PDN Photo of the Day

The Secret Life of Icelandic Teenagers

“I’ve always found the general idea of being a teenager something extremely beautiful, sad and complex,” says Camila Svenson in an email interview with PDN. The rituals and transitions of teenage life are at the heart of “you will never walk alone,” her series that uncovers the universal loneliness and thrill of being a young person in a small town. The images depict life in Húsavík, a town of about 2,200 on the north shore Iceland, where Svenson lived during an artist residency at Fjúk Art Centre. There are no majestic fjords or lava flows in the images she made during her two month stay. Instead, the photographs are mostly portraits of teenage residents, alone or in pairs and groups, lit by natural light at school or in their bedrooms, or pictured outdoors, in swimming pools or parked cars or at parties set in a subtle, empty landscape.

When Svenson arrived in Húsavík, the process of getting to know the local teenagers was not unlike being the new kid in town. “My first connection was with this girl called Ruth—her brother Eggert was always hanging out around the studios,” says Svenson. “She is 16 – and when we first met I’ve never felt so nervous in my life. I really forgot I was there to photograph, and I felt as if I was a teenager myself, who just moved into a new school. I had to make people like me, because I wanted to fit in the group.” In a statement about the project, Svenson describes a pizza party with Ruth and her friends. “My hands were sweating and my heart pounding…I forgot they were 16 and I was 26.” Despite her nervousness, she managed to win over the kids. “After that, I just started to meet more kids, and ask them about friends, and friends of friends—and so it goes. I think they were all pretty impressed by the fact that someone found them fascinating. Everyone was so open to being photographed.”

Svenson says the kids in Húsavík reminded her of growing up in Brazil. Before she arrived, she imagined them “as exotic figures.” But talking to them, she realized “we care about the same things.” Photographing them brought “a sense of nostalgia and memory so strong that it is as if I was photographing my own past, with my own friends…It is all about the girl who broke your heart, or being accepted in a group, to go to a party and drink from a tequila bottle and to feel like an outsider all the time—those little things are universal.” To emphasize the similarities, Svenson often shot indoors, “rather than showing Húsavik all the time. I think for me what was more important was their connections—how they work as a group of friends, or are isolated in their houses.”

In a statement about the project, Svenson describes going to a dance, where she felt both connected to her subjects and separate from them—a classic photographer’s dilemma. “I get invited to the country ball. I feel so excited. I put on a black dress and arrive at the place by 10pm. There is a huge line outside, it reminds me of the 15-year-old parties we used to go. Everyone is drinking from plastic bottles. I know how to sing all the songs. The small wood saloon gets filled up with kids dancing. They look so happy. They hug each other in huge groups while jumping and singing to Bon Jovi. I feel happy too, and I understand for the first time that I don’t belong there. That a photographer will never belong, and will always remain invisible. Nobody notices me, and I love that. I take photos of them dancing, kissing and drinking. I accept that I will always be an outsider, a stranger—for the first time that feels ok. By the end of the party, two boys start a fight outside. It’s almost morning, and they try to punch each other between all the fog. I take a photo of it.” —Rebecca Robertson

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