The YPG Interview
Youth Culture in Castle Square
In November 2009 we talked to photojournalist Jonathan JK Morris about his year-long project documenting youth culture in Castle Square, Swansea. A full version of this interview containing extended text and additional photographs is available to download here.
All images © Jonathan JK Morris
I try to take photographs showing what people would see if they walked past and looked long enough to notice that not all the youths are being anti-social.
Tell us a bit about yourself
I'm a photojournalist with a primary interest in positively documenting alternative cultures in our country. My intentions are to create intimate, honest images that don’t conform to established stereotypes found within popular media.
Give us a brief description of your Castle Square project
The media misrepresent youth culture by only reporting the negatives. The consequence of this is a population that is only kept informed about these aspects, the more this happens, the more the notion that all youths are anti-social and disruptive is taken for granted by the public, creating a climate of fear and disassociation. This project exists to remind people that there are many positives in youth culture. The images show a greater level of understanding towards youths by deliberately showing the positives, focusing on the beauty, the joys and the freedoms. The overall aim is to correct this negative attitude and to provide a balance when discussing 'the youth of today'.
The project was always called 'Castle Square' until it went to print when I dropped the last word and it became known simply as 'Castle'. It took on a more poetic meaning because of what the word connotes: defence, strength, sanctuary, home, protection...
What did your project involve?
At the start of the project I went to Castle Square and picked what seemed to me the most colourful and popular youths - they had to look interesting for head portraits since that was all I wanted to begin with. I told a little white lie to the youths, telling them I was doing a fashion project when I wasn't. It's all semantics I suppose, but you're going to get blank faces when you walk up to a group of over 300 youths, and mention you're doing a cross cultural comparison of youth culture using photography! One of the most important parts of the project was the need to be honest, so it's quite ironic that I started my work with a lie.
The Castle project involved a lot of my time - it took a year to work on - and I had to remain consistent in my intentions the whole time. The longevity of the project really worked in my favour because it said to the youths that I was committed. I was there for every season in the year, I was in the rain with them, in the cold – sometimes I even turned up before they did. I gained their trust because I was there every single week sharing that time and space with them.
Youths will end up buying the same clothes. Being creative with their clothing by further modifying them helps to set them apart from one another and possibly start a new street trend.
When I started the project I didn't realise how valuable a website could be. My lecturer suggested that I should create a website rather than spending time emailing individuals the images every week. So I created a blog which just blossomed! Alongside the Castle Square photographs I added links to research materials I was interested in and thought the youths might want to read. They were mostly about fashion and culture.
The website made a big impression on all the youths. The fact that they had a place on the internet that was about them was very important to them. It really changed things for me because I was adding new content every week and they were digesting it, commenting on the updates and really getting involved. It also said I was official, and to a lot of the youths I became the 'Castle Photographer'.
After a period of time I felt the website showed the best parts of Castle Square and that anybody visiting the site would hopefully understand that this was a celebration of youth culture.
Why did you choose to focus on the youths in Castle Square?
Having just come back from Japan, I was really happy with the pictures I had taken of youths when I was over there. I had received praise for the portraits, and although I hadn't done street photography before, some suggested the work was my best ever while studying for my BA degree. At that point I wasn't studying Photojournalism, I was studying Photo Arts.
I soon realised that a Photojournalism course would be more suitable for my desire to discuss issues that we face as a society. I had made a start on the Photo Arts course but the ideas were more abstract and I was concerned that not many people would be able to relate to them. So during my second year I switched courses and focused on the Harajuku Girls as a project. The Harajuku Girls are a large group of youths who meet in Harajuku, a district in Tokyo, every Sunday. The group also includes young guys, cross-dressers and old men dressed in exotic clothes.
Every Sunday hundreds of photographers go to Harajuku and this event lasts all day - everybody just has fun, the cross-dressing and the old men are encouraged. It isn't seen as strange in Japan because they have different attitudes to us in the West when it comes to this kind of thing.
But with Japan being such a positive experience I questioned how we could treat youths in a negative way in the UK. Why didn't we celebrate them like in Harajuku? Then one day I happened to walk through Castle Square and it reminded me of the youths in Harajuku, but here a negative energy was attached to them. I saw a potential project and knew my decision to switch to the Photojournalism course had been the right one.
How did you manage to take such candid shots of the youths and why did they agree for you to publish them?
I became invisible, I had successfully infiltrated the group. I stayed with the youths for such a long time that they considered me one of them – they would openly acknowledge this.
In some cases they wanted me to document the things they got up to, like their street piercings. I never judged them in their actions so I was never a threat to them. The only thing I was against, and it reminded them that I was there for my own reasons, was when they asked me to buy them alcohol and cigarettes. I repeatedly refused these requests over the course of the year. This was from a minority of youths who I hadn't focused on while in Castle Square.
During my time with them, I had explained what I was trying to do and the youths agreed with my opinions and intentions. A lot of them were frustrated with how they were always being stopped by the Police or the City Rangers. To an extent they were aware of how they were represented in the media and they saw me as being on their side, even though they probably didn't understand how I was going to do it. As an aside, other youths would explain my project for me to newcomers. Sometimes nobody needed to explain who I was - being the 'Castle Photographer,' was enough for them to be okay with me being there.