"Typically I barely know anything about them before I arrive: They could be really remarkable, or just be doing their thing."
Our modern obsession with teenagers is a well-documented and sometimes cringe-worthy thing. We can't get enough of coming-o- age stories full of words like ripe, blush, and bloom. But the fetishization of youth—especially for young girls—is something that can be hard to honestly represent. This was on the mind of Elize Strydom when she began her Small Town Girls photo project. She spent time in the lives and homes of girls across the world, taking photos of the everyday moments that make up their own teen experiences.
VICE: First up, are you from a small town?
Elize Strydom: Yes, I moved to Sydney about five years ago. I'd grown up in the country and been at a regional university in Lismore, northern NSW [New South Wales]. I got my first job in radio in my hometown and another radio job in another regional town. So I spent my whole life in regional towns.
Where did this idea come from?
Making friends with girls that grew up in Sydney caused me to think maybe we had quite different lives. They talk about their experiences of catching the train into the city and going to gigs, sneaking into clubs when they were like 15 or 16. I was like, what gigs? They didn't play a part in my teenage years at all. That made me think, Oh maybe things were different for me.
Also I'd turned 28 or 29 and realized I was a teenager ten years ago. It felt like yesterday. I felt like it would be rad to go back and revisit my teenage years through other young women. I didn't really have a name for it, I just lined up a few girls, took a few weeks off work, and asked if I could come stay for a week and follow them around to document their daily life.
You've expanded it overseas as well, right?
To start with it was just in Australia, then I thought it would be cool to do in the US as well because that was the country I idolized as a teenager. I thought, I wish I could go to summer camp. It was romanticizing whatever I saw on US TV shows and movies.
When you were living with those American girls, did it look like the fantasy you had as a teenager?
It did! But one thing I was surprised about was not every teenage girl went to summer camp. I just thought that was what every single American teen did, that illusion was smashed. But otherwise yes it did. There would be times we'd be driving to Starbucks or the mall and I was like, I'm in a movie.
Were there similarities between girls who grew up in towns of similar sizes even if they were in very different countries?
Yeah, the importance of family was a major one. They were more isolated and their friends might not live within walking distance. It was just a lot harder to get together and socialize so their siblings became their best friends and they spent a lot of time just kicking around home with them. Especially in America, I noticed family came first.
Why girls instead of teenagers in general?
I just think the feelings and experiences of young women—especially in small towns and isolated places—aren't as widely legitimized. I wanted to shine the spotlight on girls, and also as I said before, I sort of wanted to relive my teenage years.
We've touched on this glamorized idea of what it is to be a teenager, especially in America. And there's a lot of that in art and pop culture at the moment as well. Do you think we fetishize what it is to be a girl in her teens?
Definitely, and I'm worried at times that I'm adding to that. But what I really strive to do is not to go into it thinking, OK I really want to get a shot her doing this because I want it to look like this. Typically I barely know anything about them before I arrive: They could be really remarkable, or just be doing their thing. I just try go into it with whatever they present is what I try to capture.
Elize's show 'Small Town Girl - Australia, South Africa and the USA' will be showing 14 to 20 May at Gaffa Gallery in Sydney.
Interviewed by Wendy Syfret. Follow her on Twitter.