With many fearing that youngsters are being forced to grow up too quickly, photographer Carolyn Mendelsohn tells Joan Ransley why she wanted to capture what it really means to be a girl today.
If you passed through a busy commuter hub or shopping centre earlier this autumn you may have caught a glimpse of a striking photograph of a 10-year-old girl called Alice on an advertising screen. Her pose was serene; she looked straight at the camera and appeared older than her years. This image of Alice Ackroyd, from Bingley, was selected for the Portrait of Britain, the largest public photographic art competition ever held in the UK. It was taken by Carolyn Mendelsohn, an artist and photographer based in Saltaire, near Bradford.
The Portrait of Britain competition was run by the prestigious British Journal of Photography in association with advertising company JCDecaux and photography giant Nikon. There were nearly 8,000 entries and Carolyn’s photograph of Alice, part of a wider project by her called Being In Between, was one of the final selection of 100 images. “Being In Between is a photographic series with recorded interviews of girls between the ages of 10 and 12. I have one very strong portrait per girl that represents them as they are at that moment in time. I also ask each girl a set of questions and select some of the answers to put alongside the portrait.
“Very often this age group is referred to as ‘tweens’. They are neither children nor teenagers. I wanted to explore who they are individually and to find out more about their hopes and fears for the future.”
Carolyn asked each girl to come to the sitting, which usually takes about 20 minutes, in clothes of their choice because she feels it is important for them to convey how they want to look.
“I say: ‘Don’t let your parent or carer choose your clothes for you. You choose how you want to appear in this portrait.’ I also talk to them beforehand so they understand the process.”
Carolyn admits that sometimes the choice of outfits surprises her, but the beauty of the project has been to showcase difference.
“Some of them will come in their normal everyday clothes. Some of them will choose something that they feel comfortable in. Some will choose an outfit that is quite extraordinary. Abigail, a fantastic 10-year-old, came wearing a black cloak and a sword. That’s what she loved to wear. She liked to play at sword fighting and to act those roles as a 10-year-old; she is now 12.”
Carolyn had the idea for the project quite a while before she started working on it three years ago. She was intrigued to know what happens to girls between 10 and 12. “I had very strong memories of being that age, having all these big thoughts about the world in my head. I was also aware that things people said to me at that age stuck and became part of how I saw myself. I don’t think I was listened to as a 10 or 11-year-old and I wanted to explore what girls are like now.
“I do identify with the girls. Even though they are decades younger than me; they are still going through similar things. The world has changed a lot and there is more pressure on young people with social media. But the essence of what they are going through is quite similar; that change and transition from childhood to young adulthood. I think people are very surprised when they come to see the exhibition and see, or hear, their words, and how self-possessed all the girls are.”
Their parents too have been surprised by the end result. “They are often really taken aback when they see the images and they read their words. They have been very moved by them. The experience of being part of Being In Between has transformed how some of the girls see themselves particularly in the light of the worldwide media exposure the portraits have had,” adds Carolyn.
“The girls who featured in the BuzzFeed and Huffington Post articles received positive comments, particularly Abigail. If you are a girl of that age and you are not conventional it is quite a tricky place to be sometimes. What it showed her is that she is amazing, she can be who she wants to be and that was celebrated.”
Most of the girls are from Yorkshire but there are one or two from further afield such as the US and South East Asia. “Whether you are American, African or Ukrainian, there is a similarity in what girls of this age are going through,” says Carolyn.
The girls were recruited through posters, published articles, social media and word of mouth. “I am always keen to make the connections with the girls themselves,” adds Carolyn.
So far there are 55 portraits in the series and Carolyn is hoping to recruit another 15 to 20 girls. She is always looking for subjects whose voices are not heard. “I am wanting the whole series to be a community of girls but particularly for those girls from backgrounds or lifestyles where they would not necessarily have access to this kind of thing. If a girl is completely keen on being part of the series I would want her to be part of it.”
Being in Between can be seen at the Crossley Gallery at Dean Clough, Halifax, from mid February. “Maria”, another of Carolyn’s photographs from the series, has been selected as one of 100 finalists to appear in the Royal Photographic International Photography Exhibition 160, which is touring the UK and can be seen at The Civic, Barnsley, next year.
If you are a girl aged between 10 and 12 and you feel your voice has not been heard email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on Carolyn go to carolynmendelsohnphoto.com