Photographer Constance McDonald grew up at the bottom of the world: the southernmost point of New Zealand’s South Island. But that doesn’t mean she was isolated from other cultures and perspectives. For five years of her childhood, McDonald’s family hosted Japanese students from an all-girls high school in Tokyo. The experience made such an impression that she decided to reverse it and see the country for herself as an adult, signing up for a year of teaching English at an all-girls high school just a train stop away from the one that had sent its students to her home all those years ago. She brought her camera along, of course.
While their sailor-style uniforms feel familiar from anime and manga, McDonald’s images lack the male gaze through which we come by many pop cultural depictions of young Japanese women. Instead, she acts as a neutral force who is able to capture the bright-eyed teenagers in all their optimism and ambition.
“Mostly I was struck by the self-confidence and passion of the schoolgirls I taught,” she tells VICE. “They have big goals and dreams for their futures.”
McDonald wanted to pay tribute to the girls who she says “deviated so far from the Western perception of the meek and shy Japanese schoolgirl”. So she asked the school and its students for their consent to turn her project into a photo book, I Will Be My Dream. It takes its title from a sweet conversation she had with one student, Yu, who confessed she aspired to one day work at the United Nations.
“My dream is so difficult,” Yu told McDonald. “But I will be my dream”.
The below portraits show the students smiling, laughing, and pursuing their passions—in sport, music, studying, and while having fun with their friends.
“They are not depicted as one-dimensional sub-plots,” McDonald says. “They are the main characters.”
Follow Constance on Instagram