Bridget. Photos by Lily Van Buskirk.

school daze: a high schooler’s portraits of her friends before graduation

“You never think to photograph things that feel like they’re forever.”

by Wendy Syfret
31 March 2016, 4:03am

Bridget. Photos by Lily Van Buskirk.

Lily Van Buskirkis is a 17-year-old in her final year at a Dunedin girls school. As her high school life draws to a close, she's becoming increasingly reflective about what part the institution played in forming her almost-adult self. Separate herself from the idea of school life, Lily wanted to create some kind of visual record of the world she was leaving behind.

The result is a series of portraits: Lily's friends in their school uniforms. Miles away from the sometimes stylised-and often sexualised-images of schoolgirls, these are slightly awkward portraits of relationships that will be missed. We called up Lily, after class of course, to talk about growing up and making memories last forever.

So how did this series come about?
I was thinking one day about how perfect the outfit we all wear is; how well it suits everyone considering the school goes from five to 18-year-olds. I was taking photographs of girls from my school last year, but looking at them compared to these ones they're totally different. With the earlier shots you can tell that I don't like where I am. I almost don't want to talk about it too much because if I try and define what it means I'm afraid I'll grow out of it.


It's unusual to hear someone in school speak so glowingly about the uniform.
For such a long time I rejected uniforms-not even just them but school, institutions, all those things. I thought the way you formed your character was by rejecting things. But at some point you kind of trade that in and shatter any illusion that you're in control of yourself, your identity or who you are. You trade it in for this sense of interconnectedness to all of it. I guess I began appreciating the weight of my character that was predetermined by the school. These photographs are a way to document the onset of that feeling.


We often talk about uniforms as being oppressive to individuality, but they do also offer a sense of being part of a tribe or community.
Yeah and it's interesting to watch fashion redefine and redefine what the uniform of the new thinker, innovator and the youth is; then look around and realise, oh here it is. Especially in my school where excellence and achievement are the biggest focuses. I guess in another sense so is individualism-just not externally. I thought, this uniform, that everyone around me is wearing, is the uniform of all of those things.


I wore a school uniform like this and it was nice to recognise the air of dagginess in these pictures. When you see schoolgirls in the media they rarely have that familiar awkwardness. Did you have that in mind when you shot this?
I guess I was aware of it, but at the same time everything that we see as inherently, or generically, a "female role" is sexualised somewhere. I felt if I shied away from doing anything to do with school girls then the "sexy" idea would be perpetuated because there is nothing to go against it.


You've obviously thought about your identity in relation to school, your friends, your uniform a lot. How do you feel about leaving at the end of the year?
I'm pretty excited about it. I guess paying homage to all of those things right now feels like an important part of my transition away from here. It feels like it'll be easy to move on because I know I did what I could with what it was; it'll make it easier to not be here anymore. You'll always be around people that you feel are older and more knowledgeable than you. You always have teachers and peers who are in a similar situation to you wherever you are.


Does this feel like a love letter to your school and friends, a parting offering?
I actually don't think I'm that attached to it in that way. Rather I feel so removed I was able to recognise the beauty of it all. When I was 14 and angsty, hating it, but still so attached, there's no way I would have thought to photograph it. You never think to photograph things that feel like they're forever.





Text Wendy Syfret
Photography Lily Van Buskirk

Growing Up
school uniforms
lily van buskirk
school girls