Book Review: To Be Thirteen by Betsy Schneider
By Ava McLaughlin
“My LA- language arts- teacher always says that we’re still kids. And then my Spanish teacher says that we’re like adults now.” Elly, No. 68
This book by Betsy Schneider features 250 portraits of thirteen year olds. Each portrait is taken with the teens looking straight at the camera, in different settings, different clothing, different ethnicities, different people, but all the same age. The project serves not only to highlight being thirteen, but whatever the viewer chooses to personally get out of it, further influencing the theme of individuality in life through differing personal interpretations of the gathered portraits.
Schneider states that this project, to her, is about many things including identity, parenting, maturity, immaturity, adulthood, and, most importantly, the inherent difficulty of being a new teen. However, the photographs don’t do all the explaining. At the end of the book, there’s a separate little booklet full of quotes from the thirteen year olds responding to questions that they related to the most. These questions regarded what they want to be when they grow up, what their family is like, what they miss about childhood, and more. The responses chosen from each person pictured are the stories, dreams, and hopes seen as the most important and truly exposed what makes them who they really. These stories feature thoughts about wanting to grow up to be a famous singer, secrets of how they feel about their lives, their favorite TV shows, their young views on politics, and many more, perfectly highlighting the individuality of each person pictured.
Schneider got the idea of this book after feeling nostalgic about her daughter’s impending teen years but also her reflection on her own time in middle school. She touches on remembering how alone and different she felt at this age which motivated her to create this project as to tell the youth that it’s okay to feel this way because most people at thirteen do. She discusses the purposes of her project by saying, “I take the most intense things in my life and try to figure out how to make art about them.” The teens she pictured understood the meaning behind her project and participated in the emotional connection of the book.
The manner in which she takes these portraits is, somewhat, a trick. The subjects will pose but they don’t know when she’s going to take the picture. While she’s under the dark cloth, she still has to set the exposure and get everything ready, so they start to relax. This state of relaxation gives her instead of what the teens think they’re supposed to give her, what she wants; something completely natural. Schneider also wanted to focus on how for artists, life and art are completely intertwined. These natural, unposed portraits show the connection between life and art by shooting these teens as unposed as possible. This book truly captures the idea that life imitates art and art imitates life.
She discusses her disagreement with the popular thought that taking portraits of people is supposed to be about “capturing the essence” of someone while teaching photography at the graduate and undergraduate levels. She finds that portraits are defined solely by the person who makes them and then by the people who view them; it’s not about essence, it’s about a real person. She attempts to dismember the delusion that consuming the “essence” of someone is the goal of portraiture. She often asks her subjects not to smile because posed smiling is only a reassurance to the people around you and it soon becomes fake. Instead, she tells them to smile with their eyes so it can truly be real, untainted art.
In this project, Schneider attempts to allow these teens to communicate how they feel about what is hard in their constantly changing lives and how they face these challenges, such as gender identity, sexual orientation, fitting in, self acceptance, and just being who you are. This project helps to empower these 250 teens and give inspiration to a broader audience that is long past the age of thirteen. They allow people to reflect on how their thirteen year old selves shaped who we are today. The teen quotes and portraits teach older generations the openness of today’s youth from their comfort in talking about their lives and their willingness to experiment, highlighting this generations growing sense of inclusiveness. This book allows us to empathize with these thirteen year olds and reflect on what it means To Be Thirteen.
"To Be Thirteen" was published by Radius Books, and the book page can be found here: http://radiusbooks.org/books/betsy-schneider-to-be-thirteen/