Rebecca Zephyr Thomas is always hanging out with the cool kids

Rebecca Zephyr Thomas is a photographer based in London. Many of us may be familiar with Rebecca’s nostalgic images of the 00s festival and music scenes that became associated with the Indie Sleaze trend. Throughout her career, Rebecca has continued to nurture her passion for photographing people within the creative community. We recently had a chat with Rebecca as she prepares for the upcoming launch of her new zine, “We Are Your Friends,” which compiles some of her memorable images reinterpreted through a feminist lens.

Hi Rebecca, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I’m originally from Aotearoa (New Zealand) and now live in East London, I’m a total animal lover, any time I can include animals in my photos I try to, I even love the London pigeon. I shoot on digital, 35mm and medium format cameras, ideally, I like to use all three on one shoot as each format makes you think differently about how you frame the shot and the results are really different too. I try to aim for honesty in my images, I want a slightly curated view of life that’s shaped by my background and aesthetic tastes, but at the same time, my photos tend to be quite raw. I have an internal mood board going on in my brain while shooting, I definitely am composing little stories in my head that hopefully come across in the images. I always want the people in my photos to look strong, cool and authentic.

How did you get into photography?

Honestly, I think I was influenced by the photographer character on Melrose Place which is such an uncool answer! My parents had a friend who was a photographer and she was a big influence, to see someone you know doing that as a job would have opened my eyes to the possibility. I started as an early teen, I’d photographed my younger brothers and sister and dress them up or put them in little scenarios. At one stage I had a darkroom in my parent’s bathroom, with black rubbish bags taped on the window to block the light from getting in. I also read a lot of magazines growing up in the nineties, all the Vogues, Seventeen, Tatler, then later iD and The Face, so I very much had favourite photographers, Ellen Von Unwerth, Juergen Teller and Steven Meisel. I think being in New Zealand you had to make a real effort to find this sort of fashion culture, especially as the internet was just getting started so you couldn’t just scroll Pinterest. Magazines were really expensive or months old by the time they reached me.

Tell us a little bit about the project, how long have you been shooting this? What draws you to the project?

I shot this project back in 2007 and 2008, at The Underage Festival in London, I’d already been shooting at the club that existed before the festival, I was probably one of the few photographers at both events. Sometimes I feel that documentary images aren’t seen as that worthwhile at the time, they tend to grow in significance once you can look back at them years later. I was drawn to photographing teenagers because of the care they put into how they present themselves to the world, and how the choice of trainers or tee shirt meant you were part of a certain tribe or subculture.

Tell us a little bit about the zine and the exhibition associated with the project!

The zine is named after the Justice versus Simian song We Are Your Friends, I used to hear this out at pubs and bars in East London when I moved to the area in 2005. I was a real East London person for ten years, I used to joke about how I was more likely to go to Paris than West London, so I wanted a title that connected to the place and the time. The photos are a softer version of what we normally associate with ‘indie sleaze’, they’re direct portraits of people rather than scenes of partying and debauchery. I would like them to be viewed as a joyful expression of youth culture during the late 2000s, hopefully, that resonates with people.

How is the scene now different from before when you first encountered it?

I’m a bit of a homebody if I’m not taking photos! I do still document certain subculture events, I’ve recently shot heavy metallers at a battle of the bands, Paris Hilton fans and drag king competitions, these are all much more niche groups of people. I think the scene has probably changed in that it’s now easier to find a place that caters to your individual interest, in the late 2000s it felt more like East London might be your interest and that people were mixing around more freely.

The biggest difference is the rise of social media, camera phones and selfies, which have completely changed how we view ourselves and each other. I was a late joiner to social media, I completely avoided Facebook because I didn’t want any partying photos of me out in the world and I knew it would encourage my more negative online habits. I can totally understand this, as an unflattering photo online can be really embarrassing.

Almost all of the time strangers are still happy to let me take their photo, I think people can tell it’s coming from a genuine place. The conversation around street documentary and consent is really nuanced, I always ask the person before I take a shot, I’d never just take the photo unless it is a crowd of people when you can’t ask everyone. When you’re shooting strangers in a fun environment most people are flattered to be asked, the reason why I’ll be asking them is because I genuinely think they look cool, it’s never coming from a predatory place.

Why do you think that the scene is experiencing some kind of resurgence, especially at this moment in time?

I think it’s a mix of elements, fashion seems to work on reviving whatever happened twenty years ago, and there are thoughts that we’re in a more nostalgic era because everyone is so scared about what might happen in the future. Environmentally and politically the future can seem terrifying and the past softer, although in reality, it’s much less black and white. The late 2000s weren’t an easy time for women, sexism was fairly widespread, and we’re still dealing with the repercussions of that now, for example with Russell Brand who was in the news recently.

Stylistically I can understand why the late 2000s and indie sleaze fashion are attractive, I think partly because of the low-budget appeal, it’s not a look based on trying to look rich. Indie sleaze is not stealth wealth that’s for sure! I like that the fashion was based on everyday items that are easily affordable, skinny jeans, a band tee, Chuck Tailors and a vintage dress. It’s sort of a throwback to nineties grunge, I personally like style that’s based on cheap materials and ingenuity.

Do you have a playlist that you listen to when you are photographing?

My ideal photographing playlist is a mix of late seventies disco and nineties hip hop – Diana Ross The Boss followed by Junior Mafia’s Get Money.

“We Are Your Friends” is launching in this coming week. Join Rebecca on Thursday 5th October 5:30 – 8:30 at the Allpress Roastery 55 Dalston Lane. You can follow Rebecca on her Instagram account.