photographing brooklyn high schoolers after the bell

Cassandra Giraldo’s After School Project captures all the laughs and lust Brooklyn teens share before curfew.

by Emily Manning
09 October 2015, 2:15pm

In some ways, what happens after the final bell rings depend on where a high school is. Growing up in a Massachusetts coastal town, my friends and I often found ourselves squaring off against seagulls in beach parking lots. Much of photojournalist Cassandra Giraldo's Los Angeles teen years were spent -- predictably -- in a car. But the kids captured in her ongoing photo series The After School Project share Brooklyn as their stage to flirt, fight, and try to figure out who they'd like to become -- before dinner, that is.

After completing a long-term documentary project in which she followed two 13-year-old girls during their final year of middle school, Cassandra found herself increasingly compelled to capture the fleeting moments of freedom between last period and curfew. She'd spend time between freelance photojournalism assignments in Manhattan taking portraits of young people, and also happens to live across the street from one of the biggest high schools in Brooklyn: "It's really what's right in front of me -- literally on my stoop sometimes," she said. When she shared these images on her personal Instagram, "friends and fellow photographers reacted so positively. People who I'd meet with wanted to talk about my images of teenagers much more than my other photojournalism," she said. A year ago this week, @afterschoolproject shared its very first post.

Recently, the account was named as a finalist in the Getty Images Instagram Grant -- an opportunity that's afforded Cassandra mentorship with photographer Ramin Talaie and has her thinking about how to expand the series. We caught up with her to find out more.

What makes the hours you capture so unique?
What fascinates me most is the tension that exists in these kids' behavior. It's a time when they're trying to act like grown ups -- sort of a dress rehearsal for being an adult -- but also when they can act completely like themselves without having to worry about authority figures watching over them. That manifests in so many different ways, and a lot of the pictures I intentionally curate on Instagram have that psychological feel. Even as a 20- or 30-something, you can look at an image and harken back to a moment in high school when you're just so eager to grow up. I think that's what after school time is for. Right now, the project is about those moments -- kids being flirty or loitering around city spaces -- but time after school can be spent in so many ways. One of my goals for this year is to use my journalism background to explore how I can introduce the viewer to their actual lives.

How do the teens you shoot express themselves visually? Have you noticed any trends in fashion or beauty?
I'm always looking at what they're wearing because I think kids are a beat before us in a way. You can tell how central fashion is even to the ways they communicate with each other. It's hard to tell whether it's a trend that's city-kid-centric, but so much of how they look revolves around bright, clashing color: how they dye their hair, the sneakers they wear, and their super graphic, comic book style backpacks. It's part of what makes them so enjoyable to photograph.

The kids' styles are super unique, but so are their identities; you post such a diverse group. Is that something you're conscious of, or just a product of New York?
When I was growing up, magazines were my media. I only saw a very specific type or girl or boy, and that's what I thought was the norm. A lot of kids are looped into the account and I want them to see themselves. I think it's important to display that diversity, but I'm not really working too hard to do that. The New York City public school system is extremely diverse and huge! There are 1.1 million children in NYC public schools and they represent the whole gamut of cultures, religions -- everything. Diversity is extremely central to the project, and I think that's why people are drawn to it.

Are these teens' high school experiences different from your own? Or are you noticing something universal?
I had a very different high school experience; we're talking polar opposite. I grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles -- which is itself one giant suburb -- but I went to the same school my entire life, a very sheltered K-12 private school bubble. It's allowed me to recognize the maturity that's almost innate in New York City kids. It's just not what I'm accustomed to and is also why I'm drawn to it.

But I'm also seeing things that are very universal, whether it's girls trying to play it cool around boys or boys acting out machismo sides of their ego -- that innocence that is being hidden behind a mask of being loud and confident. Nothing about the psychology of being a teenager has changed - I think that's what I try to capture in those split second moments.



Text Emily Manning
Photography Cassandra Giraldo

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