Inspirational teenagers: Whoever said the youth of today are just a bunch of feckless layabouts?

Here, we introduce six shining examples of young talent at work

Charlotte Philby
Tuesday 17 December 2013 14:59

Dennis Gyamfi , social activist
Age: 19

Dennis Gyamfi was raised by his grandparents in Ghana: "I would have to walk for miles carrying water on my head as a child," he recalls. "From an early age I had to go out to work to support my family." When he was 10 years old, Gyamfi joined his mother and father at their small council flat in Brixton, and his life change dramatically. "In London, my parents were working all day and night; there was no one to look after me and my siblings. I started hanging out in gangs on the streets around my estate, getting in trouble." Until a chance encounter set him on a different path.

At the age of 15, Gyamfi met a man called Soloman who worked for X-it, a programme set up by people who have successfully escaped gang life and which offers inner-city kids and teenagers an alternative to the street. Within a year of becoming involved with X-it, Gyamfi himself had become a mentor, and won a public service award for his efforts. "If it hadn't been for that meeting," Gyamfi recalls, "my life might have turned out very differently."

When he was in his first year at sixth-form college, Gyamfi got a job as a runner at Quiet Storm Films, and soon became involved in Create Not Hate, an initiative aimed at combating gun crime by encouraging young people to embrace creative outlets. As part of the initiative, Gyamfi co-directed A Mother's Tear in 2008, a short film about the consequences of gun crime. The film opened at "Lambeth Peace Month" last year and was released in selected cinemas across Britain. Since then, Gyamfi has continued his film-making to campaign against what he describes as "youth in crisis". This year, he has been nominated for a Youth Black Achievement Award and a Tomorrow's People Award. Now 19 years old, Gyamfi has also launched an online magazine called End2endz, created for and by young people. "It's a space to celebrate and promote talent," he says. "I want to spread a positive message, to show what young people are capable of when we're given the chance. We need to encourage each other and show people what we can do – if we're given the opportunities and the right support."

Josef O'Connor, artist
Age: 19

When he was 16 years old, Josef O'Connor left his academic Catholic school to study at an arts-focused sixth form in Kingston, Surrey. "In my first year my mum was diagnosed with breast cancer, which inspired me to put on a charity fashion show at our school in aid of Breast Cancer Research," he explains. "It started out as a small project, but it got good press and in the end it was attended by Zandra Rhodes, Peter Blake and John Sessions and covered by Teen Vogue.

"The same year, I launched a creative company called Pollocks, which started out as an online blog," he explains. Here, artists are encouraged to submit their work, with the chance of it being exhibited at Soon the site was getting loads of hits, and realising it was a "now or never" situation, O'Connor dropped out of school to pursue his burgeoning career as a curator, while studying for his art A-level from home (and getting an A).

Aged 17, O'Connor staged his first exhibition: Blank Canvas. At a gallery in London's Carnaby Street, members of the public were invited to paint whatever they wanted on a huge canvas. The show was another hit, and his next, Worthless, was sponsored by Red Bull. This time around, visitors were invited to a venue in central London, bringing along any item they "no longer had a use for"; over the course of the day, artists on site would spend the day transforming the item into something useful.

Over the next few years, O'Connor continued to curate while building up his personal portfolio. His projects have included giving a talk at the Serpentine Gallery as well as lecturing at the ARTISIT? Festival in Galway, Ireland.

Now 19, O'Connor is recovering from a five-day show at London Fashion Week: "I was asked to paint a huge canvas at Vivienne Westwood's catwalk show," he says. The piece, which has a "1960s New York vibe", will be on display at the Free Art Fair at London's Barbican from this Monday until 18 October, making O'Connor the youngest artist ever to have exhibited there.

In his spare time, O'Connor writes a blog for the arts chronicle Wonderland, and has launched his own magazine. "It's a creative publication, distributed through Pollocks, and it's called FART."

Katerina Drury, fashion designer
Age: 18

Growing up in London's New Cross, Katerina Drury wanted to become a criminologist. To this end, she took up A-Levels in sociology, psychology as well as geography and art, but failed the first three subjects in year 12. "At that stage, I opted for photography and textiles. I had always been interested in fashion and clothes-making, and soon I got really into my new course."

A few months later, pupils in Katerina's class at Lewisham College were offered the chance to compete for the Fashion Awareness Direct 2009 award, set up by a charity supporting young designers in fashion. Katerina applied, and started taking Saturday classes at college, during which she developed design concepts and went on research trips to various museums and galleries.

"We were given a brief for the competition," Drury says: "We had to design for a singer or musician. I chose Lady Gaga because I like the way she styles herself with lots of creativity." For her submissions, Drury made a leotard with a leather collar and a low backline. In the initial stage, the applicants were asked to show a mock-up of their design to a panel which included bigwigs from Vogue online. The jury chose their favourite 23 pieces, of which Katerina's was one; she was secured a place on a five-day course at Central Saint Martins college where she would make up her design. "I learnt so many new things, working with the teachers and students there," she says. "It was really fun."

The results of the competition were announced at Vauxhall Fashion Scout, a part of London Fashion Week that was dedicated to up-and-coming designers. Here, the designs by the 23 entrants were displayed on the catwalk. At the end of the show, five winners were chosen within different categories, with one prize for the overall winner. "I couldn't believe it when they called out my name," says Drury, who won the top prize. "I felt really excited."

