I have been dealing with a particularly touchy issue in photography for the last two semesters. That issue is one of photographing minors. There is something about the way that high school culture works and the way that high school age people interact with the world and each other that absolutely fascinates me. I think one reason is that I am interested in what shapes the ways that we behave as a society and as individuals. And, I think that a lot of that shaping comes during that particular time of growing up.
So here is the problem: with my last body of work (Technically Intimate), I was interested in the “sexting” phenomenon that was happening in high schools around the country. I wanted to make a comment on this phenomenon, because I felt that it was an interesting and important change to how youth culture was viewing intimacy. The way that youth culture, especially suburban high school culture, was changing is both extremely interesting and complicated. It is an important shift in that culture and something that has never been experienced before.
To comment on this, I used found images from the Internet and recreated the moment that certain images were created. Since all of these images involved either nudity or highly suggestive sexual actions or expressions, I stuck with models over the age of 18 but that looked young. That was a way I felt comfortable working.
But now I am finding that just creating the illusion is not enough. It is no longer working for me to just “pretend” that the models are what I say they are. I decided I needed to work with my subject matter instead of just working about my subject matter. This is a monumental change for me. While it might not seem like it, even in the most benign cases, working with someone who you don’t know, who is under 18, is a lengthy and sometimes complex process. It also adds a level of complexity to the images that is not necessarily in Technically Intimate (although there are many people that have asked me how old my models for Technically Intimate were).
Last semester, I decided to begin using models that were in the age range that I was interested in. I felt that I could no longer avoid it, and while my images still contain some overt sexual suggestion, there is no nudity involved. Working in this way has provided me with new challenges, like how to explain to a parent, whose child you want in your image, the concept behind the overall project without making it sound too risque. It also involves triple checking to make sure that model releases are signed by parents and that those parents are present at the shoot (I always try to have someone else snap an image of the parent, myself, and the model during the shoot just for some extra proof they really were there).
While working with models this young and subject matter this edgy makes me extremely apprehensive, it is also something that I feel has become unavoidable and that I think is beginning to take the images to a place that I am really starting to enjoy.