photographing the "slightly virtual life" of teenagers

We speak to the winner of this year’s Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize about photographing British teens, from 80s Ramones fans to Directioners.

by Alice Newell-Hanson
24 November 2015, 3:40pm

Veteran British photographer David Stewart's images of teenagers are as English as Marmite, traffic on the M25 or watching TV with tea on a Sunday night. In one, two buzz-cut boys sit staring into space by an estuary wearing matching adidas track jackets. In another, a clique of girls pose moodily before a school dance in a suburban backyard. Shot on large-format film, Stewart's photographs capture all the everyday details that I remember from being a teenager in England: woolly school uniforms, too much fake tan, pre-packaged sandwiches, boys who wore wristbands from Reading festival for far too long after summer. Compiled in his latest book, Teenage Pre-Occupation, the images communicate something essential about being awkward and under-18 in post-Internet, post-David Cameron Britain.

The idea for the series began with a portrait David shot of his daughter, Alice, and four school friends in 2008. It was selected for the 2009 Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize (David's work has appeared in the prestigious exhibition 16 times, to date). And then, last year, he reshot the image. The photograph, "Five Girls" (2014), captures the girls in near-identical poses six years later, and it just won him first prize in the 2015 competition. We took the opportunity to ask David about his own teenage years - spent photographing punk gigs in the North of England - and what he's learned from five decades of, as he puts it, "just recording what I see."

Why was 2014 the right year to reshoot "Five Girls"?
It was just a coincidence that the girls were together. In the original image, they'd just taken their GCSEs, so they were about 16. Then last year, my daughter Alice (the one in the blue sweater) said, "The girls are all back in London, it would be interesting to redo the picture." There was no other thought besides slightly updating it.

I like the subtle changes between the two images, like their hair. It's as if they all decided to change it together.
That's right. And they've changed color a bit, too. A lot of people have said they can't really see the differences but when you really look, there are a lot -- especially in the technology. It's bizarre to think there weren't smart phones back then. It was completely different.

Did you give the girls any direction the second time around?
They repeated the angles themselves. The original image was slightly about that "anti-social networking" idea. I noticed how they were all constantly texting, and how they would talk to you and text at the same time. Even then, and more so now, they have a non-existent attention span!

How did you meet your subjects for Teenage Pre-Occupation? Were they your daughter's friends?
She was doing a course at an art school and she helped get good people together. It was also teens of friends. I was trying to tackle various topics, and I would think, 'Who has teenagers who I could feature?'

What were those topics?
It was a lot to do with the fashion and the hair. It was also food, and a lot of other everyday stuff that you notice when you're slightly older. You compare it to what it was like to when you were a teen. It's so different now. Everyone seems to be living a slightly virtual life.

What other differences struck you?
I noticed how everybody thinks they're individual but when they're put together they're all the same. It wasn't like that when I was a teenager. There were trends that you followed but they were probably from a music magazine, and I'm sure they're all coming from the web now. I remember coming to London as a teenager, from a small town in the North, and being so surprised at what I saw.

When did you start taking photos?
I would have been 19, I think. I was doing a civil engineering course and absolutely hated it. I was taking pictures as a hobby mainly, at small concerts and gigs. It was right around the time of punk.

What was photographing a concert like back then?
First of all, you could always take a camera in. You weren't searched. And second, they were very small gigs so you could get quite close. The photos are by no means amazing but there's a reality to them. Everything's more technically advanced now. Back then, they were just playing in a dark cellar. I remember seeing the Ramones on one of their first tours in the UK. They were supporting Talking Heads, and it would have been a dollar to get in!

Do you still have those photos? Do your kids think they're cool?
I do. They're all 35mm color transparencies. And yes, I think a lot of young people are interested in older music now. I don't know why!


Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography David Stewart

photography interviews
david stewart
taylor wessing portrait prize
five girls
teenage pre-occupation