The result is a series of powerful, poignant portrait photographs of girls aged between 10 and 12, now on display in the new online exhibition Being Inbetween at the Impressions Gallery in Bradford.
Mendelsohn explains that she was prompted to begin her exploration of this pivotal developmental stage after reflecting on her own experiences of being that age. “I was thinking about just how much that period had informed the adult I was to eventually become and I thought it would be really interesting to address this in my work,” she says.
“I had also noticed how much girls seemed to change at around that time – they would be these free-spirited kids who didn’t really care what anyone thought about them and then suddenly they would become more self-conscious and much less open; and that seemed to me to be quite significant.
“One of my strong feelings is that girls of that age are often seen as being at an awkward stage but I think it is actually quite an amazing stage – there is an awful lot happening. So, I thought it would be really interesting to take portrait photographs of girls that age celebrating who they are, and to ask them questions about their lives. I wanted to give them the opportunity to tell their own stories, to make them feel important and listened to.”
Mendelsohn then shared her thoughts about this on her website and social media, including pictures of herself at that age and recollections of some of her experiences, explaining that she was searching for girls to photograph. Before long, people began to contact her.
“I would always make sure that the parent or carer and the young person were both involved in any communication and that the girl had chosen to be part of the project. There was a questionnaire to fill out, I would talk to them and then we would set up a date and time for taking the photograph.”
It was very important to Mendelsohn that the participants felt they had ownership of the project and that they were creative partners in the whole process.
“I wanted the relationship between me and them to be as equal as possible and for it to be a collaboration. I talked to them about the set-up, the backdrop – which was always the same – and the lighting. The girls chose what they wanted to wear for the photograph, with no parental input.
"We discussed how they might stand, we tried out different things – it had to be a pose that they were comfortable with, and I explained why I wanted them to look straight into the camera. I really wanted it to be about the girls looking at us, rather than us looking at them.”
This is one of the most striking things about the pictures – the bold, outward gaze of the girls. Some look defiant, others are more guarded, but each exudes a quiet confidence, there is a perceptible sense that these girls know who they are. Mendelsohn has given them a space to simply be – and their individuality fills the frame.
The effect is both affecting and uplifting. The photographs feature girls from a range of cultural and ethnic backgrounds and socio-economic circumstances with each image accompanied by a personal narrative. “After the portrait sitting, I would interview the girls, asking all of them the same set of questions,” says Mendelsohn.
“I would start with their full name and age, where they live and so on, to make them feel comfortable and I then I would move on to asking them about their ambitions, likes and dislikes, what they hope for and what they fear. I wanted to get a full picture of the girls and the world they are living in.”
Their responses offer a unique insight into the thinking of a generation of girls and also works as a fascinating social document – the six-year period during which Mendelsohn took photographs of 90 girls, working in her spare time around commissions and assignments, has been an unusually eventful one. The world has seen a great deal of rapid change in that time.
“It was interesting to see how the girls’ concerns shifted throughout the course of the project. The young people I photographed at the beginning were concerned about conflict and homelessness, more recently it has been about climate change and in the final photographs taken last February, coronavirus. The size of the project means that you can see a segment of the history of this time reflected in their words.”
And those words are inspiring. Betsy, for example, counsels ‘‘be yourself, and don’t let other people take over your life, because it can make your life miserable; stick up for yourself and stick up for people who others are being mean to’’, Ruby hopes that ‘‘in the future society is more open about body image’’, while Aaisha’s dream is ‘‘that no-one is homeless and everyone has a special place to go to’’ and Stephanie wishes that ‘‘there was no evil in the world, we were all nice to everyone, and everyone had a voice in the world’’.
Mendelsohn says that she learnt something from each girl she photographed. “I don’t think I was necessarily expecting to learn as much as I did but they all taught me so much.
"There was one girl in particular I remember – Olivia who was a lively, dynamic 11-year-old when I met her early on in the project; she was so engaged and had a lot to say. At the end she said to me ‘is there anything else you want me to talk about?’ none of the girls had ever said that before, so I thought there must be something she wants me to know and she proceeded to tell me that she had had six major heart operations in her young life.
"She was amazing – that experience doesn’t define her but it has made her who she has become. After that I would always ask the girls at the end of the interview if they had anything else they wanted to say.”
For her work on Being Inbetween Mendelsohn was named winner of the Portrait Series category in the 2020 Julia Margaret Cameron Awards and these images speak to everyone – people of all ages, genders and backgrounds will be affected by them.
What is expressed in them is universal, uplifting and very moving. “You really do see the girls on the cusp of something and there is such a poignancy to that which I didn’t expect to be so powerful,” says Mendelsohn.
“I didn’t know how people would respond – it is always a real risk to put your work out there – but I have been really taken aback by the audience reaction; the response has been overwhelming, positive and emotional.”
Ultimately, despite the challenges that this generation of young people are facing, the project and the exhibition offer hope for the future. “I do feel optimistic actually,” says Mendelsohn.
“While it is possible to feel worried for these girls and what they will have to face, they are, as a whole, really open and generous. They are seeking positive change and they are prepared to make that happen themselves.
"They want adults to take on responsibility as well, especially where the environment is concerned, but for a lot of them it is about wanting to create positive change in their own right. So I think we are in safe hands.”
Being Inbetween runs online at the Impressions Gallery, Bradford, until April 24. Free access through www.impressions-gallery.com. Carolyn Mendelsohn’s book to accompany the exhibition is also available to buy on the gallery’s website for £24.