Pics or it didn’t happen: how photographers are capturing nightlife

Photos by Roxy Lee, Rubén 242, and Luis Nieto Dickens

We caught up with three photographers in London, Barcelona and New York to talk about the importance of documenting and preserving the essence of nightlife

Clubs are where we see people at their best and their worst – and there are often photographers in the midst with the challenging job of documenting an experience that is anything but static.

It’s a task London-based photographer Roxy Lee is happy to take on. “There are always people at a club to show off, and actually it’s just quite fab and I’m here for it,” she says, speaking from her home in Islington. A fixture of London’s queer scene, Roxy is renowned for her 35mm shots – often taken ‘blind’ in the dark – of roving queer club night Adonis. And since 2018, her photos have been synonymous with another queer club night, Inferno – in particular, the inventiveness of the outfits. (One image immortalises a partygoer with lingerie and a fascinator created from sponges, and air fresheners for earrings.) And as each party’s popularity soared, her photographic work took off with it.


Roxy is one of the leading nightlife photographers of the post-Instagram generation, tasked with creating authentic imagery that respects its subjects and reflects the atmosphere, while still pushing the art form in a new direction. 

In fact, her work is so well known that it’s almost impossible for her to take pictures without being noticed at Inferno. “People realise what I do and why I’m there, it’s nice, I really like it. I’m lucky I have relationships with a lot of the people I photograph because I’ve been going out for so long. Without that trust I wouldn’t have a body of work. I think it is the most vital part of what I do.” 

Adonis, London. Photos by Roxy Lee

Many resident nightlife photographers are deeply involved in their communities, and see their subjects as the centre of their work – their job is simply to bear witness. 

Before she started photographing Adonis, Roxy had worked variously on the door, behind the bar and in the cloakroom of clubs. And when she’s shooting an event, she parties herself, too, describing her nights as involving a few vodka Red Bulls. And she usually sticks around until the end of the rave, whenever that may be: “I’m not in and out in half an hour.” 

Her close involvement in the scene lends her images an inimitable quality of intimacy. Along with the audacious shots, there are also less showy, sometimes hilarious details that might otherwise be lost in the fray, which give glimpses into Roxy’s own personality and sense of humour. “Fundamentally, it’s a space I feel comfortable working in because I’m part of the community and it’s part of me,” she says. 

Privacy, permission and respect

Consent remains an issue in photography in general, and social media has exacerbated problems with permission. In the Besòs neighbourhood of Barcelona – “the typical place where no politician would live, but that every four years they visit to tell us they care about us” – Rubén 242 is at the desk where he spends most of his days reviewing, selecting and editing photographs. Rubén is the resident photographer for Milkshake, a nostalgia-fuelled weekly night at Sala Apolo in Sants-Montjuíc. Steamy with sweat and sex, his photographs often capture crowds in motion letting loose. When it comes to consent and privacy, he says, “There are times when you see someone in a state that they better not have a memory of that night!” 

Although many partygoers are out to be seen, when it comes to photographing in places where people are intoxicated and potentially vulnerable, or simply unaware their photograph has been taken or might be made public, permission becomes murky territory. Similar to street photography, there is no strict legislation around image ownership either, so it’s up to the individual venues and photographers to set the precedent. “I always review the photos and put myself in the place of the photographed person and think about whether I would like that photo to be published or not,” explains Rubén.

Milkshake at Sala Apolo, Barcelona. Photo by Rubén 242

Roxy has also backed off if subjects aren’t happy with a picture. “It’s a decent thing to do. I don’t feel it’s that cute, it’s not worth the animosity. I think it’s good to acknowledge when you’re taking someone’s image, you’re taking something from someone – and you need to respect whether they want that to happen or not.”

Luis Nieto Dickens is the staff photographer for Elsewhere, in Bushwick, Brooklyn – a three-floor live music venue and nightclub. He’s developed his own protocol when it comes to privacy. “I always ask for a photo, and I sometimes ask whoever I’m photographing to pretend I’m not there. Whenever I take a photo of someone dancing from afar, I always come up to them after and let them know I just did a few frames, and show them. I feel that’s the best way to show respect for people and, of course, is an amazing way to connect with them.”


Capturing the authenticity

Luis moved to New York from Mexico 13 years ago and started doing street photography as a way to “keep me sane”. After photographing a Mykki Blanco show at Glasslands – a legendary Williamsburg spot for live music, dance and art that closed down in 2015 – Luis began working with PopGun Presents, the production engine behind Elsewhere. When Elsewhere opened in 2017, he became its official chronicler. “I think of myself as the eyes and ears of Elsewhere, I’ve seen and been to almost every single show there.”

Luis’s approach is “a combination of trying to capture the essence of a moment, archiving for longevity, and exploring my own creativity through subjects and composition.” His lucidly coloured, highly saturated images are sensuous, moving between portraits and unposed shots that are an authentic representation of the spontaneity and movement on the dancefloor.

“I think dance is liberation, it is forgetting all your stress from everyday life and sweating out your problems or worries. That, to me, is full-on magic – the best therapy ever,” says Luis. His images come straight from the camera, with little editing, so they remain as close to the real experience as possible. “In a way, I try to mimic what the eye sees. I’m a sort of no-frills kind of person; I think what makes my work stand out is the subject – they’re all stars.”

Elsewhere, Brooklyn. Photos by Luis Nieto Dickens


A preservation of culture

Rubén also sees his role as something of a medium, channelling the ambience and “transmitting in images what happens at a party”. It’s also part of a wider movement and a bigger picture on what people now do for pleasure, and how they behave when they escape their daily life. “There is a new generation that is very uninhibited, with fewer complexes and a more casual attitude when it comes to having fun and when it comes to dressing. I try to capture that.” 

Like Rubén and Roxy, Luis believes that creating an archive is important, not only for preserving personal memories of good times or to market a venue, but as a way of documenting our time, and connecting the parts of society that are often hidden or unacknowledged in the wider context of culture.

There’s abundant joy, jubilance and freedom in these images – they’re boldly defiant statements.

Adonis, London. Photo by Roxy Lee

For Luis, this is particularly important when it comes to representing the thriving diversity of his adopted home city, such as nights organised by queer POC collectives including Papi Juice and Bubble T, which have taken place at Elsewhere. “I’ve learnt so much from these communities that I feel like I owe it to them to work as hard as I can to make sure everyone sees their efforts,” he says. “I’ve always admired the work that the queer community is doing here in NYC, and I’ve been lucky enough to be welcomed and part of it. It’s important for me to document that and show to the world how imperative and essential that work is for people who feel or are different, or who feel displaced or repressed.”

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