‘England is What You Make of It’

Steve Reeves’ street portraits have opened his eyes to the beauty, courage and joy in the world.

Words and Portraits
by Steve Reeves

Steve Reeves has traveled the world as a director, managing huge crews and budgets, but his most eclectic work has been created with a single stills camera, usually within a few miles of his South London home.

The filmmaker has spent most of his career in advertising, with his Agent Provocateur commercial, featuring the pop singer Kylie Minogue, voted the greatest cult cinema ad of all time. He has also directed short films and a feature, ‘Keeping Rosy’, starring British ‘Shameless’ actress Maxine Peake.

But it is his vibrant local community in Balham, South London, where he has lived most his life, that recently inspired him to celebrate the spirit and humanity of the real lives of strangers close to home.

“I took up photography about four years ago,” he says. “I work full time as a director and film production is so collaborative – there’s a whole film crew to deal with as well as a raft of clients. That can be a lot of fun, but I love the fact that with photography, it’s just me and my camera.”

Steve’s project began as candid street photography, before an encounter with one of his unwitting subjects inspired him to speak to those whose pictures he was taking to learn more about their story.

He explains, “One day when I was out taking photos, I passed a hospital and saw a patient in a dressing gown smoking a cigarette while attached to an oxygen tube. I liked this ironic image and took a candid shot. I’m 6ft 5in, so I always get caught when taking candid photos, and this woman spotted me immediately and called me over.

“Her name was Hannah, and she told me that she was a 35-year-old mother-of-two. She also told me that she had incurable brain disease and had just three months to live. Whether she smoked a million ciggies or ran a hundred marathons, it made no odds – she was terminal.

“Hannah asked if I’d take a shot of her and her mate. When I got home, I looked at this shot, which was just a snap, alongside the candid one of her smoking, which suddenly felt quite disrespectful. I deleted the candid shot and decided to write a bit about Hannah to go with the shot of her and her mate.

“It was this encounter that got me into street portraits, and it also got me talking to and writing about the people that I photograph. To me, sharing words about my subjects are as important as the pictures themselves.

“Talking with strangers on the street has been hugely rewarding for me. It has given me a whole new perspective on life and has removed much of my cynicism and preconceptions about people.

“Nearly everyone that I speak to, despite having been through various trials and tribulations, seems to maintain an optimistic outlook and, above all, a sense of humor as they quietly go about their lives.”

Steve at work

Steve at work

Steve is currently working on several projects, including ‘A Nation of Shopkeepers’ which documents the changes on the British High Street, ‘British Elders’ which documents the older generation and ‘Smokers – A Dying Breed’, interviewing and photographing people that have nothing but a love of cigarettes in common.

He plans to produce a book of his street portraits and the accompanying interviews, and here he walks us through some of his favorite subjects and their stories. They are all either taken within a mile or so of his home in South London, or close to the coastal town of Bournemouth, where he has a holiday home nearby.

He adds, “I’ve spoken to all sorts of people, and photography has really broadened my horizons. It has been a way for me to talk to people I would never have engaged with without my camera. It’s opened up my life and it’s been a privilege to talk to and photograph the people that I have met.

“It’s funny because my job as a director takes me all over the world, but thanks to photography, I have got to know a more diverse and eclectic range of people than I ever did on my travels, all within a couple of miles of my home.

“It’s given me a sense of purpose. I want my work to celebrate ordinary people from all cultures, and through this exercise have learnt that we all have so much more in common than differences.”


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I met Dave on the Walworth Road in South London. He was on his way home from a charity shop where he’d just bought some picture frames. Dave is 70. He was born locally and has lived in the area his entire life. I remarked that he looked very cool for a man of his age and asked if he used to be a punk back in the day. Dave said, “I’ve been the lot – mod, rocker, punk and in the 70s, even a hippy.” Dave worked most of his life as a mechanic, mainly motorbikes and especially Harley Davidsons. He told me that he has a 38-year-old daughter who he is very close with. I asked about his wife, he said that her name was Virginia and that 27 years ago, they went on a dream holiday to Florida where she drowned in the sea. He said it was harrowing losing his young wife, especially on holiday and so far from home. Dave said it was strange flying back home alone. Dave raised his daughter, who was just three years old at the time, by himself and said there isn’t a day that goes by when he doesn’t think about his wife.



Bipin was pruning roses in his front garden when I took this shot. He told me that he came to South London from Mumbai 53 years ago. He has two “lovely grown-up daughters.” They live close by and have delivered food everyday during lockdown to Bipin and his wife of 54 years. One of his daughters works for a well known skincare brand and often gives Bipin free samples – this probably explains why he looks so good for a 76-year-old.


