250 photographs that capture exactly how it feels to be 13
Photographer Betsy Schneider discusses her encyclopedic portrait project ‘To Be Thirteen.’
Just before Facebook arrived, American photographer Betsy Schneider had the idea to photograph everyone she knew. Betsy's daughter had just been born, and she had been routinely photographing her every day, documenting her gradually changing appearance. Although she says she is "not a systematic person," she was clearly in an encyclopedic mode. "I had an idea for a project that would integrate my weakness, which is being social and talking to people," she explains, "But I also thought I would try to photograph somebody other than my daughter." She wrote a list of 400 people she knew, and made it to 250 "before I ran out of energy and money."
That number and the technique she used — taking five high-exposure images of each subject — became the foundation of her most recent project: a state-spanning collection of candid portraits of teenagers called "To Be Thirteen." Realized with the help of a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, the images and an accompanying short film of interviews will go on show at the Phoenix Art Museum in May 2018. The photographs will be published as a book in September (by Radius Books).
Schneider's starting point, she explains in her artist's statement, was a set of questions that included "What does a thirteen-year-old look like?," "What is it like now to be thirteen?" and "How do they see themselves and the world?"
She began by photographing her daughter and her friends, then reached out to friends of friends through Facebook. "There was a point at which I started to realize that the demographics were very limited — it made me realize the limits of my own world and how far it could reach," Betsy explains. At the same time, she adds, "I didn't want it to be like a Benetton ad. I want it to be clear that I don't claim this work is in any way scientific. It's what happens when you find 250 people however you can find them. There is a diversity in there, but there are limitations, too."
The images do show a range of experiences. Schneider met kids at a school for the deaf, the members of a Phoenix Boys & Girls club, a girl with a prosthetic leg, and kids "who play on fancy soccer teams after school." But the commonalities are more visible, at least on the surface. In many of Betsy's photographs, her subjects wear Vans or carry skate decks. They like Twilight and comic books (according to their t-shirts). They wear chokers and lockets and spaghetti-strap tops. They have hair over their eyes, often with streaks of dyed red and pink. A lot have braces. A few are holding their cell phones. "Harry Potter also shaped a lot of those kids' lives," Nancy observes, "To me, that's really interesting."
"One of the things that struck me in particular was among the boys," she continues, "I was surprised by how aware they were that they were about to have to be something. A lot of them felt very scared or defiant [about the fact] that they had to be a man. I think culturally, at least in my world, we're very focused on what happens to girls at that age, not to discount that, but I think I was surprised by the vulnerability and the poignancy of that age for [boys]."
Across the genders, Betsy says a common theme was that her subjects weren't particularly interested in seeing the pictures. "I think that's probably something that's changed even more in the past five years" — with the introduction of smartphones — she says. Her subjects were born right on the brink of the millennium, pre-iPhone, but are now immersed in an online culture dominated by selfies. "I think there's been a huge shift even since they were toddlers," she says.
Betsy also interviewed some of her subjects on camera, to hear their own thoughts about being 13. "One of the questions I asked in the video was, 'Is 13 grown up?' It was interesting because some of them wanted to know what the right answer was, what I wanted to hear. Some of them were like 'No,' some of them were like 'In between,' and a few thought 'Yes.' A lot of them seemed kind of aware of this idea that being a teenager was supposed to be a big deal but I don't think that they had, in general, started to experience it enough." Most, she says, were surprised anyone wanted to know them what they thought.
When Betsy grew up, in the 70s, "there was actually a lot of attention paid to children and expressing yourself." It was the era of Free to Be You and Me. "I remember thinking as a kid in an open hippie classroom, 'I have interesting things to say!' And I've always carried that with me. Some of them felt like they were suddenly allowed to do something, that they were being asked something that they weren't usually asked."
Text Alice Newell-Hanson