Carolyn Mendelsohn photographs young women as they navigate their pre-teenage years

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Being Inbetween depicts girls aged 10 to 12 on the cusp of fear and hope

Pre-adolescence is a tricky time; especially now, and especially for girls. Carolyn Mendelsohn, the UK-based photographer and filmmaker, remembers the period acutely: “How uncomfortable I felt in my skin, how I suddenly felt incredibly self-conscious, and had these huge thoughts in my head that I couldn’t express… existential thoughts about the world and about life.” The memory of her “tween” years – a time marked by fragility, heightened self-awareness, and a mounting tension between “being yourself” and “fitting in” – inspired her latest project, Being Inbetween. From 2014 to 2020, Mendelsohn met with and photographed 90 girls between the ages of 10 and 12, capturing a “representative community of the girls of our time.”

Becca aged 11. “When I am an adult I want to be a racing car driver, a scientist and a singer. Also I want to get a job where I can look after and raise big cats, like lions and tigers. My dream is I want to walk like my sister so I can run with her and go where she can go. if I could walk, that is what I want, to go where my sister goes, so I can go in the hard bits and follow her. My wish is to walk.” © Carolyn Mendelsohn, courtesy Impressions Gallery.

Being Inbetween is an Impressions Gallery touring exhibition, on view until 24 April 2021. Curated by Anne McNeil, the exhibition – available virtually – is the most extensive exhibit of the project to date, featuring the portrait of Alice, which won BJP’s Portrait of Britain in 2017. Additionally, all 90 portraits are collected in a book by Bluecoat Press, launched at the exhibition’s opening. 

Mendelsohn sought to empower the girls throughout the process, treating them as collaborators instead of subjects. “I wanted to give girls an opportunity to be who they are, and to be celebrated as they are.” Each sitter chose her own clothes and spoke freely about her hopes, ambitions, and fears. “I want to understand what they’re frightened of; what they love. It was an exploration,” the photographer explained. By centring the girls’ agency and individuality at every step, Mendelsohn hoped to disrupt the constant pressure to conform, change, and appease that many girls encounter at this age: “The fear that you had to be like everyone else, and that you couldn’t be individual.” 

Stephanie aged 11. “I love to dance and I love acting because you get to express how you feel; I feel free. I am not afraid to say what I have to say , I am not a shy person. My dream is to have a big house, a loving family and loads of pets – mostly dogs. I wish that there was no evil in the world and we were all nice to everyone, and everyone had a voice in the world, and no-one would be put down or anything." © Carolyn Mendelsohn, courtesy Impressions Gallery.
Betsy aged 11. "I love spending time with my family because they are really funny. My advice to girls my age going to secondary school is to be yourself, and don't let other people take over your life, because it can make your life miserable. Stick up for yourself and stick up for people who others are being mean to."

Set against grey, hand-painted backdrops, the girls are radiant, outsized, and important. They look directly at the camera, subjecting the viewer to their gaze: a role reversal of who gets to look at who. As Mendelsohn explains, “I really wanted to take portraits of girls that could be in art galleries, that could be like paintings.” 

Alongside the larger-than-life portraits are excerpts from the girls’ interviews with Mendelsohn. Spanning six years, the interviews reflect the ever-changing priorities and anxieties of a world in flux: from concerns about terror and poverty in 2015 to the climate crisis in 2019 and coronavirus in 2020. Their words are direct, clear, and unpretentious.

Mendelsohn documents these girls at a unique moment of change: a moment when hope and possibility chafe against the harsh realities of an unjust, complicated world. Stephanie, 11, is dressed in every colour of the rainbow, describes her dream for the future: “I wish that there was no evil in the world and we were all nice to everyone, and everyone had a voice in the world, and no one would be put down or anything.” In some ways, the girls, eyes locked with their viewers, ask us to answer their call for a better future.

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Being Inbetween is on show at Impressions Gallery, Bradford, until 24 April 2021. The exhibit is available virtually through the Impressions Gallery website.

The photobook is also available for purchase through the Impressions Gallery bookshop or Bluecoat Press.

Nurit Chinn

Nurit Chinn is a playwright and freelance journalist. A recent graduate of Yale University with a degree in English Literature, Nurit has published work in Wallpaper* Magazine, Off Assignment, and the Yale Daily News.