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American Girlhood
Photography Fumi Nagasaka

American Girlhood

In this exclusive series, the photographer documents her summer travels with Annabelle, a Brooklyn kid who became her muse, and reflects on the magic of girlhood

Taken from the spring/summer 2018 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here

Annabelle is 11 years old. She’s at once an average prepubescent American girl, and a rare breed of superstar. She loves her brand-new iPhone 8 Plus. She adores McDonald’s (in particular the #7 meal). More recently, she has been experimenting with a newfound passion for make-up, particularly glitter. She has a hard-working single mother, Tanya. She loves to swim, wear tie-dye, draw, and ask questions. Most importantly for Japanese photographer Fumi Nagasaka – whose work shines a light on the diverse American youths of her adopted home – Annabelle loves being in front of the camera.

“When I first saw Annabelle she had bluey-greenish hair and was wearing a Nirvana t-shirt,” recalls Nagasaka of her first encounter with the then-eight-year-old, who would go on to become her favourite photographic subject. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, who is this girl?’’’ 

Nagasaka lives on the same street as Annabelle and her mum and sister in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. After a chance meeting with the eldest sister, Sophie, she started photographing Annabelle, and in late 2016 included the images in Untitled Youth, a photobook filled with enigmatic portraits of the young people she has been meeting and shooting throughout her career. “They became my family,” says the photographer. “Last summer we all travelled together almost every weekend, going upstate or to West Virginia, driving around taking photos. Annabelle and I would share a bed in the motels; I think she sees me as a big sister.”

When the photographs of Annabelle were published in Untitled Youth, Nagasaka went to Annabelle’s school to show her classmates the images. “I was showing these kids and we were talking about self-esteem,” she remembers. “Annabelle was standing next to me in front of the class, telling them her experiences. She said, ‘I was very insecure about my weight, but since Fumi took my pictures, I’m confident about it.’ It was really amazing how she could talk about that to the other kids. I hope these photos can make kids think differently if they’re insecure about themselves, too.”

“I shot this picture when we were on Annabelle’s rooftop in Brooklyn to see the solar eclipse last summer”

“We went to Annabelle’s mother Tanya’s hometown in Alabama last summer for my project. We visited Smith Lake to shoot local kids – Annabelle just swam next to us while I was shooting”

“This was taken in Woodstock. I had to move her to the right spot to get the sunlight coming through the trees, and it was hard to make her stay still. (It’s always hard when I shoot her!) But the funny thing is, once she looks at the camera, she always gives me this amazing expression. It surprises me every time”

“The girl is one of Annabelle’s relatives. I’m thinking about starting a whole newproject with her in Alabama. They’re such good friends – this photo was taken when they had been playing in this McDonald’s playground together”

“Even though I’m way older, when I’m with Annabelle and we do silly things together, I feel like I’m still a kid. And I think that kind of inspires me in a way”

“Once, it was freezing and Annabelle FaceTimed me. I could see she was coming down from her apartment and walking across the street, then she was in front of my apartment in a t-shirt. ‘Fumi, please! I just want to hug you... I’ll give you my make-up!’ So I was like, ‘Oh my God,’ and I had to go out and hug her”

“At Smith Lake Anabelle didn’t have a swimsuit, so we went to a local Dollar General and bought a tie-dye shirt (she loves and collects tie-dye shirts). She had some time to swim, then she got bored”

“We stayed at this motel with a weird European-themed pool and jacuzzi (very tacky!), and Annabelle was just so excited. She woke me up early and dragged me to the pool.”