Brighton Peeps, a new portrait series, offers a unique opportunity to get to know the people who call Brighton home.
The joint project by photographer Justine Desmond and journalist Daisy O’Clee launched during lockdown.
It sees people living in Brighton talk about their lives and experiences of the pandemic.
Through these stories, Brighton Peeps has become a celebration of the diversity of the city.
“We are trying to create a community and get to know the people in our city,” says Desmond.
Getting under the skin of the city
Despite being friends since meeting at their children’s school, Desmond and O’Clee had never worked together on a project before.
Lockdown presented a unique opportunity to combine their talents.
“We always talk about projects we could do but ordinarily we are both really busy,” says Desmond.
“Because of lockdown, I suddenly found myself with free time and Daisy was the same.”
Photographs of police patrols and crowded beaches were commonplace during lockdown.
However they did not reflect O’Clee and Desmond’s own experiences of most people following the rules.
They decided they wanted to take a more intimate look at how people in Brighton were coping with life during the pandemic and beyond.
“We wanted to get under the skin of the city and find out why the people here are so cool and open and accepting.”
Helping with feelings of isolation
Desmond says people have been very open to taking part in the project.
“In the main, people are actually quite happy to stop and talk and have a portrait taken,” she says. “People are very generous.”
That openness to being photographed has translated into the stories the Brighton Peeps are willing to share.
People have been honest about everything from their mental health to fears over job security.
Those who have moved to Brighton from less accepting places have shared stories of discrimination based on their appearance or sexuality.
“I think I have been quite surprised by how diverse the city is,” says Desmond.
“Lots of people that we have met are people from all over the world.
“People tell us they came here because they love the sea but they stayed because they love the people and the atmosphere.”
The honesty, and often joy, in Brighton Peeps has led those viewing it to feel more connected to the city and those around them.
“People say that it has helped them with loneliness and with isolation,” says Desmond. “It is quite heartwarming.”
Another highlight for ‘romantic’ Desmond is hearing people’s love stories – how the couples photographed first met and spend their time together.
She has also loved learning about the huge amount of talent Brighton holds.
“There are lots of really hard-working, entrepreneurial people doing quite exciting things in Brighton,” says Desmond.
“I have met so many people that have blown me away.”
An authentic insight
Perhaps part of the reason Brighton Peeps feels so authentic is because of the limited direction involved.
All the images are shot in full length portrait using a 5.6 aperture and Desmond chooses the background.
However, she allows the subjects to choose how they want to present themselves.
“I say to people ‘do whatever you want to do’.
“I think it is quite important that they are not directed and the portraits are authentic.”
What’s next for Brighton Peeps?
While lockdown might be easing, Desmond and O’Clee have no plans to end Brighton Peeps.
“There is so much joy in the project for me as a photographer,” says Desmond.
“I have got all these incredible opportunities to get portraits which you don’t often get.”
As well as continuing to take new images, the pair are also hoping to create a photo book and exhibition.
Desmond envisages a live exhibition, with the opportunity to meet some of the Brighton Peeps in person.
With so much talent discovered, including musicians, some of the subjects could even end up performing at an exhibition launch themselves.
“The fresh energy of meeting new people is good for your mental health,” says Desmond.
“This project gives us that opportunity.”