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Fumi Nagasaka, Teenage Riot
Teenage RiotPhotography Fumi Nagasaka

10 photographers explore what it’s like to be a teenager

Love, lust, angst, rioting, and an end of innocence: we revisit photo projects documenting the trials of adolescence

The teenage years are a perilous period when feelings are unbearably amplified, hormones fluctuate wildly, horizons open and doors close as adolescence gives way to adulthood. For some, it’s a golden time. For others, it’s a painful passage they spend their adult lives trying to recover from. 

Below, we look back at ten photo projects documenting teenage life. From all-girl skateboard crews in Johannesburg to the club kids of Tokyo and friends growing up in the rural plains of Buenos Aires; from body image to heartbreak, hedonism, friendship and those early tentative experiments with style, each series chronicles resonant stories about growing up.

While it’s by no means an exhaustive examination, whether you’re nostalgic about teenage life or whether you’re working through it in therapy, there’s something here for you.

Fumi Nagasaki’s Teenage Riot follows the lives of four teenage girls – Maxine, a student living in a small town in southern Ontario; sisters Isabella and Alana from Bushwick; and Fubuki, a young student from Tokyo. A three-part compendium of youth, Teenage Riot presents “not only the ephemeral beauty of the moment, but the ever-changing conditions that culture, environment, and fashion have in forming one’s social identity”. 

Born in Japan and based in New York, Nagasaka has become renowned for her portraits which sensitively distil the precious vitality and precarity of youth. Why do teenage girls fascinate the photographer? “They are in the middle of growing up from ‘girls’ to ‘women’ and have curiosity in themselves and everyday life,” she told Dazed back in 2018. “Those four girls are very different but they each represent teenagers in different ways which is why it’s very interesting to put them together in one book.”

Despite the title, Nagasaka’s portraits are typically serene and introspective. “The ‘riot’ in the title doesn’t mean big riot, it’s more about the small riots in each girl's life,” she explained. “It’s not really visible, it’s more something that they have inside of them. Each of the girls are so different, so their ‘riots’ are very different.”

“Johannesburg’s youth are fearless in their pursuit of claiming space and identity,” South African-born photographer Karabo Mooki told Dazed back in 2022. “The energy and inspiration that is distributed through the tiers of youth culture are constantly shifting and redefining what it means to be South African.”

Particularly, Mooki began to notice ways in which skateboarding was increasingly acting as a conduit for social change and a means of resisting gender-based violence: “The right to occupy public space is not equally shared amongst genders. Women are often met with harassment, micro-aggressions, and many other unnecessary threats in public spaces.” Island Gals is a community and a movement embracing and amplifying the visibility of Africa’s female skateboarding scene. Founded by Thato Moet, the group was helping teenage girls to create new narratives around public space by occupying areas of the city in which many young women have previously felt uncomfortable.

Mooki’s series Island Girls collects together images of the individuals and groups of Johannesburg women skateboarders, portraying the style, unity, joy, and defiant spirit of this growing subculture. “I have a deep respect for the movement, inspiring young Black women to feel confident enough to take up space in skateboarding. Everyone has a story; those who are drawn to skateboarding tend to have a depth worth exploring.”

Urahara to Harajuku, each district of Tokyo is a hive of subcultures with an eclectic youth culture landscape. Via the Instagram account @ifucktokyo, street-style photographer Kido Mafon chronicles the city’s frenetic nightlife and trends with her Contax G1. From the club kids with layered, multicoloured hair to new wave tech-blokecore j-rappers and die-hard Tokyo Vitamin fans, Mafon takes to the city after dark to document the city’s hedonistic club kids. “I was always filming the people around me because we would go out every single night,” she told Dazed last year, reflecting on her prolific portraits of Tokyo’s emerging creative community.

“I’m touched by a specific time of youth, which I call the ‘last summer’, and which would be – if it exists – a last possible time of contemplation and indecision before the injunction of choice and affirmation are imposed on us,” photographer Elise Toïdé told Dazed, reflecting on her ongoing series Gabrielle – a coming-of-age tale capturing moments in the real life of a Parisian teenager as she moves inexorably towards adulthood. 

After having initially met in 2019 when Toïdé was working on her book Les Vagues and needed a teenage model, the pair “connected right away” and embarked on a series of shoots documenting the subtle shifts and changes in Gabrielle. Somewhere between posed portraits and documentary photography, Toïdé‘s photographs tenderly chronicle Gabrielle’s teen experiments with style, posture and attitude as she works out who she is. 

The pictures depict a potent, important period – a time of accelerated change and clear horizons – where adolescence gives way to adulthood. Toïdé agreed: “I think Gabrielle is really evocative of this.”

Kiss It! (published by Gost) is a long-term collaboration between photographer Abbie Trayler-Smith and Shannon, a young woman living with obesity. Created over 12 years, the photo book follows Shannon through the trials of adolescence as she moves into adulthood, chronicling important milestones alongside quieter but significant moments of everyday life. From shopping for a prom dress and first love to friendships and girls’ holidays, Trayler-Smith observes Shannon with the frankness of a documentary photographer and the empathy and admiration of a trusted friend. 

