All images part of Parachute exhibition; photography by Reuben Bastienne-Lewis

“Parachute feels like trying to mark out a particular chapter in my life” Reuben Bastienne-Lewis on capturing the dynamics of youth in his exhibition

South-London born photographer Reuben Bastienne-Lewis is visibly full of joy to be debuting his exhibition Parachute at Brighton Festival. He tells me, “I am really grateful for the opportunity to put my work into this platform.” The exhibition consists of intimate portraiture and video installations. It is dynamic work which celebrates youth and creativity; the still as well as the vibrancy of adolescence. Parachute will be on display at Phoenix Art Space from Sat 6 May right up until Sun 2 July. There is plenty of time to see this incredible visualisation of art which Lewis describes as marking a chapter in his life. 

Parachute is a personal project incorporating photography of Lewis’ friends as they are going through their own coming of age.

Thinking about youth cultures and growing up as a process, I ask Lewis how this translates or compares to his process as a photographer. “The process is shoot first, think later” he confirms, “creating a mass of imagery and bubbling it down.” Capturing photographs for this particular concept – being diaristic and biographical – is “instinctual” in its process. Lewis carries a camera as much as he can.

“I try not to intellectualise or overthink what I am shooting at the time,” Lewis says considerately. He is always “trying to be pleasantly surprised by the world.” His care behind every deliberation of his work emphasises that it is a humble and honest creation. “I guess it is like a sensitive phenomenology. Allowing the world to present itself” before he then sits with the imagery and tries to translate a feeling or what is being said. He enjoys looking for things that make you think or react. Then, taking the photograph, and attempting to decode the curiosity the image holds.

For Parachute in particular, the title came first. It began as ‘The Nature of The Parachute’ Lewis reveals, before narrowing down to Parachute. “It became [the idea of] this journey of growing from adolescence to adulthood and how that kind of feels like jumping out of a plane.” He continues, “trying to make sense of the world from a ‘looking down’ perspective and jumping in.” The fear, intrigue, and endless possibilities when you dive into life. Lewis says that the photographs and recordings create a sense of permanency or, a “marking of a chapter through this diaristic biographic response to why I take photos and trying to capture those questions [about youth culture].”

Further, the exhibition will allow Lewis to move onto the next stage of his photographic journey.

They are “moments that I won’t be able to recreate.” The body of work spans between ten and twelve years. There are therefore very familiar memories or moments which are personal to the creator. Beyond the youthful energy of Parachute, Lewis feels able to develop his aesthetic and other areas of his life that he wants to capture. 

Because of the natural process of his photography, and being able to articulate something so familiar and personal into a public display of art, I couldn’t help but wonder what encouraged this young creative to take his work more seriously onto a professional level. Turns out JPG is in his DNA because his mum is a photographer too. He pleasantly reminisces about being a teenager “going out to events and parties.” This was around the time when he “started looking at the body of work that my mum captured in her early 20s of the punk scene in New Zealand.” Lewis confesses, “I just wanted memories like that really.”  

The creative journey actually started as one which was functional however. A lot of Lewis’ friends were in bands and starting off in music.

It “was my way to get involved in going to gigs and stuff.” To be “part of a community of artists and musicians.” He says, “looking back now they are some of my favourite photos [because of the] family sense of pride.” Recently, a short film was put together called You Heat Me Up, You Cool Me Down. This was partly shot at early King Krule gigs, with whom Lewis went to school and became friends with. 

Then, turning photography into a career was a matter of going to university. He honed the skills and had access to facilities before “one thing led me to another.” Just like the photography itself, the success was natural. “It all started small with friends and then started progressing and I was getting more traction.” Lewis modestly states, being in the South London music scene was his gateway into being “there at the right time and we all developed together.” He describes being able to get his work published as young as eighteen was the “buzz” that motivated him further into the professional creative field. 

