Twelve

juliana sohn

2016 - Ongoing

Twelve is a portrait series documenting twelve-year-old girls coming of age in NYC. The process is collaborative and input from my subjects is instrumental. I started this project during the summer of 2016, at the height of the presidential campaign that featured the first female candidate in modern times. Donald Trump’s surprise defeat of Hillary Clinton has resulted in a turbulent presidency and a destabilization of our democracy. All Americans are impacted. The uncertainty we all feel about the future is the environment in which these girls are trying to understand who they are and their place in society. The girls speak about enduring middle school stresses, friendships, and social challenges but comments on the current events inevitably come up as these matters can‘t help but impact their lives. These girls are surrounded by news stories about the refugee crisis, walkouts on school gun violence, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony before the Senate, families being separated at the border, and #metoo. This series documents twelve-year-old coming of age at this very unique time in our history.

I am a mother to two children, one twelve and the other fourteen, and it is alarming to me how at this age much of a child’s worth is measured in achievements. By twelve adults have stopped giving out those meaningless participation trophies. It is the age when taking part in almost every activity is quantified with a ranking or a win/loss: all sports, debate, robotics, poker, chess, writing, ballet, playing a musical instrument. There is a contest, tournament or award for everything and children dutifully compete to burnish their applications for ongoing high schools or colleges. Nike puzzles over why girls drop out from sports in dramatic numbers at twelve but every parent knows the answer: Starting in middle school there is little opportunity for kids to participate in most activities, let alone sports, just for the fun of it. Chloe Kim is a phenomenal role model and teen athlete but she is a prodigy, an outlier. It’s intimidating for girls to learn that in order to be seen, heard, or beloved it helps to be a once in a lifetime winner. If you listen to my girls' stories it’s evident they face tremendous personal challenges every day. I wanted to profile these “ordinary” girls and show them that they are deserving of attention and that their lives and opinions matter, now. They don’t need to win anything; they don’t need to prove they are the best in order to participate in my project. The only requirement is a willingness to open up and share. My aim is to create beautiful, documentary portraits of these twelve-year-old girls, to show them that they are worthy as they are.

My decision to shoot this project on a large format, 4x5, film camera was deliberate. Twelve-year-olds today are highly adept at taking quick snaps and selfies on their phones and they are equally skilled at being in front of the camera. The slow and considered process of the 4x5 serves as a contrast to the throwaway images today’s tweens are familiar with and highlights the intentional image making process. I bring only 20 sheets of film to each shoot, limiting the opportunities we have to make images, making each frame precious.

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  • Lola:
    I am wearing this suit because you know, Hillary Clinton. I was so convinced that she’d win. All of her points just seemed to make sense, like fighting climate change, not building a wall. It seemed it’d be really nice to have a female perspective in the White House because sometimes it’s hard to feel heard by a bunch of random guys. I liked her stances on climate change and equality but it was also... I just couldn’t imagine living in a world where Trump was the president. But now I’m living it. I feel like a lot of people will definitely be more cautious and aware for the next presidential election but I really couldn’t say when we’ll next elect a female president. There’s a lot of amazing, inspirational women but I’m not sure any of them are really into politics. Honestly, right now what the US needs isn’t the best president ever. We need someone who has good motives. They don’t need to be flawless. They don’t have to be a famous person. They just need to be someone with good intentions who works hard and tries as well as they can.

  • Alexa:
    When I was twelve is when my eyes first opened up that I maybe needed different people to hang out with. That some people were trying to grow up too fast. That some people were pretty immature. They were considered the cooler group of people. My mom wasn’t telling me that I couldn’t be friends with them, but then after a while, you start noticing stuff on your own.

  • Blue:
    I would say being 12 is an awkward, fun, exciting, horrible, nerve racking, interesting, and figuring out who you are kind of age. For me, all I wanted was to turn 13 because I would officially be a teenager. Honestly, I'm not sure why I wanted to be a 13 year old. I guess it was that I wasn't happy with the age 12 or the number 12. It's sort of in the middle of child-childhood and then a jump to a teenager because 11 would be the child-childhood, 12 would be the awkward middle then 13 would be full teenager. All I wanted was to be 13 and get the year over with.

  • Elizabeth:
    I’m trying to look at all sides of the political spectrum. I’ve only been exposed to Democratic views. My parents are both Democrats. I personally consider myself a Democrat and New York City is so liberal but I started trying to understand all points of view. Every news team has really taken a side, either left wing or right wing. There’s no denying it. And with so much fake news problems, while they are not direct lies, everything has been interpreted their own way. So I don’t know. I’m just trying to get a grip on everything before I start chanting with signs and protesting.

  • Saoirse:
    A lot about twelve year olds is that they don’t exactly know how to interact with each other. “Well, are you my friend? Am I not your friend? Or do I try to just piss you off as much as humanly possible?” I think that’s everyone’s tactic to a certain extent.

  • Isadora:
    When I went to the March on Washington I felt like I was a part of current events. Maybe in 100 years kids in school will be studying the Women’s March, like I had studied Women’s’ Suffrage. I felt like I was doing something powerful and standing for what I believe in. I think it’s important to voice my opinion and be a part of her-story. When I was deciding on what sign to make I didn’t want to make anything that would make anyone feel bad. This sign really fit what I was going through. I wanted to get my point across and affect my world and to do it in a kinder way, not targeting one type of person because that is what we need to move away from.