“I wanted to make a piece of work that challenges how we look at people living with obesity or, as I like to say, fat people,” Traylor-Smith told Dazed in an interview last year. ” I was really fat growing up and I’m sick of the way it’s portrayed. My aim was to make a piece of work that enabled people who weren’t obese or fat to understand what it might actually be like, to grow up and have that as an issue in your life. Fat people are thought of as less than, and I wanted to challenge that… Then I found this amazing young woman, Shannon. I think my spirit was drawn to her courage. And together, that’s what kind of made the alchemy to produce the work.”

As a renowned and prolific chronicler of subcultures, photographer Ewen Spencer has always been “interested in the idea of style and music and youth”. Back at the turn of the century, Spencer set out to document what was going on in British youth culture. His forays into the dry ice, cigarette smoke, sweat, strobes and sticky floors of the country’s grimiest nightclubs eventually resulted in his book Young Love –  a series capturing exactly what it was to be young, dumb and loved-up in the new millennium. 

Spencer’s images remain somewhat timeless, despite their being set in a pre-digital world. And, despite the specificity of their tiny details which locates them in the UK, they are highly relatable to a much wider audience.  ”Being young is global, it’s happened all over the world,” Spencer told Dazed back in 2017. “These moments are being re-enacted everywhere”

Perhaps their relatability is also connected to the way Spencer immerses himself in the culture he’s photographing, which creates a deeper resonance. “I didn’t just skulk around and just make pictures,” he told us. “I talked to people. It was like you were just a part of that night, or that coming together of people. I chatted to people all night, and they often wanted to make pictures with me.”

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, to Chinese parents, photographer and art director Gabriel Chiu struggled to find any true-to-life representation of Asian Americans. “Mainstream media always depict us as conservative and scholarly, and there’s a lack of portrayals that break free from such stereotypes,” Chiu said when he spoke to Dazed in 2022. Therefore, the guiding principle of his photography project, Asian Kids, was “to fill in that gap and shed new light on today’s American culture, by showcasing the typically unseen face of Asian teenagers.”

Photographer and filmmaker Larry Clark – especially his seminal film, Kids – was a huge inspiration. “[Kids was] such an iconic film based in New York City, a film whose characters I could always resonate with despite my background, while people who looked like me in other films had nothing to do with the person I am.” Chiu explained. 

From scenes hanging around on rooftops and skateparks, drinking, smoking, and lounging, to more intimate portraits in cars and bedrooms, Chiu’s depiction of Asian-American youth culture counters the studious stereotype that features so frequently on the screen. “Each one of the subjects portrayed in Asian Kids, with their personal story and background, is a protagonist in their own way,” he said. “I want all young Asian Americans to look at this series and find the courage to break free from any stereotypes they don’t feel represented by. To be comfortable and confident in themselves. More than anything, to just be themselves.”

Like all the best true crime stories, The Last Survivor is the First Suspect begins at the end by presenting us with a dramatic denouement and inviting us to unravel the mystery of what led to it. “From the opening page, it’s a full giveaway,” photographer Nick Haymes told Dazed in 2022. “There’s text from an online chatroom explaining the relationship of our two protagonists within the book. Two sad and untimely deaths occur... but also it’s an end to youth and freedom and that hangs a heavier curtain.”

Drawing on his own lived experience, Haymes explores friendship, the passage of time, and the loss of innocence in a poignant, compelling true story which hangs on the architecture of a crime plot, revealed through his personal archival imagery alongside digital screenshots and media sent to him by the kids involved. The Last Survivor is the First Suspect (published by Kodoji Press) stitches together this range of source material, tracing the thread of his teen friendship group and everything leading up to the untimely deaths of two members of his inner circle. 

The Adventures of Guille and Belinda and the Illusion of an Everlasting Summer traces the friendship between two cousins growing up in rural Buenos Aires, moving through the remnants of childhood into adolescence and, eventually, having children of their own. Back in 1999, photographer Alessandra Sanguinetti first encountered the pair whilst driving down a first track when they appeared as “no more than two small points on the horizon”. 

As she approached, she had no idea these two strangers would occupy her work and her life for the ensuing two decades. Part documentary, part fantasy, Sanguinetti mythologises the two girls, enacting dramatic scenes and playing on the history of the land and the figure of The Gaucho in the American West.

“Sometimes there’s a seriousness when we talk about collaborations, they always had agency,” Sanguinetti told Dazed in a recent interview. “They loved the attention and the chance to be able to play and pretend. It was a game.”

Be it a club, a friend’s living room, a smoking area or a snowstorm, Noah Noyan Wenzinger’s lens is trained on his immediate experience. Born from a collection of over 50,000 pictures, his photobook Noyan 2015-2022 pulls together a selection of images from the prolific, Zürich-based photographer’s vast archive. The monograph (published by Edition Patrick Frey) chronicles the world through Wenzinger’s eyes and presents a nuanced portrait of youth culture in his hometown.

Set against a backdrop of streets, trains, and the general detritus of everyday life, the images are often unexceptional in isolation, yet the photographs in Noyan 2015-2022 accumulate meaning with each turn of the page as tales materialise and recede. The photographer told Dazed, “A lot of different stories emerge from the book, there is not one single narrative. It’s a collection of stories which, together, are a collage of the time,” he explained, adding, “I mean, it’s also a coming-of-age type situation.” In a sense, it’s a tapestry of scenes; fragments of memory. While the main overarching theme may be navigating the transition between adolescence and adulthood, the images, when placed side by side, suggest myriad subplots and intrigues

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