Lenses of Croydon: where local photographers are doing it for themselves

By - Wednesday 22nd August, 2018

What do you do if you can’t join ‘the club’? Set up your own club!

Lee Townsend.
Photo by Paige Joseph, used with permission.

Lee Townsend is a professional photographer, part-time degree student, author, workshop facilitator, social activist and founder of Lenses of Croydon and the Croydon Photography Forum. But the journey to achieve this wasn’t always easy.

Knowing from a young age that he wanted to work in photography, he bought a camera and joined a few camera clubs, and quickly found that he was being overlooked because he didn’t have an expensive camera or the latest high-tech equipment.

“Even though I was paying my money into the club, same as everybody else, I wasn’t being taken seriously”, he explains.

So he decided to set up his own club that would be inclusive to all, whatever their level of ability or equipment. At that time he had recently returned to his home town of Croydon after a period studying and working in the Caribbean, and was working with Croydon Voluntary Action, helping to set up a youth volunteering project.

Lenses of Croydon is designed to be welcoming for all

They kindly donated premises on the London Road to host Lee’s monthly meetings, which meant that he didn’t have to charge a fixed members’ fee, and just asked for donations instead. And so, Lenses of Croydon was born. A photography club that is designed to be welcoming to all, whether you are an aspiring photographer or just like looking at photos. “One of our regular members doesn’t even own a camera, she just enjoys the friendly environment, talks and fun”, says Lee.

He has stuck to his commitment to not charge entrance fees: people are asked to donate whatever they are able and want to contribute. “Our age range is from fourteen – a boy who comes with his father, I do ask that all under-eighteens are accompanied – up to seventy-five. It’s a friendly space, a very supportive environment and a great community resource.”

The aim of the club is to help its members – people who live, work or study in and around Croydon – to enhance their creative skills, build a photography portfolio and network. Each meeting is themed and usually focuses on a set task to facilitate the development of new skills, capture vibrant images and try something new.

There is a chance to learn from experienced photographers in the group

Different aspects of photography are covered in the sessions, including studio, outdoor, landscape, street, wedding, fashion and portraits. Training in photo-editing programmes such as Lightroom, Photoshop and Aperture are offered occasionally, and there is also a chance to learn from experienced photographers in the group. For more information, visit the group’s Meetup page here.

The group recently partnered with the Kiwanis Club of Croydon, an organisation that works with local communities to improve the lives of children, staging a photography exhibition that raised almost £1,000 for the Croydon Young Carers Project.

The group has grown beyond all Lee’s expectations in the ten years since he set it up, with a current count of 534 members. “The people who come really are a mixed bag; some people may have mental health challenges, so it’s important for them to be in an accepting environment. The group is all about creating social inclusion and building confidence.”

One member travels all the way from Norwich for meetings

One member travels to Croydon all the way from Norwich for the meetings, and another spends hours on buses from Harrow to take part. “There are several professional photographers in the group”, says Lee, “including somebody who has worked with Sean Paul, a studio portrait photographer who has an ongoing exhibition at the Mayday hospital and the guy who runs the BA Journalism course at City University”. As well as specific skills training, people also learn how to charge for their work, how to negotiate contracts, how to stop their work being exploited and how to have that conversation about getting paid when people want to use your work for free in return for “exposure”.

As part of his aim to advance member knowledge and skillsets, he also runs the Croydon Photography Forum, a free monthly event at which industry professionals give talks about their work.

“We’ve had amazing speakers come to talk to us over the years, people like Gavin Hoey, who is a complete internet sensation, and internationally renowned Getty photographers. Most recently we had two young photographers from The Undateables. One was blind and the other was in a wheelchair, showing how disability doesn’t have to hold you back in this field.”

Lee’s own work as a professional photographer is the ‘day job’

Plans for autumn include a talk by the photographer Louis Qual on 11th September, and speakers from the University of the Creative Arts on 9th October. See the full programme here.

Meanwhile, Lee’s own work as a professional photographer is the ‘day job’, with his business focusing largely on third sector charity work and commissions. He is also currently studying part-time for a BA degree in photography at the University of Westminster, writing a book on how to run a successful photography business, and running professional workshops. His book will be offered as a free eBook to workshop participants.

He also plans to run more activities for Lenses of Croydon in the coming months, including studio workshops and exhibitions to showcase the work of members, with one already scheduled for Matthews Yard in November. A private Facebook group set up recently already has several hundred members – you can apply to join here.

“This is such a supportive environment”

“Lenses of Croydon is an extremely supportive environment”, he stresses. “Back in November I had all of my camera equipment stolen, which was a huge blow for me because this is how I support my family. The group raised £1,700 towards helping me replace it and lent me equipment so I could carry out my commissions in the meantime.”

It’s not always easy.

“Sometimes it can be a struggle – like when I’m buying the snacks for the meeting, putting out the chairs, doing the washing up afterwards and all that’s in the kitty at the end of the night is a couple of quid. But then you get an outpouring of love and support when it’s needed – and that makes it all worth it.”

Bernadette Fallon

Bernadette Fallon

Bernadette has been a journalist since the age of 7 when she devised, designed and launched ‘Fallon’s News’ – much to her family’s delight. Brought up in Ireland, she was born in Addiscombe where she now lives, though it took her several decades to find it again. She works as a journalist and broadcaster. Follow her at Twitter.com/bernibee

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