The Digital Journalist
25 under 25
Up-and-Coming American Photographers

April 2004

by Lauren Greenfield

A camera is a license to explore on your own terms. It provides a shield of protection, a mandate, a reason for being at a place, for looking, for participating. In normal life, you are not supposed to talk to strangers, or get too close to them, or stare. The camera affords freedom from social prohibitions, and is a passport for the journey.

Growing up shy, I remember walking the streets of Boston talking to strangers and making pictures for a photography class when I was a sophomore at Harvard. The camera was a way to break through my fears and learn about the unknown, the exotic, the other. I photographed places at night where I would not normally dare to go. A goody-goody who usually bowed to convention, I photographed rebellious punk rockers. A modest girl uncomfortable with my own body, I photographed a nude self-portrait in one of the public rooms of my college (when no one was there). Photography allowed me to explore the world, and test my own boundaries.

Having been raised by very liberal parents, I began photographing Republican conventions. I wanted to learn about the lives I hadn't lived, worlds that were not my own. When I brought my pictures back to class, Christopher James, my teacher, told me he had learned as much about me as he had about Republicans. This comment stunned and puzzled me, because in my mind I was bringing back another world. I was trying to show my classmates and teacher that old-school Republicans looked just like I imagined they would. That was obviously his point.

In the great documentary tradition, the photographers of 25 Under 25 are engaged in a journey for which the camera provides them license. The viewer feels their excitement at what they are capturing and the raw energy of the process. In Colby Katz's image of a stripper with a man on the floor behind her go-go boots, one feels the rush of her discovery. The visible door frame references the photographer's presence and the viewer is struck by the immediacy and surprise of the scene she has come upon. Colby says she is especially drawn to eccentrics and special people. Misty Keasler, who made evocative color images from a Russian orphanage, describes her excitement at "walking into different and fantastic lives . . . real lives."

Diane Arbus, another photographer of eccentrics, once said, "If I were just curious, it would be very hard to say to someone, 'I want to come to your house and have you talk to me and tell me the story of your life.' I mean people are going to say, 'You're crazy.' Plus they're going to keep mightily guarded." The license is thus reciprocal. The camera invites the subject to let down his or her guard and be in relationship with the photographer as well. Many of these photographers integrate their feelings about the subject into the image. Unlike cinema verité's "fly on the wall" tradition, these photographers dance with subjects who are willing participants. Eric Gottesman, with his mysterious pictures of anonymous HIV-positive Ethiopians, believes in collaboration to the point of giving his subjects "final cut" a practice that is anathema to photojournalists or anthropologists.

The photographers in 25 Under 25 approach their work from a personal point of view and ask us to experience the world through their eyes. Kristin Posehn brings us into a surreal landscape of amusement parks where people seem alone and disconnected and the quest for "amusement" takes on an absurdist quality. Andreanna Lynn Seymour presents intriguing photographs of people engaged in leisure activities who are similarly isolated yet surrounded by family and activity. Brian McKee's original portrayal of the former East Germany demands that we contemplate the discarded and decaying, the last remaining evidence of a people and a place that no longer exist.

In this collection of work, I am especially struck by the way many of the photographers use their photography to travel within as well as without. Their journeys are often internal, emotional, and consciously subjective. Laurel Nakadate's compellingly candid photographs of her friends' college parties give us intimate snapshots of a world to which she was drawn. Laurel says that her photography was not just the documentation of a surprising subculture but an activity that actually lent stability to her life. Going beyond the role of camera as shield, photography is used by some of these photographers as a means of self-discovery and even as a therapeutic coping mechanism. Chana Warshauer-Baker documents her struggle with an eating disorder and what she calls "her own self-destruction." She explains that her eating disorder was connected to feeling out of control and not wanting to grow up. For her, photography was a way to become detached from her own experience, regain a sense of control, and stop time. To be in the room with Chana while she wrestles with her demons is a unique and moving experience.

Similarly, Carrie Levy bravely shares the unusual and heart-rending experience of her father's incarceration. From the ages of fifteen to nineteen, she depended on her camera to mediate, understand, and cope with a devastating reality affecting her family.

These photographers have realized at a young age that they can mine rich material when they use their privileged access and personal perspective to take on subjects they are passionate about. It took me many years to come to this realization and return to my own culture. Once there, I could begin to question why I was drawn to certain themes in my photography and how my own explorations with the camera were related to my particular upbringing and experience.

Susan Sontag said that "to photograph is to confer importance." The work of these photographers demonstrates not only the importance of what they are shooting, but of themselves, their ideas, their struggles, their lives. Their pictures prompt us to see what would otherwise not be noticed. Whether it is the indentation on a couch, plastic-covered living room furniture, the way dishrags are lined up in an orphanage, one's own history or family, these photographers ask us to stop and take notice.

© Lauren Greenfield