A SMALL TASTE OF FREEDOM / TEENS IN A PANDEMIC
A lot has been shared about the Covid-19 pandemic’s effect on adults. We’ve all read and literally wept over stories of lost loved ones, lost businesses, lost time. Less has been revealed, however, about the pandemic’s toll on those who have what feels like all the time in the world still ahead of them: Teenagers. A Small Taste of Freedom sets out to bridge that gap, reflecting the challenges teenagers faced as all of the events they spent their entire lives looking forward to—graduation, prom, and all the attending rites of passage—just slipped away.
When I photographed the first portraits in this series of senior-aged high school girls— all close friends of my son, many of whom I have known since kindergarten—I was interested in recording the expressions and body language of young women on the cusp of adulthood, in the cars that seemed to ignite in them a quest for autonomy and freedom. I knew that soon, come fall, they would depart, untethered from the predictability and security of their homes, and set off on their own still-structured paths, but with the thrill of the unknown and a wild sense of adventure.
But then the spring of 2020 arrived instead, and a large percentage of the global population was instructed to “shelter in place.” Almost overnight, the reality of the pandemic settled in on us, and the adventurous and hopeful narrative of these teens began to take on an entirely new meaning, like a stalled coming of age story with a claustrophobic edge.
In April 2020, I was approached by a local museum’s Teen Arts Council to collaborate and expand on my series of portraits in cars. This immediately struck me as an opportunity to explore the bleaker perspective that the pandemic had given me. Suddenly, the vehicles I was photographing became modes of escape rather than glimmering conduits to new prospects, the cars idling in the background of each of my photographs now telling a different, darker story.
I began this project by posing a simple question to each member of the Teen Arts Council: How is Covid-19 affecting you? I was not quite prepared for their answers.
“The coronavirus has affected me during the most anticipated time of my life,” said one member. “My family and I worry about if we have any food left in our fridge, we worry about our relatives working their essential jobs, we worry about everyone suffering.”
Teenagers themselves were, of course, often among the suffering. While schools scrambled to create online curriculums, many teens were slipping through the cracks, rarely communicating with their peers. Almost overnight, teens around the world were being asked to attend high school from their childhood bedrooms and often crowded, noisy homes—and yet, as a demographic, their circumstances and the weight of all they had lost was barely being addressed by the media.
This collaboration presented a welcome opportunity to change that and give credence to the teenagers’ plight, as their portraits were inserted into local papers, illuminating the face of an entire generation that lacked representation in the monstrous toll Covid-19 was taking—in deaths and in lives.
Later, the teens would record their voices, recording their own accounts of life in the depths of the pandemic, and realizing, along the way, how their concerns could be expressed through creative media while continuing to raise awareness of the mental health challenges surrounding both children and adults due to the ongoing isolation. Reoccurring themes emerged in their reporting: of disappointment, mostly, and of longing for the predictability of a schedule, of a reason for picking out clothes for the next day.
“Ngl [not gonna lie], it's been tough,” says Han, an eighteen-year-old who participated in the project. “I feel as if my senior year has been taken away from me, senior banquet, senior prank, March Madness, all of it. Classes are not the same. I don't get a sense of learning through video chats. Some teachers don't even have any. Anxiety keeps me awake, and I lose a lot of sleep. I get about 2 hrs a day. I don't enjoy online therapy because the wifi sometimes cuts off, and I don't get any emotional relief from it. Everything kinda feels pointless.”
In their writings, these teens courageously addressed issues of family hardship, concerns over academic success, fears regarding our global community, and free-floating anxiety that simply never left.
Once we had established a rapport, it came time to take the portraits. I asked the participants to choose the site where they wanted to be photographed, and the vehicle that gets them around. For some kids it was a car, but not all of them were of driving age, or had access to cars, so it could be a skateboard or a bike, and for one girl without, it was her feet. She told me she walks when she needs time away from home. Poring over their writing I’d consider the person, their mode of transportation, what I knew of them from the Zoom meetings and their chosen meeting place. I would picture the upcoming portrait session.
“I often have a difficult time falling to sleep,” said Gigi, a 15-year-old participant, “so I go on night walks ranging from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. I find walking in the night to be immensely blissful and a huge form of coping. Isolation is one of my most prominent fears. I’m fearful of being isolated because it leads to a decrease in my ability to feel. When I do not feel I become bored and begin to overthink. This overthinking and a lack of feeling leads to a decrease of my motivation.”
High school seniors’ school careers have been abruptly cut short as they lament missed rites of passage, such as prom and a traditional graduation ceremony, while many also find themselves sequestered in households with unemployed parents, food insecurity, and emotional instability. Our houses have grown smaller as the news has grown bleaker and our proximity to one another, without routine or autonomy, has made living under one roof challenging, to say the least. Regardless of my original thesis for these works, it is inevitable that their timely presentation reflects our shared anxieties in light of the past year.
The car no longer represents a getaway toward an exciting future, but rather a means to escape from childhood bedrooms, old rules and stressful and even claustrophobic home lives. In some scenarios, if the weather cooperates, the vehicle takes teens to much-needed, albeit socially distanced, tailgate meet-ups. This new framing of the automobile (or other modes of transportation, like bikes and skateboards) as an escape rather than a leap into the future, tells a different story. Their answers regarding family hardships, concerns about academic success, fears regarding our global community, etc. are embedded in the image metadata, but even devoid of text, the facial expressions also tell a story of uncertainty in living this new normal. As teens are overwhelmingly underrepresented in reporting on the pandemic, I hope that in hearing their voices others will identify a universal thread and take interest in the experience of today’s youth, their wings clipped.
“We are jolted,” says Ruby, a 20-year-old participant in the project. “Pulled from what entertains us and keeps our minds from feeling like rot. But that’s okay, it could be so much worse. And although I usually find it frustrating when pain is compared to other pain, because it never makes it hurt less, this time it makes sense. We are alive and we have an opportunity to look inside. I am bewildered and heartbroken and fulfilled all at once. This confinement has brought me back home within myself, given me time to understand how to get back there. It will be another piece in my stack of pieces. Life doesn’t ever stop, even in death and this time is teaching me that.”