Sexting has become an inevitable part of the coming-of-age story: teenagers are curious about their bodies, seeking that rush when they’re exploring their sexuality for the first time, and technology is a tool that makes it happen.
I See You is a film by Orian Barki that’s unpacking the significance of sexting among teenagers today. “One thing that was really important to me is not to make a judgmental film that says sexting is bad,” Barki explains. “Because I don't think sexting is bad, I think sexting is exciting, romantic, playful and creative. That being said, if your photo ends up on the wrong phone it's pretty bad. Maintaining this balance was a challenge, making a film that will show a wider picture.
“I was surprised about the young girls and boys' feminist take on sexting. Barbie (Ferreira) made a point about how sexting is a creative way for girls to capture their bodies, after years of being captured in paintings photos or video by men.”
Barki got talking to young people at New York skate parks, where she met the likes of Shabazz, aged 17, who features in the film with dozens of others. There’s also Jaileen, aged 15, who shares her experience of having a private photo of herself leaked online after she sent it to a guy. Barki films everyone in groups, and they throw ideas and personal experiences back and forth to each other onscreen.
“It was pretty easy communicating my own experiences, as I was talking directly to my school friends,” says Jaileen. “But it was somewhat shocking to see how others would accept and interpret it. Some would be more discrete, some would be totally opposite and extremely open to it, not thinking of consequences.”
“Jaileen wanted to be in the film – I think it was a way for her to reclaim and own her story, to expose what's been exposed in her way,” says Barki.
Social media opens up a whole new world of self-realisation, but it’s also a stepping stone into a much more sinister world. ‘Purge pages’ played a part in Jaileen’s exposure: these pages, named after the film The Purge, run on teenagers maliciously sending nude photos they’ve obtained from others to see them anonymously posted online again and again. Though they’re reported and removed, more will always pop up to exact some kind of twisted idea of revenge on young women and men. Jaileen’s photos ended up on a ‘purge page’ outside of New Jersey. Barki explains that they pop up a lot more during school holidays.
Jaileen’s young brother Angel, who initially told their mother about the gossip surrounding Jaileen’s picture, also features in I See You. “It was very uncomfortable, I guess because of his age,” explains Jaileen. “I’m not sure he really understood about sexting, so it was awkward explaining it to him.”
Barki assumed Angel was older, given the subject. “Angel walked into the room and my heart melted,” she says. “We ended up playing video games after finishing the shooting, he has a really serious Minecraft world he created – talented boy.”
The narrative surrounding sexting is far from black and white, as Barki discovered. Speaking to groups of both young women and men, the stories were complex. Each gender had been on either end of the situation, and across the age ranges, an intricate narrative emerges that reflects the murky, confusing steps that young people take towards getting to know their own sexuality.
Barki recalls the film’s cinematographer, Asya Gorbacheva, musing between shooting: “It's so funny how technology is moving forward in this crazy way, but girls remains a thots and a boy remain a players”. It's a reflective reminder that gender norms still find their way into the world of filters and disappearing DMs.
“We met so many special kids and learnt that sexuality is complex for both girls and boys,” says Barki. “But at the end of the day, boys are expected to be sexual, when girls are still facing shaming.”