Photographer Trains a 'Complicated' Lens on Teens Photojournalist Robin Bowman spent four years driving across the United States, photographing and interviewing more than 400 teens. Some of those pictures — and the teens' words — are included in her new book, It's Complicated: The American Teenager.
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Photographer Trains a 'Complicated' Lens on Teens

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Photographer Trains a 'Complicated' Lens on Teens

Photographer Trains a 'Complicated' Lens on Teens

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M: Karen Michel reports.

KAREN MICHEL: Robin Bowman spent four years driving around the United States photographing teens. She also interviewed them using rudimentary equipment. She asked each of them a set list of questions about family, school, drugs, money, aspirations and fears. She had to learn to be quiet, not to interrupt.

ROBIN BOWMAN: What is the type of thing about being a teenager and why, for you?

COURTNEY PASLIK: Uhm, dating.

MICHEL: Robin Bowman is talking with Courtney Paslik in Nashville, Tennessee. In the book, Paslik is pictured sitting on a sofa wearing T-shirt and jeans, her hair tucked behind her ears and reaching just pass her shoulders. There's a painting on the wall just over her head. She's smiling, her feet barely reached pass the brocade cushions. Paslik calls herself a little person. She's 17 and she's never had a date.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

BOWMAN: Tell us how it makes you feel.

PASLIK: Mad that they don't want to know me better, that they don't - they look at the outside more than the inside.

MICHEL: To attract the teens, Robin Bowman used various methods. Sometimes friends would suggest kids, but most times it was much more happenstance.

BOWMAN: Often I'd be driving down the street, and I'd see, you know, a group of four teens. And I would pull over and I'd have to convince them that I was not going to hurt them, that I meant no harm, but that I was working on this project.

MICHEL: She'd get permission from their parents and a signed release, but the photojournalist used to prepping for a shoot worked differently this time.

BOWMAN: I would photograph first, which worked against I'd ever learned in my profession. I always knew a lot of information in the past before walking into a shoot. But this, I felt very concerned that I was going to manipulate the image or control these teenagers if I knew too much about them.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

BOWMAN: Okay, today is March 24, 2002, and I'm in Bradshaw, West Virginia. And I'm sitting here with...

RAY MALLIER: Ray Mallier.

BOWMAN: Ray Mallier. And Ray, where you from?

MALLIER: I'm from Jolo, West Virginia.

BOWMAN: Jolo, West Virginia. And how old are you?

MALLIER: I'm 18 years old.

MICHEL: Ray Mallier is pictured with three friends and as in all of the photographs in the book before he looks straight at the camera. Mallier's hanging near the back of the group, hands on his hips, chin out, looking just a bit confrontational.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

BOWMAN: As you look ahead in your life, what do think you will become? Two- part question. Fantasies like something you dreamed about all your life.

MALLIER: I want to live like Nelly.

BOWMAN: Nelly?

MALLIER: She's a rapper.

BOWMAN: She is a him.

MALLIER: Yes, it's a him. He's a black guy.

BOWMAN: Okay.

MALLIER: He owns probably a billion-dollar home and he's got, like, 20 vehicles, you know, like, (unintelligible), PT cruisers, stretch limos, you know, everything. I'd love to live like that.

BOWMAN: Okay. Reality, what do you think you're going to become?

MALLIER: Probably a coal miner.

BOWMAN: Do you think that's the closes thing to your reality?

MALLEIR: Yes. That's the closest thing right now.

MICHEL: Patrick Roberts was 19 and living Lawrence, Kansas, when Bowman shot him in his favorite alley, a cigarette dangling out of his mouth. Now, he is ready to graduate from college and that picture is on the cover of Bowman's book. Roberts says he likes the picture but feels vulnerable now reading the words he said then.

PATRICK ROBERTS: The easiest thing about being a teenager is still having a sort of romantic perspective or outlook on the world, not being jaded or disillusioned, and knowing, hoping that you have time to do what you want and to achieve what you want.

MICHEL: And now.

ROBERTS: I still feel that way but - although I'm no longer a teenager, I haven't lost that feeling, and I don't think its going anywhere. So maybe I was wrong that that's specific to being a teenager. I think you have to work hard, though, not to let yourself forget that feeling of having dreams and aspirations and knowing that there's nothing that can stop you or feeling that way when you're young.

MICHEL: Of course, that's not always true. In Ebony Wilson's photograph, she shot from below standing on a street corner in the Bronx, New York. There's a sign for a beauty parlor painted on the building behind her to her left. Wearing a parka that slipped off her shoulders, 15-year old Ebony looks down at the camera, her expression a cipher.

EBONY WILSON: I felt that grownups heard what I said, but they did not listen, like, they just heard me, they didn't listen. They really did not pay attention.

MICHEL: Now, Ebony is 20 and a mother of a young son. She feels that people will pay more attention to her words reading them in a book.

WILSON: Because when you read, you have no choice but to listen because you can't interrupt, like, when you have a conversation with somebody, they have the chance to interrupt you. But when you read, you hear them no matter what it takes.

MICHEL: Ray Mallier, the West Virginian who admired Nelly and his fleet of cars is now in jail. He stabbed someone.

MICHEL: For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel.

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