On Girl Culture
When I was six, shortly after my parents’ separation, I remember looking hard at my reflection in the mirror, realizing that I was unimaginably ugly, and crying hysterically. — Lauren Greenfield
Today, The Guardian gives us Lauren Greenfield’s Best Shot, a photo taken on assignment for the New York Times Magazine in 1998, an assignment that led, she says, to her book, Girl Culture. Girl Culture explores the way in which the body has become a primary form of expression for girls and women, and the often devastating consequences of that reality.
When Girl Culture appeared, in 2003, it blew me away. Here was strong photography with unquestionable relevance, on a subject that other photographers had ignored. Instead of rushing off to Iraq or Afghanistan to cover the ongoing “War on Terror,” or dashing off to yet another of the little wars that continually occur in one place or another, or following some major story of social upheaval or environmental catastrophe in a foreign land, Greenfield had simply turned the camera on us. Girl Culture asked nothing more of us than to see our daughters with fresh eyes.
In Girl Culture I saw, in Greenfield’s words, “the pathological in the everyday.” But at the same time, it demanded that I question my own reactions: who was I, as a man, to pass judgment on any of this?
There’s an ambiguity in this work: the pictures say, “this is what it is,” without, it seems, forcing an interpretation. No simplistic solutions are offered. Greenfield does, of course, have a point of view, but it isn’t overpowering or manipulative. You accept that the pictures are “objective” and question your reactions, rather than seeing the pictures as manipulative and questioning their ideology. And this comes from Greenfield’s approach:
The point of view gets developed in the conception of the book, in the conception of the project, but not at all when I’m taking pictures. When I’m taking pictures I’m just there, and I’m not looking for a particular thing, I’m really just interested in the people I’m photographing. If you’re too pre-determined the pictures are too forced and people can detect that manipulation, so I go into the situation with a very open mind.
This, I feel, is a very important point: the best work never comes from someone who enters a story knowing what the story is. It emerges instead from a sense of discovery, a sense that working the subject is a means of learning it.
And this story is too important to be left to ideologues. It’s relevance grows as the image industry succeeds in getting boys to buy into the same obsession with body image, and as we export the wonders of cosmetic surgery. And this is not to suggest that our daughters weren’t already relevant enough. This is not a feminist concern, but a human one.