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Many elderly people visiting the sea tend to drive to the nearest beach car park and enjoy the view through their windscreens. They may even take a walk along the promenade if the weather is good. Not life-long Bournemouth resident Pat. She may be “getting on a bit” but likes to get ‘“right up close” to the ocean. She has just popped to the beach on the way home from doing her shopping, and told me that she goes every day if she can. She wasn’t very talkative but was happy to face me so I could take a shot. She then turned back to gazing out at the English Channel – quite a striking figure standing all alone in her long red coat and clutching a Poundland plastic bag.


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Kevin works front of house at The Hippodrome Casino in Soho. He is originally from Sweden but now lives in Battersea, South London. He misses the quietness of Sweden but the pay is better in London. He very kindly let me take this portrait and then he showed me around the casino. Even though it was the middle of the day, the place was packed. Kevin was an elegant and pleasant guy.


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Jenny is a library manager from Christchurch, Dorset. I was walking my dog on a freezing winter’s day when I saw her striding out of the sea. She looked terrific set against the stormy skies and kindly let me take some shots. Jenny has always loved swimming outdoors but took up ‘all year round’ swimming in 2014, after her dad passed away. She’d spent many years caring for him, and after his death, found that she had more time to pursue her love of swimming. At first, she was nervous about swimming in the sea in the middle of the winter, so she joined a club called Beyond the Blue, who regularly meet to swim and welcome new members no matter their ability. Jenny told me that it’s a lot easier to enter freezing water when supported by the laughter of like-minded people. Since then, her swimming has gone from strength to strength, and recently earned the coveted Spartan’s Badge. To qualify, you have to swim 20 Sundays at Boscombe Pier between October and April. Jenny loves the “pure joy” of swimming in the sea and enjoys “feeling the power of her body” as she moves through the waves.


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Paul from Fulham, South West London. “They will bury me a mod.”


This is Aaliyah outside St George’s Hospital in Tooting, where she works as a ‘flusher’, checking that the water in the hospital is safe. Taps that are not often used in places like hospitals can contain water that carries legionella and pseudomonas bacteria. It’s Aaliyah’s responsibility as part of the water safety team to ensure that this does not happen. She loves the job, but Covid has been challenging. She has to wear full PPE all day, which she finds exhausting, and like most 18-year-olds, it has also been awful for her social life. She did not enjoy school and was placed in a pupil referral unit when she was 13. She left without any qualifications, but when she was 17, she re-sat her exams and now, alongside her full-time job at the hospital, studies law. Equality, diversity, and human rights are important to Aaliyah. She hopes that one day her training in law will help her to help other people. This is very personal to her, as she has paranoid schizophrenia and wants to prove that people with mental health issues can achieve and work. Aaliyah was recently awarded a ‘Mayor of Merton Award’ for raising money within the community during the pandemic. She’s lived in Tooting and Mitcham her whole life and is engaged to the childhood sweetheart that she has known since she was 13. She relaxes by writing songs and boxing. She told me that it’s easy to take off the fingernails before she puts the boxing gloves on.


I was in Balham High Road when a woman walked by carrying a bunch of artificial flowers. I asked to take her photo. Helen is 80 and from Ghana. She came to the UK in the ’60s after a military coup in her country. She worked in a bank in Ghana but in England, worked most of her life as a social worker for Wandsworth Council, helping youths with learning difficulties. When she was in her 60s, a routine health check showed high blood pressure, and she was to take early retirement. It was then that she did a course in flower arranging. Helen is the 7th of 12 children. Her mother died aged 110, and she told me that her grandmother was 129 when she died – I said that this sounded unlikely, but Helen was adamant that she was correct. Helen said to me that women from Ghana live a long time and that she has 12 relatives over 100-years-old, “all of them waiting to die, but they never get around to it.”

Sadly, Helen’s daughter wasn’t so lucky. She died of breast cancer at just 33. Helen showed me a picture of the white coffin that she was buried in and asked me if I’d take her to visit her grave one day as she’s made a new flower arrangement for it. A few days later, I took Helen to visit her daughter’s grave in West Norwood Cemetery. As we left the cemetery, Helen said that it didn’t seem right to visit her daughter’s grave but not her husband’s. I said, of course, and asked her to point out where it was. Helen told me that it was actually in a different cemetery over in Tooting. After about an hour, we finally made it across South London to the graveyard where Helen’s husband was buried. He was a doctor when he was alive, and Helen told me that he was a quiet man but had “a quick temper.” I asked if she will be buried here with her husband, and she said, “No way, I am being buried with my daughter.”


