Did You Grow Up in British Suburbia?
As long as you’re not a sociopath, a billionaire or an amnesiac, the chances are your early teenage years are the ones you remember most fondly. That part of our lives when we went from sticks n’ stones to Benson n’ Hedges; from rough n’ tumble to cider n’ black. Objectively speaking, they might have been shit, and we might not have absorbed any moral lessons, but we did at least learn how to roll a crucifix joint and hide from park wardens.
Twenty-one-year-old Stockport-based photographer Emma McKay decided to document those heady days and nights by following around a bunch of local kids aged between 14 and 17. Fitting somewhere between the romanticised youthmares of Larry Clark and the northern humour of Larry Grayson, something about her pictures stayed with me. They had a kind of honesty to them that made me wish that, rather than spending my days filling out council tax forms and peeling passive-aggressive post-it notes from my fridge, I was actually outside, longing to grow up but not quite knowing how to do it.
I decided to call up Emma in her Stockport bedroom to find out more.
VICE: Hi Emma, what was it that made you want to photograph these kids?
Emma McKay: I did the project for my end of year show last year. I was 20 and I could sort of pass for their age, so for me it was critical to do the project then because I prefer to get to know people when I photograph them. I didn’t think it was a subject that just anyone could photograph.
How did you get in touch with them? Did you know any of them already, or was it a case of sourcing them out?
Initially I went to my local park and approached a few groups who seemed quite keen to be in the project. We agreed to meet up at a later time, but they never showed up. I was a bit stuck for a while, until I met this girl on another shoot. She was going into Year Ten and was starting to get a bit popular, getting to know a few more people. She was my ticket in. Through that one person I was able to meet teenagers from other backgrounds and different areas as well.
How did they react to having someone a few years older than them tag along on a night out? Was there any worry or resentment, or did they appreciate the novelty?
Well, the first two times I met up with them they just treated me as the friend of a friend. When I introduced them to the camera, which obviously isn’t easy to hide, that weirded them out a little. They were sort of like, “Alright mate, what are you doing?” But then I told them I was at college and doing a project, which to them, being 16 and 17, was quite funny. I didn't really face any problems.
There are quite a few things going on in the photos that are illegal for their age group. Were they OK with you photographing that?
Yeah, they were mostly fine. A few of them weren’t keen on the smoking, because they didn’t want their mum or dad to find out, so they asked me to be careful. To gain their trust, I would show them the pictures on Facebook. I would always carry a digital camera with me when we hung out so I could also take some sort of "happy snaps" for them, besides my photos for the project.
Some things don't change, I guess. Did they understand your reasons for wanting to photograph them at all?
I don’t think they got it, especially not the artistic side. When I exhibited the project in Manchester, I encouraged them to come but not one of them showed up, which was a bit of a shame.
It is a shame. The pictures are much more focused on the people than the places they have been taken in. Would you say there’s something uniquely "Stockport" about them?
People have looked at the pictures and they’ve said, “Oh gosh, I was like that when I was their age,” which is what I wanted. I wanted people to feel familiar with my images. So, the pictures could be taken anywhere, actually.
I felt the same thing. I guess that's a reflection of the fact that suburbia is pretty much the same for any teenager growing up in it in Britain. In the photos there’s a strange mix between adult things and childish stuff, like splashing water on each other. I guess they are in a transitional phase.
Yeah, the youngest people in the photographs were sort of 14 at the time, and the oldest were 16, 17. There’s photos of them playing football and joking about. A few of them, when they’re in the group, they’re loud and act all grown-up, but as soon as you take them away from the group you see their more innocent side.
They seem to go to parties with a lot of members of the opposite sex. Were these the cool popular kids or were they a fairly normal bunch?
I’m five years older than them, but I never really experienced the whole house party thing – it was never really my thing. I would say that they are sort of the more popular kids in the area, definitely. Especially now with Facebook, it’s much easier for people to meet and build their own friendship group.
You grew up in the area, how has the teenage lifestyle changed since you were at that age?
I didn’t have a very good high school experience, so in a way, I experienced things that I didn’t as a teenager, through them. Yet, situations like house parties tend to be more about the hype. Nothing ever really happened.
How would your teenage self have felt about those parties?
I probably wouldn’t have liked it. It’s not my kind of thing. But for these kids it’s a way of meeting new people and feeling popular. I have a few of them on Facebook and it’s interesting because they’re now at college. The high school age has ended and they’re now in the college phase, which is different because they hang out with different people. I find that interesting to look at, too.
How do you think they viewed themselves?
I think quite a few of them would describe themselves as normal teenagers. But, for me, there were a few characters who thought they were hard. They aren't really.
What did their parents think about the photos?
When I began, I gave them all these release forms and got the parents to sign them. I got quite a few back, but looking at the writing it probably wasn’t the mum or dad who signed it. If the parents were to see the pictures, I think they’d just be interested to see what their kids were getting up to and they could probably also relate to it.
What’s next for you then?
I’ve just graduated from an honors degree in Photography. I worked with teenagers again for my final project, only this time I was looking at dance culture. I added video to that body of work, so I'm looking to put on an exhibition that can incorporate that. I’ve got tonnes of images, so at the minute I’m working my way through them all. I might try to create a permanent body of work with them.
Sounds great. Thanks, Emma!
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