My teenage years are vivid. After a childhood marred by sadness I relished in the independence of being able to rebel. I was shaped by those wild years, though the only physical evidence remaining are the scars on my arms, my teen years have made me an uncommonly calm adult.
I met Daisy when she was 15. I had been teaching in the small country town where she lives and one of my students had casually mentioned she knew of “a bunch of girls who got pregnant at 14”. The first day I met her she arrived in a leopard print dress, looking like a doll that had been dressed to look grown up. Her mother is a kind woman who suffers from debilitating illness and told me she could not control her daughter whom she nicknamed “Cyclone Daisy” Our friendship developed with the speed and intensity reserved for teenage girls. The instant reach of social media meant she could contact me constantly and, being that I was not an authority figure in her life, she was unfiltered and open with me. The next time I saw her she had a boyfriend, Cam, who looked much younger than Daisy when she was made up and posing for my camera. Cam would proudly tell me about his petty crimes, showing me photos of his graffiti and images of him with his friends drunk throwing gang signs. Daisy would listen on, devoted in her puppy love of him and wanting my approval. Their relationship lasted 12 or so months, becoming more and more volatile. Neither of them attended school and would spend their days in Daisy’s caravan smoking and fighting. I never met Cam’s parents but he told me they did not care about him living with his girlfriend. Daisy tells me rumours that he is now in trouble with the law, something I still find hard to reconcile with the baby-faced boy I knew.
Daisy struggled with her mental health, self-harming and engaging in dangerous behaviour. Her isolation was compounded by her mother’s sickness, she often said to me all she wanted was to be able to spend time with her Mum like other girls.
Daisy had few friends visit but she would speak often of her cousin Shania. Her mother did not want the two girls spending time together saying they were a terrible influence on each other. I would hear stories of Shania’s hard upbringing and how it had shaped her. When Daisy called me to say her mother had relented and Shania was staying with her and that I should come photograph her, I didn’t know what to expect. Shania greeted me with a nervous smile, her overly made up eyes large and soft. I could see little of the toughness I had heard of, she struck me as having none of the confidence of her slightly older cousin. She showed me photos of her little sister, Teeya, and asked if I could come photograph them in the city where she lived.
Shania was in constant contact from that day- sending me selfies for my approval, texting me her streams of consciousness and calling me. Her home life was chaotic, she lived with her father and had been estranged from her mother since birth. She told me she suffered from depression and coped by self-medicating. She had a stream of boyfriends, always asking me if I thought they were “cuter than Cam”. She continued to idolise Daisy from afar, saying how much she adored Daisy’s young son, and how beautiful Daisy is.
Crime and drugs became part of her life and I struggled to know of the best way to help her. She would say I was the closest thing she had to a mother, words that stung me as I knew I could not in fact intervene the way she needed a parent to. After a heated discussion about her life choices she blocked my number and I heard nothing from her for 5 months. I received a friend request from ‘John and Shania’. She had a new boyfriend who was slightly older and was living with him. I came to visit her, shocked by how much healthier she looked and overwhelmed by the difference in her living conditions. She pulled me aside to tell me a secret “I’m pregnant, it’s early don’t tell anyone”. Her daughter, Ellie Jean, is now one and Shania is determined to give her the childhood she did not have.
Shania’s little sister Teeya is the youngest of the girls but her confidence outweighs both her sibling’s and her cousin’s bravado. 12 when I met her she asked if I could photograph her even though she wasn’t quite a teenager. Through Shania’s silent months I would check in with her, she had stopped going to school and started to send me images of herself heavily made up wanting my approval. Her fights with her sister took on a greater intensity once Shania became pregnant, with both girls sending me furious messages as I tried to play peacekeeper. At 15, Teeya messaged me excited to say she had a boyfriend she was serious about. I photographed the two of them, he is a polite boy, shy around adults. She moved out of home to be with him and left school. I messaged her earlier this month and she responded saying she couldn’t see me as she has been vomiting with hyperemesis gravidarum in the early stages of pregnancy.
Statistically teenagers in Australia are healthier and more privileged than ever before however for girls like Daisy, Shania and Teeya, intergenerational poverty, mental illness and lack of education paints a different picture. In continuing to photograph them I watch the cycle begin to re-establish. Daisy is 20 now but has no employment prospects and has not been able to continue her education. She spends most of her days in her caravan on social media but has dreams of being a nail technician. Shania will be moving away with her daughter and boyfriend at the end of the month. Teeya is determined to attend school once her baby is born. Though she is no longer with her boyfriend she is hopeful they will be able to co parent.
The images are record of our time together, the girls perform for me in front of the camera, never relaxing in its presence. In that way they are allowed agency over their representation- they are smart girls and know how tough their lives are. My role as a photographer is secondary to our relationship, I am constantly shocked how open they are with me and how, despite their bravado, they need an adult ally in their lives. I hope to continue the series as the girls become women and remain every hopeful for their futures.
7 Years with Photographer Alex Wheeler 23-12-2019
I Love You, I’m Leaving 05-03-2018
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