Speaking a bit more about his aesthetic, I label it as ‘street grunge’ with its high contrasts, shadows and pops of colour and ask if this resonates with Lewis at all.

“I guess my vibe is grunge in a classic sense” he ponders, “feeling quite home-grown.” The framing of the photograph, the moment he captures, “is often quite immediate.” This immediacy means there are also a lot of dynamics captured: sound or a movement which illustrates “the rawness and reality of a photograph.”  Lewis asserts, “I like to strip things back a bit” and has recently found himself taking a lot of pictures of the back of people’s heads. Using this as a portrait technique means “there is more silence or a sculptural essence to my work” Lewis informs me. He has stopped asking people in his everyday work to do so much in the imagery, “let[ting] the action happen and be subtle about it.” 

Seeing as BN1’s theme this month is festival, I turn Lewis’ attention to this colourful and vibrant topic as a space in which young creatives annually congregate.

He has many fond memories of attending festivals, photographing them but also just soaking in the atmosphere with his friends. Brainchild Festival was the first he photographed, and he has also done a couple of bits at Secret Garden Party. What Lewis loves about photographing festivals especially is the “middle of day haze when everyone is hungover and you get this magic.” 

Festival stories that Lewis shares include being pleasantly surprised at the randomness of Secret Garden Party. “[You are] just walking around and there is a parade of naked people or theatre troops.” He also loves Brainchild because there is a miniature bird sanctuary next door, so you can look at birds while you are putting your head together on a hungover morning. 

Parachute comes to Brighton on Sat 6 May, where Lewis is hopeful that people will be surprised by the exhibition.

“Without giving too much away” he begins, “there is a level of scale that you can play with in an exhibition.” This tiny clue as to what we can expect from the show suggests that spectators can become immersed in the photograph’s worlds. Lewis says this is something he is most looking forward to about Parachute being on display. He is “interested to see how people react to the space” as well as recognising the “relationships between photographs.” 

Brighton as Parachute’s home is idyllic. Lewis used to come here throughout his teenage years to see a close friend of his mum’s. Speaking of our city he tells, “I used to come down with my friends a lot.” His friend Kaya, who used to travel to London from Brighton, actually features in a photograph at the exhibition. Asking whether place influences his photography much, he says there is definitely “a pride of growing up somewhere.” He enjoys being able to capture a place from a different perspective, something non-touristy, “understanding the rhythm of a city in a different way.” Place also features heavily in Parachute via climate, as Lewis portrays the UK’s love of hot weather. “There is a lot of summer in my work which I think is a reference to that celebration [of] emerging out of the depth of the cold.” 

Perhaps some of Brighton’s summer skies will feature in future projects?

“I will be photographing the process,” Lewis says, “but it might be nice to step back and enjoy taking it all in.” Last time he was in Brighton however, he spent about an hour on the pier photographing the starlings. “It is often the things you don’t photograph that you regret or think about more” he decides, though he wants to remember this experience for a long, long time. 

Brighton Festival is just the start of the journey for Lewis. As part of the exhibition he is also publishing a photobook of the same title. Audiences can take a part of the Parachute experience home. Working on more small publications is something he would love to do more of. This, and getting back into film-making, doing more touring with his friends’ band. 

For now, he tells me he gives huge thanks to Phoenix Art Space and Nabihah Iqbal. On his relationship to this year’s director he says, “I met [Iqbal] maybe seven or so years ago, so that has been really cool, growing as artists.” He actually worked with her on a music video on the day before the exhibition got launched. Concluding our conversation, Lewis says, “shoutout to her for seeing something in my work. Lots of gratitude. And, keep a look out for the book!”

Parachute is a free visual arts event consisting of portraiture photography and video installations. It makes its world premiere at Phoenix Art Space Sat 6 May–Sun 2 Jul, Wed–Sun, 11am–5pm.

See more of Reuben Bastienne-Lewis’s work online at www.reubenbastiennelewis.co.uk/home

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