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What's it like to be 13? Photo project aims to find out

June 01, 2011

They have the potential to straddle three centuries. They can be mysterious and misunderstood. They are as different as they are alike.

They are today’s 13-year-olds, born at the twilight of the 20th century, who, with good health and a little luck, could see the 22nd.

Who are these newly minted teenagers? What are they thinking about? What do they like to read? What do they think about the world they live in?

Betsy Schneider, a photographer and associate professor of art, will explore these questions and more in her new project, “Thirteen,” for which she recently won a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Schneider, the mother of a 13-year-old girl, Madeleine – who will be almost 14 when her mother begins working on the year-long project in December – plans to photograph 250 13-year-olds and ask them questions about their lives.

Why 13-year-olds? Aside from the fact that she has a daughter that age – and was 13 herself once – Schneider said, “I am motivated by the intensity, the trauma and the beauty of that point in life.

“I wonder not only about the experience of early adolescence, but also about how we as adults retain that experience and how it shapes us for the rest of our lives.

“I believe it is a painful, vital and powerful experience to become an adult. And while media, electronic communication and over-parenting have created a culture very different from what came 30 years ago, at the core the struggle of adolescence is eternal.”

Schneider said she plans to begin her project by photographing and interviewing her daughter’s friends and other children she already knows. “From there I will solicit volunteers through my children, their friends, my friends and their children, teams, clubs, schools and social networking sites.”

The photo sessions and interviews will take place either at the children’s homes or schools, and Schneider wants the settings to be distinctive. “I don’t want them to be too generic, to look like school pictures,” she said.

“I will ask the children a set of questions that they will be given in advance, and they will be allowed to decide which questions they would like to answer or discuss.”

Schneider said she is “interested in questioning the simple dichotomies to which adolescence is so often reduced,” and is motivated by “the intensity, the trauma and the beauty of that point in life.”

Many of Schneider’s friends have children of adolescent age or teenagers, and she has found that nine out of 10 of the parents thought that 13 was the worst age and just one of out 10 remembers it fondly. “No one told me it was the best,” she said.

Schneider will photograph the 13-year-olds with a 4x5 inch view camera, from which she will create an installation and a book. There also will be a video, all of which will provide “a portrait of early adolescence in 2011.”

So what does Madeleine think about her mother’s art project?

“She’s excited about the project,” Schneider said. “She’ll help. She’ll carry my camera and tell me which pictures she likes. She’s bemused at my interest in that age. She’s a private person, and she thinks I’m a little weird.”

Madeleine is no stranger to her mother’s camera lens. From the time she was born until she was 11-1/2, Schneider took a photo of her every day. The first pictures portrayed Madeleine without clothes, but when she was 4 or 5, she began dressing for the camera. As she grew older, she began to understand that the photographs were her mother’s artistic work, and that she was giving a gift to her mother by sitting for the photos. “But she has little interest in photography,” Schneider said.

In 2004, Schneider exhibited three very large posters filled with tiny nude photos of her daughter at birth, age 2 and age 5 in a London gallery. The city’s tabloids accused Schneider of pornography, and the gallery took the exhibit down the same day.

Though newspapers are filled with child predators stalking and abusing young adolescents, Schneider said “Thirteen” will be far, far from anything that could possibly have even a hint of that label.

“The questions will stay away from sexual and personal relationships,” Schneider said. “I simply want to learn how 13-year-olds see themselves and the world. So often we are told what to fear for them, and what to fear from them. I want to meet them first hand and remember my own experiences.”