When first going through the close-up, personal portraits featured in Sarah Stedeford’s new and ongoing series, Beautiful Croydon, our immediate thought was that they must be archival shots. With social distancing rules placing a firm halt on projects built on human interaction, it had been too long since we’d seen such an authentic portrayal of a community. But, in spotting a mask hugging the chin of one subject, it became clear that Beautiful Croydon was indeed a recent body of work, casting a fresh light on the personalities of the south London borough, and just how important person-to-person interaction is to creativity.
Sarah first moved to Croydon three years ago she immediately connected with the area. On the surface it presented a particular familiarity to the surrounding areas where she’d spent her youth, like Surrey and Middlesex, as well as the more central London boroughs she’d lived in as an adult. Most of all however, it was Croydon’s residents who offered an open, personal connection with the photographer. “There is more community in Croydon than anywhere else I’ve lived,” she tells It’s Nice That. “People will help each other, they’re not curtain-twitchers or curbside onlookers. They are honest people, they’re more likely to talk to you, and to have time for you, but there can be a direct honesty too and I think that can get misinterpreted sometimes.”
Each photograph Sarah takes for Beautiful Croydon begins on her doorstep. Acts as simple as nipping out to the shops became field research explorations. Sometimes, after she discovers new subjects, she fetches her kit before returning to the site for a few dedicated hours to contribute to the series. As she puts it: “I haven’t left my house yet and not seen someone that I could photograph.” And although it sounds like a series fuelled by everyday life, it’s really the uniqueness of Sarah’s casting choices that pull a viewers eye in the project. “I think what I’m looking for is a particular energy, maybe one of non-conformity but definitely one that pushes back just slightly, or strongly, at historically popularised ideas of beauty,” she explains of this approach. “All the people I photographed are challenging certain ideas and standards, ones that are often tied with imposed rules of uniformity,” whether it be their place of work or at school, where students are restricted on what they can or cannot wear.
For this reason that the majority of Sarah’s subjects have ended up being around 16 to 18 and at college, setting aside their school uniforms for the first time. This age perfectly encapsulates a period of finding yourself – yet still feeling slightly uncomfortable with yourself – and for the photographer, it presents a completely “unique time in our lives,” she tells us, “where we can wear what we want and express ourselves how we like, before entering the workplace and after a lifetime of wearing a uniform.” In turn, Beautiful Croydon’s expression is not only one of community, but questions why measures of uniformity are imposed so heavily on individuals at a variety of ages, and in a way that Sarah believes “ultimately aids and motivates division,” says the photographer. “What are the values and aims of imposing these regulations and who is deciding what is, and what isn’t, appropriate for a particular place or person?”
Starting this series in lockdown also coincided with these thoughts of Sarah’s, as a period where there was little need to dress up in a way deemed acceptable or correct in society. People in general also had more time, “and this definitely aided my series,” she adds. Restrictions also meant Beautiful Croydon is the very first project where Sarah’s worked on a series alone, “and the process of doing this project has definitely changed me as a person,” she explains. “When I first started I was nervous to approach people, it was my own insecurities rather than that I was scared of the people I was approaching.” And although not a particularly shy or reserved person, quite physically running up to people to ask to take their portrait is a daunting task for anyone, with Sarah becoming “aware of the baggage I didn’t even know I was carrying,” she says. Yet, it was those interactions that catapulted the project forward: “Every person I met validated the reasoning for doing the project and inspired me to go on to ask the next person.”
When approaching a possible subject Sarah will first start by telling each individual about the project and why their portrait would be a perfect addition to the series. Discussions about the area and their individual style soon follow, meaning that every time “I have these conversations with the people I’m photographing I learn something else about Croydon and the community here, and then I can build that into the series as it grows.” The photographer will then return to her at-home darkroom to process the colour portraits, all taken on film bought from High Street Radio, an analogue specialist photography shop on the nearby high street – also where Sarah’s other, black and white darkroom is housed. “It has been invaluable to the series to have a photographic community here in Croydon,” she adds, “which has helped me behind the scenes and means I literally never have to leave the area to work on the series.”
Continuing to build this broad portrait of Croydon, Sarah has reels of stories to share on the life she has created and documented there. One in particular that seems to sum up the experience was when a passerby listened in on her describing the project and its positive title. “Recently a man overheard me talking to someone about the project and as I walked away he stopped me in a confused and angry tone and said, ‘Excuse me, did you say Beautiful Croydon?! What’s so beautiful about it?’,” Sarah concludes. “I replied, ’The people, I’m photographing the people here, it’s a portrait series’, and the guy literally melted and was like yes, and high-fived me.”
GallerySarah Stedeford: Beautiful Croydon (Copyright © Sarah Stedeford, 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, was made deputy editor and in November 2021, she 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.