After hanging out with the Zapatista Liberation Army in Mexico for a few years and a stint in Rwanda, taking pictures of teenagers sounds like it would be an absurdly simple assignment. Photojournalist Robin Bowman has 22 years in the field, but her experience photographing U.S. teens wasn't what she would call easy.
Adding 21,173 miles to her car over five years to create 419 "collaborative portraits" of teenagers, Bowman went in search of youth from different socioeconomic, religious and ethnic groups. And she did it because she wanted to, not because someone told her to.
"I had come out of Rwanda and I felt like I needed to do something meaningful," says Bowman, a Cincinnati native who now lives in Maine. "I've done a lot of meaningful stories, but I needed something that was my own voice. Ultimately, you end up doing stories and you have no control over it once you hand over the film. And you certainly have no control over the words, because I wasn't reporting.
"I got sick of working for magazines.
It was always factual, but there was a sugar-coated ending. They never approached it from the same perspective I would, and I never felt like they were sincere or honest enough."
What began as a visit to a friend's family in Canada became the inspiration for the book It's Complicated: The American Teenager, published in November 2007 by Umbrage Editions. Bowman says she didn't encounter many teens while living in a New York City loft, so spending a week in Canada talking to and hanging out with the 13- to 19-year-old set was eye opening.
"I didn't know much about teenagers," she says. "Teenagers, in the summer time, go through this major growth spurt. They're away from their peers and they're just kind of absorbing everything around them. They were intrigued by me and their cousin (Bowman's friend). We spent a lot of time with them, just talking to them and answering questions, talking to them on their level, as human beings.
"I felt like they were so thirsty to take in information in the midst of building themselves. I used go to bed and make sure all my digits and limbs were tucked under the covers because I just felt like they were going to steal something to take home with them, some piece of you."
On the trip, instead of her usual pile of photography equipment and color film, Bowman took an old black-and-white camera that made negatives and instant Polaroid pictures. The unfamiliar equipment and people combined to "energize" her and get her thinking about why she got into photography to begin with.
She wasn't satisfied by her magazine assignments. She wanted to "give a voice" to and share what's happening in the world.
It was soon after another trip to Maine and more photographs of teens -- this time it was kids from wealthy families -- that Bowman found a focus for the pictures and a new direction for her photography. She decided to photograph and interview teens across the U.S.
"It was a very organic process," she says. "It was out of a curiosity. I had this set of questions and I set out. Every day I'd pack up my car with equipment and film and I'd go out and I'd look for kids from morning until dusk. I'd approach them on the streets.
"I told them I needed a parent to sign off if they were under 18 and, regardless, I had to have a permission slip signed. I photographed first and interviewed second. I didn't want to go in and direct. I didn't want too much information beforehand so that I didn't protect anybody or expose someone. I wanted it completely pure and raw and honest."
Bowman traveled with an album of pictures to prove who she said she was. After taking the pictures she'd ask the kids to wait while she interviewed them one by one in her car, recording the entire exchange.
Even though she was met with suspicion in small towns, she was able to win the trust of a lot of kids and their parents. She credits this with her willingness to listen and her recognition that teens are people too.
"It was an opportunity to talk about themselves and to have someone listen to them," Bowman says. "One complaint I heard over and over and over again was, 'We're seen but we're not heard. No one really pays attention to what we say.'
"It's a project on tolerance and acceptance. It's a project about unifying versus dividing. I so want people in Brookings, Ore. to understand what it means to be a teenager in Tampa, Fla. and vice versa. I really believe we're all the same. A lot of this book is: You think you know who these images are, but read and it will break down the stereotypes you've just handed to the pictures."