What does your bedroom mean to you? How much time do you spend there? And how have you made it yours? This subject began swirling around 23-year-old, London-based photographer Aaliyah Jackson's head during her third year of studying photography and creative computing at the University of the Arts London. Lockdowns had been and gone, and Jackson was looking to do something more sociable for her final project. "I think the idea was particularly spurred on by realising just how much of my time I had been spending in my bedroom," she says, "and as I spoke to my peers a lot of them felt the same, even though they were living in more social settings like student houses."
That’s how Jackson began her photo project Bedrooms Observed, an intimate and candid portrait series documenting young people in their bedrooms. "It all started with me asking a bunch of my friends if they would let me come and photograph them in their rooms," she says, "and then from there, those friends recommended other people who had cool bedrooms and would probably be up for having their photographs taken also." And just like that the project bloomed, until eventually Jackson was meeting people through casting on Instagram – strangers she now counts as new friends.
The photographs in Bedrooms Observed were all shot in London and Glasgow. Jackson grew up in London and so the city is full of people she knows, while one of her friends had moved to Glasgow, so she decided to visit and photograph there, too.
All of the people in Jackson's photographs are young adults in their early to mid 20s who are making their own way in the world for the first time. This is what makes their bedrooms all the more sacred.
For each photoshoot, she says, she ensured from the very beginning that it was a complete collaboration. "I had each sitter present themselves however they wanted to, whether they wanted to put makeup on, clean their room or show off any items throughout their room," she says. "It was definitely a process of getting some of the subjects comfortable too, so we often had conversations about life, university and what they were planning on doing – even just for the next week. Lots of small chats always helped to build trust and rapport."
Jackson chose to work with both medium format film and Polaroid for this project. "I think the process of taking a photograph on a medium format camera is really beautiful because it forces you to take time and think about what you're photographing," she says. Using Polaroids, meanwhile, "helped each subject feel really assured about the photos I was taking because they got to see the images as we were taking them in real time, which in turn added to the collaborative element," she adds. Polaroids also offer that warm and familiar aesthetic, which gives the project a feeling of intimacy that Jackson was looking for.
All the people in Jackson’s photographs are young adults in their early to mid 20s who are making their own way in the world for the first time. This is what makes their bedrooms all the more sacred. Many of them are in shared housing and so their bedrooms provide a personal canvas to express themselves and their style. They are also their main spaces of comfort, where they shut out the world and dream about the future. "Everyone I took pictures of spoke about something relating to the rental market, their dream location, a desire for a bigger space or how they wished they could further decorate the spaces they were in," says Jackson, "but everyone who took part was also extremely proud of their rooms and how they added their own touch to their rented spaces."
Some of Jackson’s favourite pictures from the series echo this theme of personalisation, such as the one she took of her friend Eleanor, who poses on the bed she shares with her boyfriend in their rented Glasgow flat. "Of all her photos, my favourite is one where she posed with her collection of plush animals collected from friends, family and her partner Nick that reminded her of home," she says. "It was lovely to see how she added her own flair."
She points out other images, including one of Ledi, who was the only person to play music during their photoshoot, and one of Juliusz, whose photo ended up with a couple of light leaks that cast a pinky-yellowy glow across its surface: a magical, happy accident. "This one’s a great introductory photo for the project because you get a sense of softness, isolation and distance, which is something I really wanted to show," she says.
Elsewhere, Jackson’s images of a young woman called Taylor, a friend of a friend, remind her of interesting chats about life and love – conversations that seem to flow when we’re safe in our bedrooms. "The process was really fun, and we spoke about everything from her career as a DJ and baker to art school to what growing up in Scotland was like. After the photoshoot, she had a first date she was quite nervous about but I think the photoshoot took all her doubts about going away. I learned a lot about Glasgow from Taylor and spoke about meeting up again when she next visited London."
Then there are the images of Bella and her pink-hued London bedroom. "Her photographs are some of my favourites because she personalised her room quite a lot – her pink homemade wallpaper was actually made up of hundreds of tiny photos fitting her pink aesthetic. It was really clever and was a bit like a vision or mood board," says Jackson. "Photographing her was the first time we had met and we spoke a lot about her doing a law conversion, her hopes for the future, and ballet, which is one of her hobbies."
There’s something very simple and beautiful about the relaxed, open nature of the photographs in Bedrooms Observed. Not only do they allow us a little window into other people’s inner worlds but they also show us how comfortable people can be when they are in their own spaces and on their own terms. They also allow us to see glimmers of what we all have in common, Jackson says. "I want the pictures to express that despite the individualised nature of the bedroom, our experiences of intimacy, sadness, desire and dreams are universal." In the end, this is what the project was all about for her.