Sarah Stedeford’s Beautiful Croydon shows the powerful personalities living in the London borough

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?”
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.