In the next few weeks, Drury starts an internship working under the editor-in-chief at Volt magazine. "I'm really excited about the opportunity," she says, although she hopes to use the experience as a chance to explore fashion photography too. "I love fashion and I love photography, so it could be the perfect marriage."

Eleanor Hardwick, photographer
Age: 16

When I first met Eleanor Hardwick, almost one year ago to the day, she had already built up quite a collection of ethereal portraits, shot in remote pockets of countryside near her home town on the outskirts of Reading. From the age of 14, Eleanor had spent the majority of her out-of-school hours scouting locations and dreaming up elaborate new concepts for her meticulously planned photo shoots.

Aged 15, however, Eleanor was already becoming frustrated by a lack of professional resources, which stifled her ambition. "It's annoying because I always have big ideas which involve really extravagant set-ups," she said at the time. "At the moment, I can't gain access to such places so it's not possible to carry out some of my bigger ideas, but at least it gives me something to aspire to."

None the less, Eleanor continued to build her portfolio, and now, just 12 months later, any concerns she had about access to resources are a fading memory. Just after our first interview, Eleanor worked on her first paid job, shooting press photos for the musician Dan Black; since then, the commissions have been rolling in.

"Recently, I was approached by Oasis clothes shop, and asked to shoot an editorial for their in-store magazine," she says. "They put together a few outfit suggestions, posted the clothes to me, and left me to it." Over the next two days, Eleanor and her model – cast by Oasis – roamed the countryside near Eleanor's home completing their assignment, just in time for the next offer.

"I have just completed the Christmas handbook for the high-street chain Jack Wills," Eleanor says. "It was the first time I have worked with a large team, so I had the chance to collaborate and build on existing ideas. It was so much fun working on a project of such a huge scale."

So what next? "I'm not quite sure at the moment," she says. "I'm doing A-Levels in English, art, history and photography. After that, I think I'll get an apprenticeship and learn my trade hands- on. The best way to learn, I think, is to try new things when you have the chance."

Joni Fuller, singer/songwriter
Age: 17

"My parents aren't very musical, so when I asked for a violin aged four, they couldn't understand where I'd got the idea from," says Joni Fuller, now 17 and an award-winning singer/songwriter. "Ever since I can remember, music has been part of my life."

After months of being hounded, Fuller's parents gave in; aged five, she got her first violin. "I was focused from the start," she says. "Every night I would spend hours practising." Three years later, Fuller took up the piano and started composing. "Song-writing came naturally," she recalls.

Around the time that she first started composing, Fuller was accepted on a part-time course at the prestigious Junior Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, making her its youngest-ever member; the training she received there has influenced the music she writes today. "My songs would really be described as rock," she says. "But there are clear classical influences."

While training with the RNCM, Fuller was also accepted at Phil Collins' music foundation in Switzerland, which she would occasionally attend for masterclasses. It was at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, aged 11, that Fuller first sung in front of a large audience – 3,000 people, in fact.

Since then, her musical credits have mounted up. Most recently, Fuller won the coveted Make It/Break It songwriting competition, judged by Coldplay's Chris Martin and the producer Steve Levine among others. Next month, she has a consultation with EMI. "I know what a difficult place the music industry can be," says Fuller. "The important thing is that whatever I choose to do, I retain integrity." But whatever happens, Fuller, now 17 years old, has something to fall back on. Despite six-day weeks dedicated to music practice, she also managed to get straight As in her GCSEs and all As so far at A-Level. "It is a challenge trying to balance everything," she says. "But it's really important to have the academic qualifications; they have given me confidence and self-belief."

Mike Perham, sailor
Age: 17

On 27 august this year, a teenager from Hertfordshire became the youngest person to sail solo around the world. Mike Perham spent some nine months completing his 30,000-mile journey, facing 50ft waves and gale-force winds along the way. "The weather was horrible a lot of the time," he says. "I faced some of the most raw and fierce conditions imaginable. There were times when I found myself wondering why I was doing it. Once I got to the finish line, though, every single moment of the journey seemed worth it."

This global escapade was not the first time Perham had braved the waters alone. At just 14 years old, the schoolboy – who comes from a long line of sailors – also completed a solo Atlantic crossing. "I've always just loved the idea of getting out there and doing something different, something which few people have done before," he says. "Once I'd done the Atlantic crossing, I wanted to see what else was out there, so sailing around the world seemed like the obvious next step."

Perham started sailing when he was just seven years old. "It's something I did with my dad," he explains. "I've always loved being out on the water, the thrill of the freedom." But there were times during the global crossing when even he was pushed to the limits. "I've always been a pretty determined person, and I really had to rely on that. 'Come on Mike,' I would tell myself, 'You've got to enjoy this!' "

In the end, Perham believes, the key to his success has been self-confidence and resilience under pressure. "I always knew I could do it, but no two days out there are ever the same," he says. "You fit in eating when and if you have time; you sleep when you can and you don't when you can't." Despite the months of sleep and food deprivation, Perham can hardly wait for his next trick, a group re-enactment of Captain Bligh's "Mutiny on the Bounty", for which he and a few friends will cast themselves adrift in a small wooden boat with no cabin and scarce supplies. "I just want to be out there having an adventure," Perham concludes. "It is as simple as that."

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