I was riding my bike along a path that runs between the River Wandle and an industrial estate in South London. Usually, when I glance down at the river, I expect to see a traffic cone bobbing around or a shopping trolley stuck in the mud. This time though, I saw a man swimming in the water. I stopped, and we had a chat. Akadi is 26 and was born in Wandsworth. I asked him why he was in the river, and he said that he’s trying to live “’more in the moment.” He said that he was walking along the river and wondered what it would be like to go in. He then thought, “why wonder?”, took off all his clothes, and got in. Akadi was a very chilled-out guy – literally, his teeth were chattering as we spoke. He said it was much colder than he was expecting, but it felt great to “feel the breath in my lungs” and that he was really pleased that he went in. He’s a poet and is determined to experience a more simple life and stay more in touch with nature. Quite a few of the younger people I’ve chatted to recently seem to be more into “nowness” and less into chasing a career and making money. It feels like a growing trend. Akadi told me that you see the world how you want to see it and that, sadly, the media seem to just want us to notice the bad in life. “If you’re in a room and someone tells you to look for something blue, your mind automatically finds all the blue things in that room. If they say to look for something red, your mind filters out everything else, and you see only red things. I think it’s the same with my outlook on life. I can choose to see the ugly, or I can choose to see the beauty.”


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June Barryford has lived in Soho for the last 35 years. Before retirement, she worked in publishing. She was born in Clapham but spent many years living in France which explained her slight accent. She was happy for me to take her photo and I loved the way that her blue scarf complimented the blue sky. When I asked June her age, she said “that’s a secret.”


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Georgina is the general manager of the Midlands Hotel in Weston-Super-Mare on the Somerset coast. She’s worked at the hotel with owner Keith since he bought the place eight years ago. They’ve since become great friends. Both Keith and Georgina come from the Midlands, hence the name of the hotel. Keith is responsible for the life-sized Queen in the hotel window. He bought HRH at an auction for £150 and now she has become a part of the furniture. Until recently, the hotel lobby also had a life-sized Donald Trump offering her Majesty a glass of bleach to gargle with. However, Keith has since banished Donald to a cupboard as he found the former president’s comments about Black Lives Matter offensive. Georgina is pictured here in the seat of the deposed president.


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Hugh was out walking his dog when I took this shot. He’s retired but still likes wearing his bowler hat, shirt and tie. Hugh was a charming bloke and it was effortless talking to him. He knew a lot about poetry and recited a whole poem to me which I wasn’t expecting at 9.30am on the streets of South London. Hugh has had his Covid vaccine, he said that it went without a hitch. He told me that there’s nothing to do during lockdown apart from “drinking and watching the television.” His preferred drink is “half and half,” which, he informed me, is a combination of sweet and dry sherry, and admitted that he’d “had a nip” before going out for his morning dog walk.


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Jeremy loves art. He has lived all over the world and has had many different jobs and experiences. He was even a member of the Greek police for five years. He told me that he has two daughters. One is grown up, and lives “up north” and the other died at just four months old, over 20 years ago. Jeremy enjoys drawing the things that he loves – women mainly. He told me that he steals his pens from WHSmiths and likes to get a drawing done every day. Today his studio is a boarded up pub in Balham High Road. Jeremy was genuinely pleased that I took the time to talk to him. The cup in his hand contained coffee, and he was not asking people for spare change. He said that he had a bottle of whiskey which he offered to share with me as apparently, “I was a gent.”



Marjory was on her way home from the shops when I asked if I could take her photo. “Yes, dear,” she said. She was born in Barbados but has lived in Balham for most of her life. I asked her how the UK has treated her? She paused for a long time before answering and said, “England is what you make of it.” Before I could respond, she walked off.


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Bob is the owner of F Cooke pie and eel shop in Broadway Market, East London. The shop was opened by Bob’s grandfather Fred in 1900. Bob was born in the flat above the shop and has worked there his entire life. As a kid, I would come to this shop with my dad and brother on a Saturday morning before watching Leyton Orient lose at football. Sadly, after over 100 years, the shop is due to close soon.


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People have asked what led me to start talking to the people I photograph on the street. The truth is that somebody actually started talking to me. Until I took this shot, I just did candid street photography. Then in 2018, as I passed UCL Hospital, I saw a group of patients huddled around the entrance in their dressing gowns, all smoking. One was a woman attached to a drip. She took a drag on her ciggy, and smoke billowed around her and the oxygen tube that went into her nose. I liked this ironic image and took a candid shot. She caught me and called me over. She told me that her name was Hannah, she was a 35-year old mother of two, and that she had an incurable brain disease and had three months to live. Before Hannah called me over, I would never have considered talking to the people I photographed. I’m glad that I did. As I took this shot three years ago, it’s doubtful that Hannah is still with us. Despite this, I’d like to thank her for making my life a bit better.

See more of Steve’s work on his Instagram page.

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