How did this project, of photographing teenagers around the world, begin?
I’ve always liked teenagers for their energy, their capacity to live fully in the present moment, their curiosity and openness to new experiences. Because of all that, they are also fantastic people to photograph. Although it is often a very fragile period in life, full of doubts, I believe that teenage years are like an atomic battery of life: the energy and hopes of those years keep fueling us through our whole lives. I would not have started such a vast project without a strong personal interest.
But in reality, it all started small and by serendipity – as is the case with many interesting things, I guess. In 2009, when I decided to dedicate myself to photography and mainly to portraits, I took a series of workshops in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for which I had to work on a personal project.
One evening, I took a few photos of teenagers in town. Not only did I like the photos, but we also had interesting conversations. In particular, I photographed two young Navajo sisters who were skateboarding in the street, with clothes influenced by hip-hop culture. This was a fascinating mix and these photos made me click. I decided to turn it into a small project for my workshops and started taking portraits of teenagers for a few weeks.
In the following weeks, I continued to think of it and realized that the present generation of teenagers, born in the last decade of the 20th century, at the end of the millennium, were the first ones to have grown up entirely with the internet and social media. Somehow, they are the pioneers of a new era of worldwide and instant connection. I found it would be interesting to see how this capacity to be connected to the whole world was influencing teenagers around the world.
That’s when it became the vast project it is now. I am in the middle of a world tour taking me to 25 countries through all 5 continents. I must say it has been even more fascinating than I thought when I started.
We read a lot of negative things about today’s teenagers: it is usually said they are overly narcissistic, have attention deficit, are wasting their whole time on their electronic devices, thus not enjoying “real life”, among other negative things. In reality, all this technology has been thrown at them and they are trying to make sense out of it and invent a life and relationships that go with it. I find they are as creative, curious, interesting as any previous generation of teenagers.
How do you approach the teenagers you photograph?
Most of the project is made of posed portraits, with artificial lighting. But I always wanted the project to have a documentary feel, I did not want to shoot in a studio setting. Therefore I go and meet them in the streets, in the places they like to hang out. I find it important to show around them the kind of places they choose to spend their time.
From the beginning, I’ve decided to focus on their down time, when they just hang out to meet friends, typically between school and home. I wanted to avoid the clichés of most projects about teenagers, which focus on parties, alcohol, drugs, sex, this kind of high-energy stuff. This has been documented hundreds of times.
Teenage years are also full of empty moments and boredom and I was interested to look at those moments. I think it is an aspect that is often neglected for more sexy things: as a teenager, one spends a lot of time waiting for life to really begin! These moments are full of doubts, but also of hopes and dreams. I hope I am able to catch glimpses of that in my portraits.
In all the cities I visit, I find young people just out of their teenage years to assist me, translate for me when needed and help me to find those places where teenagers hang out. Once on the spot, when I see people with interesting looks, faces, clothes or accessories, I ask them if they would agree to a portrait.
There is a bit of planning, in the sense that I choose interesting places to meet them and I select some strong backgrounds to give a sense of the place. I also plan to visit different type of neighborhoods, from posh area to poorer suburbs. And of course, the whole visual style of the project has been carefully planned. But my shoots really happen in the moment, by chance.
I’ve tried in the beginning to find some people in advance, to plan the shoots and make appointments. But teenagers are not too reliable, they never showed up the day of the shoot, so I renounced. In fact, I find that meeting them by chance works well with the spirit of the project, it gives it a more spontaneous feel.
This is an ongoing project, and you’re still in the process of shooting. Where do you see it headed?
I am hoping to have exhibitions. The dream would be to exhibit my work in all the cities in which I will have been shooting. I recently started to make some short video portraits and very short videos that could be used as animated gifs. An exhibition would mix photos, videos and gifs, which I would love to show with old-time technology such as zoetrope, praxinoscope and such. This would seem very relevant for the project, because one thing that struck me is that today’s teenagers, while totally at ease with all the newest technologies, also have a strong interest in old technologies.
I am thinking of a book as well, but I am a bit unsure about it. I am not sure a book would not be a boring way to show the work. But once the project is finished, I will try to find possible interesting ways.
Lately, I have been thinking of making an application for tablets, which would be more interactive, mixing different media. It would seem a very appropriate way to show the work.
What have the challenges been in making this project come to life?
I must say it has been rather easy. Teenagers are usually very enthusiastic about the idea, so finding interesting people has been easy.
It is sometimes a bit more difficult to find assistants who have enough time to help me. That’s the biggest challenge, but until now I’ve been very lucky.
On the other hand, of course, it is a rather expensive project and I had to take several breaks to work in order to finance it, so it is taking me a long time to complete. I started in 2009 and will finish the shoots in September 2015, a bit longer than ideal.
What locations have you been to so far and which do you plan to go to?
Until now, I’ve been to several Asian countries, Australia, Zimbabwe and Cape Verde in Africa, Brazil and I’ve just started the European part in Madrid and Geneva.
In the coming 14 months, I will complete the Asian part, in Japan and Mongolia, and go to South America during the winter, in Brazil, Chile and Argentina. I will finish the European part next spring and summer.
Olivier Moeckli is a Swiss photographer, focusing on portrait and documentary work. He began his career as a film director and director’s assistant, before working for the public communication of the International Red Cross in Afghanistan, Angola, Colombia, Iraq and several other countries at war.