How Ewen Spencer’s iconic photos of the Skins cast encapsulated a generation
Recently releasing an edition of prints from the campaign for series one of Skins, the photographer reflects on a body of work that remains endlessly popular with fans of the show.
- Lucy Bourton
- 21 July 2021
In having a lot more time to indulge in telly over the past year, there has been an undeniable comfort in revisiting shows we used to binge watch. Over lockdowns it seems that, at least for the generation who grew up with it, the Channel 4 show Skins offered a unique kind of relief. It’s full of drama to distract you from the world outside, but dually depicts parts of life we are missing – from sweaty clubs to dating mishaps, or just limitless non-socially-distanced time with your mates. It also appears to have picked up cohorts of new fans. TikTokers are often posting about characters like Cassie and Effy, and even ex-cast members are getting involved, like April Pearson setting up her podcast, Are You Michelle from Skins?
On reflection the show, especially its first series, is a brilliant embodiment of British creativity. It’s well known that several cast members like Dev Patel or Kaya Scodelario – then plucked off the street or from drama schools – have become regular features on stage and screen. When Daniel Kaluuya, who played Posh Kenneth, picked up his Rising Star award at the BAFTA’s in 2018 he signalled this, stating: “I am a product of arts funding within the United Kingdom.” Another creative the show worked with in these beginning years is the famed photographer Ewen Spencer. Commissioned to create the photographic material promoting its release, almost 15 years later it's a project showcasing how great art direction can inspire a generation of style.
Ewen’s commission came via two in-house creatives then at Channel 4, who contacted the photographer after seeing his personal work photographing teenagers, shot during the early 2000s for The Face. Ewen would visit clubs, bars and youth centres around the UK, taking candid photographs of teens in a style truthfully portraying those early years of over-excited hedonism after school. Around the time of Skins in 2007, Ewen had also recently published his first photo book Open Mic, centred on the burgeoning Grime scene. Ewen’s agent at the time would often leave it as a gift for prospective clients. “In general,” he reflects, “they were something of a calling card, those pictures.”
Channel 4’s team then began to build a brief for Ewen referencing these works as well as Late Night Party, another photography book “which had a similar approach to making pictures with direct flash of kids partying but less candid, and more direct reactions to camera,” he explains. At the time, “I wasn’t really watching TV,” adds the photographer – a possibly helpful factor when creating the promotional material of a show unlike any of its predecessors. Rather than diving into similar campaigns for television Ewen built his own references, like the works of Irish street photographer Tom Wood and Larry Fink’s early work of parties in New York and Studio 54.
The fact that a number of original actors for Skins were experiencing the first steps into acting also became an influence. “I knew that half the cast had been street cast, that it was being made in Bristol and would tackle real life situations that were perennial to British kids (hedonism, sex, emotional well being etc), and that it was going to be authentic in styling and character,” says Ewen. This also aided the photographer in building a scrapbook of influences that would drive the actual shoot in appearing as “live” as possible. “The scrapbooks become a directive for everyone involved in the process: creatives, production, my team, and eventually talent on set. It saves so much time and bluster to visually communicate your attentions. You are sometimes lucky in that models (or cast) know your work and are pretty excited to be working with you. They know the sort of energy to bring to set and you’re up and away, but these visuals I use in scrapbooks cut out a lot of the BS,” he adds. “I still use these scrapbooks as part of my process when establishing production on a shoot.”
The actual shoot took place in a location in Watford one evening in 2007. “The TV ident had been shot the previous evening, so the cast had already been geed up to some extent,” Ewen recalls. Among the main cast of the show were also around 50 extras “who were styled pretty accurately” with hair and make-up very consistent, “until it became too debauched”. Most were Central Saint Martins students at the time or friends of friends, entertained by “a French fella DJing who was their party DJ, they all loved this guy’s sounds and he had them in the palm of his hand,” says the photographer. “I’m pretty convinced a lot of the extras were loaded – but that’s by the by.”
The main cast however, “were young and very keen,” Ewen says looking back. “Nicholas Holt was a gent. Super professional, very handsome lad.” With his scrapbook to hand the photographer gathered key cast members to take them through shot ideas, “and showed them what kind of performance we would anticipate from them using my reference scrapbook.” Over the next five hours – with “house music pumping pretty consistently” – Ewen began to photograph singular shots which, on reflection, still embody the individual characteristics fans of the show fell head over heals for. “A little bit of lust and jealousy,” adds Ewen, “Cassie was the free spirit, Dev the confused kid… Posh Kenneth was the benign dictator of the group…”
For those who watched the show when it was first released (or admittedly repeatedly over the past decade), Ewen’s photographs represent our first memories. The honesty of Skins felt revolutionary for teens at the time, leaving us pretty much glued to the sofa stunned. Both the series and the photographer’s work have continued to be praised also, with BAFTA nominations and Ewen winning a D&AD pencil for the campaign in 2008. The commission also presented a change in Ewen’s photographic career, adding: “It certainly began a journey for me into bigger collaborations and commissions for sportswear and fashion brands, and in general advertising, that is still going strong for me today,” he tells It’s Nice That. “I’ve developed the style and pushed the polish and production a little here and there, but the basic premise was that I could translate what I was achieving in my personal projects around youth culture into a commissioned campaign.”
Even in 2021, these photographs have a lasting effect. Recently, the photographer released a series of prints of the work to purchase, “and they’ve become very popular,” he explains. “I don’t think we’ve had an edition of prints being so popular on such a global level. I think that alone describes the success of the project as a whole.”
Printed editions from the series are available to buy directly from Ewen here.
GalleryEwen Spencer: Skins (Copyright © Ewen Spencer, 2021)
Ewen Spencer: Skins (Copyright © Ewen Spencer, 2021)
About the Author
Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019 she was made deputy editor and in November 2021, became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.