Julie Schor, author of Born to Buy , made a study of fifth and sixth graders and found that those who are more materialistic and consumer-driven develop higher levels of depression and low self-esteem. Do these findings corroborate with what you have observed though the lens?
My work is not academic research so I don't feel comfortable making that kind of connection, but I do see a lot of consumerism, materialism and low self-esteem and depression. It would not surprise me if there was research, especially because part of the game of consumerism and materialism is that you're never satisfied and that nothing is ever enough. But the work that I do is observational, so I wouldn't feel comfortable making that kind of direct connection. Materialism and consumerism seems to affect girls more than boys, and yet depression I think is a big problem with boys too. I think low self-esteem is kind of epidemic with girls more than boys, and it seems fairly safe to link that with consumerism and materialism.
I think that depression and the medication of children is part of a big trend that we're in. I don't know if people are being diagnosed more or if the number of kids who need medication is up. But I went to a school in Missouri, photographing - a very typical American public school in suburban St. Louis. Both times, there was a line for meds to the nurse's office that went down the hall and around the corner. I have never seen that in a public school - 14, 15 and 16 year olds. But I don't feel like I'm an expert. I just see a wave, kind of a medicated generation.
You make astute anthropological documents of popular culture in America. How do you gain trust of your models?
Access is kind of my personal strength. As a photographer that part has always come pretty easily to me, and so it's kind of hard to break down how it happens. It's also kind of magical, in the sense that you feel like things are going to be impossible. Like, even before I did this film [Lauren is working on a film about eating disorders], I didn't see how you could walk down the hall with a camera in a clinic, and have that be ok. And now I do it all the time. It was the same when I photographed the strippers and showgirls in Vegas for Girl Culture .
When I went up there I had no idea how I could use a flash in a strip club and have that be ok, and have there be patrons in the club. I was thinking, well, I'll have to shoot it with a Leica, and have it be quiet, and I'll have to shoot it in black and white so there's no flash. But once I broke through with the girls - and the way that happened was I broke through with the top girl, and she was kind of powerful in that community, so once she accepted me a lot of the other girls did too, and so did the management - then I could do anything. It wasn't about being unobtrusive and not using a flash. Once I had permission to be there, I could just be there with whatever I needed.
What is the dialectic between what is extreme, like a stripper, and what is mainstream - a teenager baring her midriff, wearing a thong? Is the margin becoming narrower?
I started Girl Culture very intuitively. I was just seeing different pictures and different projects that I worked on, and starting to put them together around the idea of performance and exhibitionism, and the way that a girl, at a certain age, the outside starts to matter, and what other people think starts to matter, and performance starts to matter. I was photographing a huge cross-section of girls and women - from schoolgirls in Chicago to strippers in Las Vegas. And I started thinking about how icons, like the actor and the model and the stripper and the showgirl, live in the minds of mainstream girls.
Sheena, the girl on the cover of Girl Culture , was in some ways a typical girl, a 15-year-old going to public school, yet she was an exhibitionist, and she used her sexuality to get attention. At one point in the interview she said her dream was to be a topless dancer, because, she said, if she could do that she could do anything. That really struck me. When I was that age I was dreaming about being a doctor or a diplomat or something. And then, when I went to fat camp - and these girls were mainly typical girls coming from suburban New York and the East Coast - one night when they were alone in their bunks listening to music really loud, they were pole dancing, emulating strippers. A few months later I was reading the New York Times Magazine style section and it said the new fitness craze at the trendy gyms in New York was a class called Cardio-Striptease, where soccer moms and teenagers can learn how to become strippers in the name of exercise and fitness.
Have any of your models changed their course after their participation in Girl Culture ?
That's a hard question because I think it loads the work too much. In Girl Culture what you're seeing is particular moments that I'm isolating. Most of the girls in the book, what I'm capturing is a moment that's representative of the culture that we live in; it's not necessarily representative of their lives.
But I do have one story, Erin, who was in the anorexic clinic. I photographed her on the scale [being weighed] backwards. In her interview she was very open about being in a really, really low place in her life. I mean, she took herself to near death, and actually was kicked out of that clinic before she ended up getting settled. But we're still in touch, and she said that being in the book was part of her recovery. For people with eating disorders, learning how to use your voice is an important part of treatment, using your voice instead of your body - and for her, having her voice be in the book, she's proud of that. After the book, she went to college and took women's studies and her teacher brought out the book. And I'm having a show in a museum next week and she's going to come to the opening, and she's proud of her role. That did help. But for most of the girls it's hard to judge. Sometimes it's a big thing in my life, but it's not necessarily a big thing in their lives at all.
You say that performance and exhibitionism seem to define the contemporary experience of being a girl. You have documented other areas of American culture, from fast food to the military. Do you see performance and exhibitionism as pervasive in those aspects of American culture?
It depends. It could be the opposite. I was photographing the marines in East Camp- in order to be successful as a marine you have to submerge your individuality. There is no room for it.
How much of the competitive nature of Americanism contributes to the everyday pathology inherent in status-madness and the work-and-spend lifestyle?
I think competition is a really big part of girl culture. I called my essay "Mirror Mirror," an allusion to Snow White ...When I went to photograph what it's like to be thirteen in Edina, Minnesota, and it was all about being popular, and it was all about having the right clothes. Now, in the consumer culture, you have to have clothes from literally one of three shops. You can't have exactly the same [as someone else]. You have to buy, for example, Abercrombie and Fitch, but you have to get a different color. You couldn't get exactly the same thing as somebody else, or one of the popular girls might just tell you to go home. I think the media is a big part of that, and marketing is a big part of that.
What do you feel, if you can single it out, is the most insidious incentive of American consumerism?
I think marketing and advertising are very well designed. These firms hire psychologists, base their marketing on studies, and do whatever is in their power to be effective. The target market is told that they cannot live with out a certain product, or their life will be better if they buy this or that product. Children and teenagers are particularly vulnerable, yet powerful in that they can manipulate parents, driving economic decisions which very often are based on their insecurities.
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