Photos capturing the frustrations of teenagers on the brink of adulthood
Jacob John Harmer’s new photo book and short film explores the escapist desires of those turning 18 in a small English coastal town.
Photography Jacob John Harmer
“I wanted to capture what it felt like to be young. That mixture of optimism and trepidation, that heady excitement as you embark on a voyage into the unknown,” explains Jacob John Harmer, the photographer behind the arresting photobook and short film, Lost Ones. Four years ago, wanting to explore analogue photography, Jacob embarked on a project that took him back to his hometown of Hastings to document the local kids hanging out in the evenings in the same spots he frequented as a teen.
There he met Alfie. “He was relaxing on the crest of a cliff with a friend. We began talking and I just began shooting. I was so inspired by his easy nature that he became the focal point of the story and was pivotal in introducing me to the other protagonists that feature in the series,” Jacob told us in 2018. Over each summer from 2017 to 2020, Jacob returned to photograph Alfie and his friends as they each turned 18. The finished work is a document of teenage banality in beautiful, painful detail, against the still, epic backdrop of the Sussex coastline.
In some of the images the group laugh together, carelessly swinging their legs off the rocky cliff edge, passing around cigarettes and showing off matching eye tattoos on their thighs. In others they all lounge on the grass, quietly staring out to the point where the English Channel meets darkening skies. It’s a point in their lives where they’re “old enough to explore the pleasures that adulthood brings”, but “not experienced enough to be able handle the weight of the decisions and consequences that come with them”. Interspersed between the photographs are quotes from the group with updates on their changing lives and undying friendships and their hopes and giddy dreams out in the wider world. This ennui is a feeling familiar to many who grew up far from a big city, in places where life moves at an agonising pace, and the prospect of escape was made all the more intoxicating.
For Jacob, it was also a feeling that was embedded in the local folklore he’d been told as a child. “On the 1st of December 1947, the infamous occultist Aleister Crowley drew his last breath in Hastings,” Jacob says. “‘The Great Beast’, as he was known by the international press, had travelled far and wide before settling in a Victorian guest house in the town. With his health failing, he cast one final spell; that people born in the town would never be able to escape. No matter where they travelled, they would always be drawn back, unless they could find a stone on the pebbled beach with a hole through it and throw it into the sea, which would set them free.” The myth played in the back of Jacob’s mind as he started the photo project, but it has a much bigger role in a short scripted film he wrote as a companion to the book.
While the book revels in a peaceful nostalgia and the naive languor of youth, the film -- which won the award for best ensemble cast at Ignite Film Festival 2021 -- feels tonally darker. It dwells on the teens' different headspaces and their desires to either escape the monotony of the town around them, or the oncoming changes that adulthood is sure to bring.
“Some knew about the myth from their parents but others had never heard of it,” Jacob says. “It made for some really open and quite powerful conversations.” While some laugh it off, as Jacob notes, with the kind of “peacocking often used to disguise vulnerability” common at that age, for others the story has more resonance, and sets in motion the rest of the events in the film — ones that shapes their future.
Over the course of the three summers shooting the book, Jacob grew close to the group. “Through periodic visits my subjects' bravado began to ease and they began to accept me more as one of their gang.” He got his own sense of escapism through them, too. “I found solace in switching off from city life and bathing in the nostalgia of those bygone, hazy days.” As a result, he watched as each of the teens dealt with the transition away from the simple hazy days of childhood and towards their impending adult lives, and all the independence, freedom and responsibilities it entails. “Some of the cast became more focused on the future and the lives they wanted to live, others increased their hedonism — almost as a way to numb the weight of those questions that inevitably lay ahead as we mature. Many moved away, even as far as Los Angeles, while others remained in Hastings. Each progressed individually though, and had made grand positive strides in becoming the person they wanted to be. I’m so proud of each and every one of them.”
Summer 2021 was the first where Jacob wasn’t photographing the group since the project began, however, he “still checks in [with them] from time to time and probably always will.” The plan is to revisit the project in a decade with the same cast, many then likely to be in a similar headspace to him when they return to their coastal English hometown. “I’d revisit them over another three summers in the somewhat ironically titled, Found Ones. I’d like for the two books to sit as companion pieces, side by side and identical in design yet, I foresee, worlds apart in content.”
‘Lost Ones’ is available to purchase in a limited run of 200 copies from Jacob’s website.
Photography Jacob John Harmer
Art Direction Lucas Gabellini-Fava