For me, ‘rising’ is about young people rising above the challenges of this time,” she says. Not simply the pandemic, but racism, climate change, and a future altogether mired by uncertainty. “Young people are carrying the weight and the mess that older generations have left behind. But they’re latching onto it. And, in vocal and passionate groups, they’re making change.”

Youth Rising brings together work from photographers spanning multiple generations. Alongside Tomlinson, there is contemporary work from Vanessa Winship, Maryam Wahid, Sadie Catt, Tom Sussex, Christopher Nunn and Paul Alexander Knox, next to rarely seen works made by Chris Killip and Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen in the 80s. Traversing stories of love, loss, ritual and race – migration, home, belonging, and learning – the exhibition charts the bewildering journey between childhood and adulthood: “one that resonates across generations,” says Hingley, “but is at once unique to each”. 

‘Young, Married and Migrated, my mother and me’ (2018) © Maryam Wahid.

“Young people are carrying the weight and the mess that older generations have left behind. But they’re latching onto it. And, in vocal and passionate groups, they’re making change”

The charm of the show’s curation lies in the way the works spark conversations between one another. Side by side, for example, is work from Maryam Wahid’s Young, Married and Migrated, my mother and me (2018) and Chris Killip’s Skinningrove (1982-84). Wahid’s is a performative project reflecting on British-Pakistani identity across generations and geography. In it, she poses for self-portraits (one of which also won Portrait of Britain) in her mother’s clothes around the city of Birmingham, where her parents settled in the early 80s, and still live today. At the same time of their settling, Killip was photographing young, working-class men in a  rural North Yorkshire fishing village, capturing the granularity of life amid mass unemployment. “It’s a reflection on the very different experiences that have arisen in the same country, but worlds apart,” remarks Hingley.

Elsewhere, Sadie Catt delicately documents the adolescence of her close friend Alice, who lost her mother and sister to unrelated cancers. Namely, Catt charts the explosive creativity that materialised as a result of Alice’s grief, and her subsequent rise to fame as lead singer of the punk rock group PussyLiquor. There’s a quiet dichotomy to Catt’s images, imbued with strength and vulnerability all at once: stolen moments of daily life – sitting in the bath; doing the washing up – that emanate a near-hypnotising calmness, despite the emotional turmoil of the subject matter. “I see myself in Alice,” says Catt. “A representation of thousands of other young people jostling amongst the modern day, while carrying the past on their backs.” 

Alice from the series ‘Of Quiet Birds’ (2018) © Sadie Catt.

Other projects on show also ruminate on what it means to be young today. Tom Sussex captures a young man in the midst of a Black Lives Matter protest in London (2020), fist in air as his eyes burn defiantly through the lens. Paul Alexander Knox portrays an anonymous man, who was once homeless, obscured behind a cloud of vape smoke: a nod, perhaps, to the forgotten youth (2019). And Christopher Nunn, with his joyful portrait of Niamh suspended in the air above her trampoline in West Yorkshire (2018), responds to the question: ‘What’s it like to be 16 now?’ (“I love that image,” muses Hingley of the latter. “It speaks to me about the frozen moment over the last two years. That sense of being stuck. And of jumping.”)

As Hingley suggests, across generations, there is a resilience embedded in our experiences of youth. Such acts of resilience may be small; simply enduring the daily collisions of magic, misery, passion and perplexion. But they may be much bigger: demanding change for one’s future, or fighting for a better world. In that sense, looking back at the last year and a half – at how active young people have been – their youth has been anything but wasted. And their determination will benefit us all.

“The exhibition doesn’t really pose any answers to any subjects that it reflects on,” concludes Hingley. “But I hope that it will invite people to value the experiences of young people, and everything we can learn from youth culture today.”

‘Niamh’ (2018) © Christopher Nunn.

Youth Rising in the UK, 1981-2021 is on show at Side Gallery, Newcastle, until 03 October 2021.

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Flossie Skelton

Flossie Skelton joined British Journal of Photography in 2019, where she is currently Commissioning Editor across awards, Studio and partner content. She does freelance writing, editing and campaign work across arts, culture and feminism; she has worked with BBC Arts, Belfast Photo Festival and Time’s Up. She is also an illustrator, with artwork published in Marie Claire, ES Magazine, Sunday Times Style and the Guardian.