Bright Young Things

A few weeks ago I saw a group of teenage girls walking through Horsham and was immediately struck by their incredibly self-confident expression of identity. The Transitions project has always been about exploring the process by teenagers and young adults come to understand who they are and how they want to project themselves in the world. Suddenly here were four young women who even by the age of 15 already seemed to have figured out significant parts of that equation and were confident enough to be outwardly expressing it.

It was one of those moments where I though ‘oh my word what a great portrait they would make’ and yet my own lack of confidence and self-belief almost stopped me from taking the picture. I’d actually let them walk past and almost lost them before I plucked up the courage to trot after them and suggest a picture.

I’m glad I did, I’m really happy with this picture and the story it tells of the process we go through trying to figure out who we are, how we fit into the world and how that process can be both incredibly exciting but also terrifying.

 'Sisterhood'

'Sisterhood'

I asked the four friends to simply stand together in any way they wanted, to hold themselves in a way they felt comfortable and let the picture be just what it is. Of course, when someone points a camera at you, the result is to a large degree an artificial construct but it is still the truth in that moment and that moment is still the product of who you are. So what we see here is true; it’s authentic in its portrayal of the varying levels of self-confidence that the four subjects show.

 'The Brown Sisters' Photograph: © 2014 Nicholas Nixon

'The Brown Sisters' Photograph: © 2014 Nicholas Nixon

This group are curious and interested but still apprehensive. I had the sense that while this curiosity coupled with apprehension was the result of moment they found themselves in, it is also strongly reflective of where they are in life. The growing sense of self-understanding is just peeking through and there are very clearly big differences in who these bright young things will grow up to be. But they all stand close together for security; an act of ‘sisterhood’ strongly reminiscent of ‘The Brown Sisters’ (which you can read about here: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/nov/19/nicholas-nixon-40-years-brown-sisters-portraits-moma )

Fast forward a few weeks and yesterday while taking a late lunch and walking through town I saw this group of four boys out after school. Again, the idea of a group portrait came to me and while nerves again piqued my self-confidence, the idea of taking a contrasting image was compelling and motivated me to approach them. These boys are the same age as the girls in the other photograph (15 or thereabouts) and yet there is such a striking difference in the way they present themselves to the camera. The contrast in gender roles here is really fascinating.

 'Brotherhood'

'Brotherhood'

The space between them is the most obvious feature; where the girls a huddled together for security and in response to friendship, the boys keep a distance between them (and just how uniform that distance is also noteworthy, suggesting that there is an unwritten code that governs what is a minimum safe distance). They are trying to project a greater sense of power and confidence; the overt hand gesture that emphasises the genitals of the subject second from right; the clichéd defiance of the 'bird' gesture by the boy on the far right; the desire of the subject second from left to hide his identify. One of them had clearly deliberately left his facial hair unshaven as a way of projecting his nascent masculinity and all of them walked with that characteristic swagger of shoulders dropped backwards and the groin pushed forward.  

And yet these are still just teenage boys, out walking their mate’s dog and trying to figure out who they are in the process.