  • Sylvia:
    My entire life my hair has been what I am, you know what I mean? A lot of people know me because of my hair, “Oh, I like your hair. You have really pretty hair.” And nothing else. Obviously I was more than that but making a drastic change to my appearance was very important to me.

  • Charlotte:
    The beginning of this year I joined model UN. I thought I was just joining some extracurricular class that would maybe get me into a better high school. It’s totally changed my life in a different way and I feel like I’ve learned so much and I live in such a small bubble and that most of us do. We had a Syrian refugee, he came to speak about his life and his life story and after that it just kinda hit me that even though I feel I’ve been learning so much that I’m learning nothing and I’m doing nothing. And it was kinda… it was that moment that I went home and literally started crying because I thought, “I’m not doing anything, I’m not helping anybody and there’s nothing I can do and the world is full of problems and what am I supposed to do being in school and what’s the point?” And I don’t know, even now. This man, Kativa, he was a Syria refugee and he REALLY fought for what he believed in. He was tortured and he would still go and express his feeling of the oppression he lived in. I think about what we do in class; we make posters and we hang them around the school. But that’s not anything on the level that he’s done so he’s definitely made an impact. One person can’t change all of that, even though they say one person can change a lot. I mean, it’s a lot and hard. That’s why it seems impossible for one person. A twelve year old girl in her school can’t do anything about something that grown men and women are trying to do and can’t succeed at. So I definitely sometimes do feel really helpless.

  • Oona:
    I actually really liked 6th grade. I was doing well academically and I had friends who liked me, well they liked a version of me that I had kind of fabricated for the express purpose of having friends. And that was hard because to be figuring out who you are and then having to sort of keep up this character is difficult. Oona 2.0, she’s like Oona but more normal. Just like doesn’t say as much of what she thinks and is able to just kinda of passively have conversations without getting too passionate and I guess I was lucky I was able to have a different persona and get by. Generally, I wasn’t super popular but I was well liked, kinda of, by everyone and that was a cool feeling and one that I got used to after a certain point and didn’t want to change even if that meant not saying what I felt or not being around people that I liked. No one was bullying or mean there, but there was this constant fear of being ostracized. I was comfortable as the other Oona and I didn’t really want to mess it up until I realized when I came home I was another person and it was really hard to be myself, and not me. I think if I stayed at Twain I’d have ended up on the honors track and then the specialized track. I mean I test well and I do well in school but I don’t perform well under pressure generally or if I do it’d be at the cost of my mental health. Like I’d come home and I’d be crying from the stress of school, then I’d be crying from the stress of always having the front of Oona 2.0 and it was so much all the time. So now I know I don’t want a super pressurized high school and I don’t want a competitive one. People have always told me that I’m just really out there, which is good. I think it’ll be good in the long run. I’m a lot to handle. Maybe. Original Oona, she is strange and she is just kinda goes on tangents a lot and the people she’s around don’t mind that most of the time, which is great. And she has thoughts out of nowhere that she’s able to vocalize and she doesn’t have to live so much inside of her head anymore.

  • Medha:
    I talk with my friend a lot about my relationship with my brother. He's 16. We don't talk anymore. He just stopped talking. I grew up in Katmandu. We were raised by my grandparents so I was together with him there and then when I moved here I was together with him too so it's like we've been together all of our lives. He cared about me a lot and I remember when he cried I used to cry because I didn't like him crying. He doesn't talk that much with my parents either now. It started in eighth grade. It's already tenth grade now and it's been a long time that my parents have had a good talk with him. But I think he's still more closer to me than our parents. I think it has to do with him, his age and he's started to grow older, I guess. I actually think I'm becoming closer to that stage as I have more problems and I am too embarrassed to say them to my mom. I say them to my friend but I'm too embarrassed to talk about it with my mom or dad.

  • Chloe:
    You go on instagram and you see all of these girls who are my age who have their stomach out and long nails and all that, you feel like “Oh, I want to do that!” But then your parents say no and you feel like you’re not like everyone else. But then you realize that’s a good thing because you want to be original.

  • Gloria:
    What's important to me right now is being able to empathize with other people and understanding what they may be feeling or what affects them. I feel like a lot of people, especially when they are going through a hard age and time, like now, they want to be able to open up to someone, for someone to understand what's happening, and for them to be able to open up and trust them. That's really valuable, to have someone you really trust, to have someone you really feel you can trust your real personality with, you know? And that's who I want to be to my friends.

  • Hope:
    I just really like the way I look. I feel that picture is almost breaking stereotypes and I just really like that it’s showing a strong girl. It’s a really strong pose and as a girl, we don’t usually get labeled as strong sometimes. Well, when I think, “girl" I think strong and powerful but sometimes other people think, “Not really strong, can’t play sports, can’t do a lot of things.” But it’s not really true.

  • Megan:
    So at my old school I remember in 6th grade my grades were really bad, they weren’t terrible but they were on the lower side of average. And I didn’t care. Sometimes I thought that mean jokes were funny and my old friends, when they did things to get attention or did little things to people who were supposed to be their friends, I just went along with it because I didn’t know what else to say. If I kept doing that I don’t know what would have happened. I’m really glad that I didn’t stay.

  • Simone:
    When I think of myself at twelve years old I think of this little weakling and it kind of annoys me. Like there were a lot of missed opportunities when I was twelve. I was so small and a late bloomer and insecure. I’m still evolving, I’m still young. But now I definitely have a sense of who I am, like I’m not going to let people push me around anymore or let myself down because I think I definitely created my own misery. So now I am stronger and I know who I am and I’m going to try to not let that happen again.


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