BBQs, prayer and lager: joyful photos of summers in Southend-on-Sea

BBQs, prayer and lager: joyful photos of summers in Southend-on-Sea

Inspired by the beach trips of his childhood, photographer Owen Harvey seeks to capture "what Southend looks like in 2023."

With its captivating blend of tradition, romance, and absurdity, the British seaside has a signature destination for documentary photographers, with luminaries like Tony Ray-Jones, David Hurn, Chris Killip, and Martin Parr have elevated distinctly British landscape to the realms of high art.

For British photographer Owen Harvey, the seaside – a place he frequently visited on holiday while growing up in the '90s and ‘00s – was filled with memories of innocence and youth.

In 2018, Harvey visited Southend-on-Sea in Essex for the first time and immediately felt a connection to the people and place. Cast in the golden glow of times past, the town inspired Harvey to reflect on his own childhood. Drawn by a powerful sense of nostalgia, Owen began chronicling everyday life the town he would soon call home.

Now, Harvey looks back at life where water meets earth in the new exhibition, Last Days of Summer, at Twenty-One Gallery in Southend-on-Sea. The show brings together works of leisure and place, while also preserving the inclusive spirit of the community.

“Lots of people come down to Essex from East London for those infrequent boiling summer days that England has,” says Harvey. “Of course East London is very multicultural, so there’s no one kind of individual who comes down to visit. It’s interesting to observe how people use the area in different ways, whether that be for BBQs on the beach, prayer, or getting 10 pints of lager down them.”

Surrounded by day-trippers and weekenders, Harvey is drawn to moments of rest and repose, where people are finally free from the relentless toil of work. “The large majority of people are here for an affordable trip and to let off some steam. It’s good for the local economy and often great for pictures,” he says.

Drawn to moments of relaxation and repose, Harvey crafts a kaleidoscopic look at devotees working on their tans under the blazing summer sun, diving off the piers into the calming waves of the sea, and enjoying rides at the fairgrounds with friends and loved ones. “Usually when people are in their time of leisure, they can be their truest self, which is what I’m always interested in capturing,” he says.

Understanding the importance of striking the proper balance between candour and comfort when photographing strangers in public, Harvey takes measures to secure prearranged access to the locations he photographs and makes sure that everyone he is engaging with understands why he is making the work.

“The privilege and curse of photographing somewhere you live is that you can pick up the camera any time and get out there to make the pictures, but equally there’s always tomorrow,” says Harvey.

“It’s deepened my approach to documentary work, as it made me more aware of how I’m representing a place and the people who occupy that space. This is a snapshot of what Southend-on-Sea looks like in 2023.”

Owen Harvey: Last Days of Summer is on view through July 16 2023, at Twenty-One Gallery in Southend-on-Sea, Essex.

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