Lewis Khan didn’t have a prom. In fact, growing up in urban London – just south of the river – he says that, if his school were to have had a prom, it probably would have gotten “out of hand”. So when he witnessed the aftermath of a prom in his local vicinity around five years ago, he was transfixed on the energy, glitter and magic of it all; students “spilling” out onto the streets after partying through the evening with their friends. “Summer, hot sticky nights, the students in their sparkly dresses and shiny suits – a really beautiful juxtaposition to the road junctions and traffic monotony of Vauxhall,” Lewis tells It’s Nice that. “Joyful, exuberant, slowly filtering back in amongst the rest of the street scene.”
After watching the prom come and go over the next few years, Lewis felt inspired to reach out to the school about photographing one of the evenings. “The event felt too special not to record,” he notes. These moments, shot over a four-year period, have now been compiled into a comprehensive project named Leavers. Featuring a combination of still and moving imagery, the work evokes a sense pride, celebration and blissful uncertainty – the feeling you get when you enter a new stage of your life. And in this case, it’s adulthood. Lewis captures these emotions with care and accuracy, denoted through candid shots of smiling faces, embraces, and dancing gestures. “This felt like a contrast to the often mediated negative stereotypes that surround young people, and this further hit me as an important event to document and a point of view to amplify.”
The entirety of the project evokes a sense of nostalgia, as if it were pulled directly from the 90s. Reminiscent of all the millennial babies’ very own proms, there’s something in it for everyone; the friendships, the memories made, and the things that are better left in the past. Lewis used a Super8 for the film and medium format camera for the imagery, pairing a grainy “almost distorted” effect with the more “serene,” he says. “They each have a different tactility which I enjoy combining.” By pairing the footage with frozen snapshots, Lewis is able to capture the most dynamic and memorable parts of the proms he visited.
Over the course of the project, Lewis went to proms held between 2018, 2019 and 2021 – one was cancelled due to Covid-19. Two separate prom nights mark each year, one for the year 11s and one for year 13s. He’d attend both, meaning that by the third year deep into the project, he’d photographed students over a lengthy period. “Those guys were particularly memorable, seeing those slight differences between them at the two proms,” recalls Lewis. “I had a little glimpse of how amazing it must be for the teachers to see the students grow up all the way through school.” There were a few recurring pattens which arose throughout Lewis’ visual study into the proms: the year 11 students would act far more “hyped up”, with big energy and louder clothes, and their parents would come and get them at the end. Meanwhile, year 13 prom-goers started off a little slower, “more reserved” in garments that were understated. “But then, by the end, you suspect people have snuck booze in.”
Lewis played a slightly inconspicuous role in the shooting of the project. Somewhat like a fly on the wall – an observer – he’d immerse himself in the antics of the proms, making himself present but kept at a distance. “I think the students just saw me as another grown up, some of them were even calling me sir,” he remarks. What he’s grateful for, though, is having made some connections in his local area that might not have been made if it weren’t for the project. Leavers, in this sense, a pure celebration of joy, adolescence and friendship, which we all can relate to in some form or another. “It’s also about precariousness at a particular stage of life and getting through that, so I hope both sides of these things are felt.”
GalleryLewis Khan: Leavers (Copyright © Lewis Khan, 2022)
Lewis Khan: Leavers (Copyright © Lewis Khan, 2022)
About the Author
Ayla is a London-based freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising in art, photography, design and culture. After joining It’s Nice That in 2017 as editorial assistant, she was interim online editor in 2022/2023 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. She has written for i-D, Dazed, AnOther, WePresent, Port, Elephant and more, and she is also the managing editor of design magazine Anima.