A Portrait of Britain: I wanted to give a face to the girl I was and the girls who are

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Carolyn Mendelsohn is a portrait photographer and filmmaker based in the UK. Her most recognisable body of work, Being Inbetween, is a continually evolving series of portraits of girls aged between ten and twelve. The work arises from Mendelsohn’s own memories of this age, and the desire to give a voice to this undefinable age-group. Using short interviews and powerful portraits, Mendelsohn reveals each of the girls’ identities, telling us stories about the young women of tomorrow.

Mendelsohn describes the series as partly collaborative; she lets her subjects choose how they are represented, from picking their outfits to how they should stand. Her selected photograph for Portrait of Britain 2017 depicts 10-year-old Alice, who stares indomitably into the camera, evoking a classical painting. The image is an account of female strength and its many forms.

Aaisha Being Inbetween 01 May 01, 2016 © Carolyn Mendelsohn 2017

How did you create your selected portrait, and what was the story behind it?

The portrait of Alice is from my long-term project Being Inbetween. Before the sitting, Alice had filled out and returned a simple form with questions about her age, school, hobbies and ambitions. I invited her to come to the sitting in clothes of her choice, and to think about how she would like to be seen. It was important that everything was her choice, without intervention from parents or guardians. I want my subjects to feel an equal part of the portrait process, from their clothing choices to how they will stand. In person, Alice is unassuming and very self-composed. She was amazing to shoot, and I loved that what came out in her portrait was serenity underpinned by her power.

The portrait was part of your ongoing series, Being Inbetween. What were your aims for that series?

I have been working on Being Inbetween for over three years. Girls of this age are often marketed to as ‘tweens’ and seen as a group. They become invisible as individuals. They are bombarded with advertising and marketing, and it is vital that this marketing doesn’t come to define who they are, or who they are to become. They are at a vulnerable stage and are often hidden within the cocoon of familial protection until they emerge as young women.

The series is a way of giving a voice and face to the girl I was and the girls who are; a way to explore the hidden complexity, duality and contradictions that mark this phase of life. I want to continue to exhibit the series, and I hope it will culminate in the publication of a book. My intention was, and still is, to create a portrait that is devoid of distractions, so the emphasis is on the subject.

Heavens Being Inbetween 01 July 24, 2016 © Carolyn Mendelsohn 2017

How has the project developed since your photograph was selected for Portrait of Britain?

Having the photograph selected for Portrait of Britain was such an wonderful experience and privilege. Seeing ‘Alice’ and the other portraits displayed across the country was a joy. I got such pleasure from people sharing their mobile shots of where they saw her. People contacted me because they had seen it, and had then researched where the portrait came from. I loved the way the work was exhibited – the reach was huge. The exposure created lots of new opportunities. It has given me more confidence to show the work to curators and specialists, and has resulted in some new opportunities.

Being Inbetween is currently on show as a solo exhibition at the Crossley Gallery in Halifax. The exhibition runs until 20 May. In 2019, the series is being exhibited at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal. Another exciting spin off is that I have been contacted by an artist’s representative who is exploring the possibility of exhibiting the work in Singapore. I am still continuing to hold portrait sittings, and am focusing on girls whose faces and voices are underrepresented in the series so far.

What do you think makes a compelling portrait?

For me, a compelling portrait often elicits an emotional reaction from the viewer. It draws you in, and has an honesty to it that makes you want to know more about the subject, their life and their story. It is much much more than a pretty picture, but rather one that elicits questions rather than provides all the answers. As a portrait photographer, if I can create a connection with my subject, then that connection will enable me to take a more compelling portrait.

Maria Being Inbetween 01 August 14, 2016 © Carolyn Mendelsohn 2017

Do you have any advice for future entrants about selecting a portrait to submit and, more generally, about getting into portrait photography to begin with?

If you are interested in people and curious about the worlds they live in, portrait photography is the perfect vehicle for exploring the world. When I first started taking portraits I became obsessed with it. I am so curious about how people are, and why they do and feel certain things, and there is real beauty in the stillness of portraiture. Set yourself projects, and then get your camera out and take pictures. You will learn through the doing. Most importantly, connect with your subject, talk to them, listen to them, ask them questions, find out more about them. They are the focus, and you and your camera become the vehicle through which to tell their story.

I think entering competitions like Portrait of Britain gives you the opportunity to really examine and consider your own work. It gives you the chance to edit and select from your portfolio, which is a skill in itself. It’s impossible to second guess what the selectors may choose, so don’t try to please them, rather select a portrait that you love and that perhaps says something about the country we live in. When I enter something, I do it for the exercise of entering, not for the winning. Remember that it’s an opportunity to show your work to a panel of experts, and even if the work isn’t selected, maybe they will remember it.

Future generations will look to Portrait of Britain 2019 to see the face of the nation in a historic moment. What will it look like? Enter your work today!  

Sadie Being Inbetween 01 November 05, 2017 © Carolyn Mendelsohn 2017
Caitlin Being Inbetween 01 February 15, 2016 © Carolyn Mendelsohn 2017