In 2012, photographer Betsy Schneider embarked on a project to explore the experience of being thirteen. Traveling around the United States, the Guggenheim grant recipient chronicled the lives of 250 13-year-olds, creating still portraits and video documentation of each. “I began with my daughter, her friends and other children I already knew. From there I reached out through my own social networks, schools, clubs and other organizations,” says Schneider. The resulting body of work creates a rich portrait of a group of Americans whose lives began at the turn of the millennium and who are coming of age now.
To Be Thirteen: Photographs and Videos by Betsy Schneider includes approximately 20 large photographic prints, a 60-minute film running continuously, and an archive where visitors can view pictures of each of the 13-year-olds, along with some of their statements. The portraits illustrate how differently the age of 13 can appear. Some subjects exude confidence while others practically shrink from the camera. Some 13-year-olds look mature enough to be mistaken for young college students, while others dwell in childlike bodies. Some of the 13-year-olds convey a self-possessed clarity and appear motivated about the future while others appear comfortably ensconced in the current moment. The subjects’ words heighten these disparities, and further suggest that the 250 portraits represent 250 distinctly unique people, a group about whom it would be hard to generalize or make assumptions.
“With this work, I am interested in provoking thought about simple dichotomies to which adolescence is so often reduced. I am motivated by the intensity, the complexity 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 and impacts the painful, vital and powerful experience of becoming an adult,” says Schneider of the project.
We learn that a number of 13-year-olds are struggling – to understand who they are, to deal with the parameters of their life, to grapple with big concerns of this historical moment – while others struggle just to talk about themselves and their inner lives. These myriad and intensely personal revelations parallel the artist’s own deeply personal motivation for the project. Schneider writes, “In creating this work I have drawn from my personal and intimate relations to the subject, both as a parent of a thirteen-year-old and from dredging my own distant memories of this age. The process of making these portraits and videos, and of being allowed into the lives of so many families, has been profound. I believe there is much to be learned by coming closer to what it means to be thirteen.”