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Saturday Town 10 years with my pop up portrait studio documenting youth culture

Saturday Town started here in Leeds in 2013 as Saturday Girl. I saw young women with “big hair”: backcombed 1960s-style, teased and sprayed, wigs and hair pieces. I wondered what it all meant in terms of culture, tribe identities and values and how these things burst forth in the unspoken language of fashion and bodily self-expression. I spent a year of Saturdays in Leeds Corn Exchange meeting and photographing young women.

I only photographed on Saturday afternoons which I thought of as spaces of freedom, from school, family and institutions. Saturdays are often a time when groups of young friends gather together in city centres and high streets to shop and hang out, to look and be seen. This promenading has a long rich history in the UK that shifts and changes as we gather in different ways, from Georgian London’s pleasure gardens to Mid Century Blackpool and Scarborough, from small-town high streets to Leeds Briggate.

In 2015, I took my pop-up portrait studio to Liverpool. It was here that I started to wonder about regional differences in the language of fashion and the body. Liverpool women just blew me away with their style. The Liverpool aesthetic of wearing curlers in your hair whilst out shopping on a Saturday afternoon is just so playful and expressive, saying to the world: “I’m going out tonight!” I wondered if other cities were as individual, and if the culture of a place could be read by the ways women chose to look. I decided to find out and took the studio on the road throughout the UK. I visited 16 cities and photographed over 600 people, and, yes, landscape, economics, demographics and the local plays a part in how we present ourselves, but we are also deeply connected to a wider cultural conversation that flows through our lives. There is always a dance between individuality and group identity; wanting to belong to a community whilst also wanting to be a “distinct” person. Getting that right is a fine balance.

This is Saturday Girl.

Saturday Girl is now Saturday Town.

The project has developed into a space for all gender expressions. When I started the series, the word “girl” had a much different, and perhaps simpler, label. I was setting out to photograph young women. However, since then, the deconstruction of gender identity has filtered throughout the project, and our binary understanding of identity is gone. To see this limiting idea of what a person can be fall apart in matter of years is a revolution for us all. The portraits aren’t styled beyond personal decisions made in front of bedroom mirrors. These images are a document of culture, read through fashion. The people I photograph are approached on the street, in the moment. The project acts as a witness to young lives. It continues to excite me as it evolves and refers to the times in which we live, as well as a shared past that is reinvented and flows through new generations. In this way, I feel connected to past lives – to my younger self – and to the present moment all at once. It reminds me that we all share a language that is at once steeped in culture, history and memory, and is also inherently fluid. Fashion and bodily self-expression are important and powerful tools for us all, to state who we are beyond consumerism and capitalism; beyond selfies and social media platforms.

In Covid young people spent their coming of age years away from each other and the streets that so defined this time of self-discovery. For all of us this was a profound time of change, trauma, reflection. I left my job as Senior Lecturer, Leeds School of Arts, Leeds Beckett to hit the road again with my camera. I spent 2021/22 in Northern towns documenting and witnessing young folks returning to the streets, to physical spaces with each other.

This is Saturday Girl About Town.

I took cues from their wildness and used flowing materials, let in the information around the edges of the backdrops. The project became more embedded in local communities, more collaborative. I now work with local creatives, colleges and arts centres and this enables relationships the time to develop.

There is so much creativity out there. It is worn, as a playful sophisticated language, on the young. They are speaking the future shape of us.

This is Saturday Town.

THANK YOU to Leeds Inspired and Arts Council England who believed, funded and supported Saturday Girl when I was just starting the work in 2013 and are now funding the 10 year anniversary of the project with Saturday Town 2023!

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