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Polly and MarcoPhotography Sara Messinger

Intimate portraits of New York’s non-conformist teens

Sara Messinger’s ongoing photo series chronicles the everyday lives of a group of Manhattan teenagers

“On a hot summer day in June 2021, three kids came skipping down a path towards me in Tompkins Square Park,” remembers photographer Sara Messinger. “They reminded me of the old New York, one people could only imagine but was no longer there, as Jeremiah Moss wrote about in his book Vanishing New York.

She asked if she could take a portrait of them, which they agreed to, and in the following months, she would visit the park regularly. Often, she would run into the same teenagers as they hung out with their friends after school. Five months on from their first encounter, Messinger began photographing their friendship group. “At the beginning, I would spend every single afternoon of the week with them,” she says. “I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to watch them grow over the past two years.”

Situated at the heart of the East Village, Tompkins Square Park is the main swathe of green disrupting the perfectly intersected streets of the countercultural, lower Manhattan neighbourhood. The birthplace of punk and new wave, home to the likes of Talking Heads, Television, Patti Smith and the Ramones, the East Village has been synonymous with experimental creativity since the early 1980s. When SoHo boomed as the centre of New York’s contemporary art scene, artists, authors, poets and musicians began flocking to this part of the city. It was here that art mavericks Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, David Wojnarowicz and Jeff Koons showcased their earliest works before reaching international stardom. 

Nothing carries the legacy of the area’s bold, cultural history like the youth currently carving their place within it. “What I love about the kids I got to photograph is their bravery and openness,” Messinger says. “They have such a strong sense of self and an incredible level of acceptance [towards others].” An investigation into the shifting notion of identity, the collection of images she gathered along the way, titled Teenagers, looks at how friendship is a pivotal part of the journey into adulthood. Observing the teens up close as they navigate the hardships of the digital age and the ongoing mental health crisis, the photographer captures the highs and lows of their teenage experience through an empathetic, supportive lens. 

“Since the start of Teenagers, I have watched the kids change names or pronouns with the unconditional support of their friends,” Messinger explains. “These teens do not just encourage you to be your truest self, but they also challenge your preconceptions – they are the kind of people I wish I was surrounded by through my adolescence.”

Born and bred in the New Jersey outskirts of Philadelphia, she recalls feeling suffocated by the conformity of suburban life. “Growing up, I always felt like an outcast – I stayed out of drama, I dressed differently and kept to myself,” the photographer says. From her first visit to New York aged 13, Messinger knew she wouldn’t need to look any further to find her place in the world. “There was something about the city that made me feel free,” she says. While relocating there in 2019 to attend NYU represented a milestone for her, it wasn’t until she discovered photography the following year that Messinger came into her own.

“It all began as a kind of meditation during the pandemic,” she recounts. “I would walk over 10 miles a day when I first started taking pictures: suddenly, I had a reason to interact with people, to overcome my shyness and be present.” As Messinger gave in to her obsession with photography, she uncovered its power “to express the inexpressible, to communicate feelings that couldn’t be put into words”. She remembers how one of her early experiments with film, a portrait of a boy staring straight into her lens, showed her how far she had come thanks to her newly discovered passion. “Photography has pushed me to be my most open, vulnerable self and continues to empower me daily,” Messinger says.

In Teenagers, the photographer superimposes her journey of self-discovery onto that of her adolescent subjects. In one of her images, a group of teens sit around the flickering candles of a birthday cake as their eyes glimmer with joy, hope and dreams. Elsewhere, a girl covered in heavy goth makeup looks at herself in the mirror as if searching for answers: perhaps she is on her way out or, maybe, she is hoping to be seen. Each one of Messinger’s photos stands for a day in the life of her adolescent companions.

“In this project, I wanted to direct people’s gaze onto a generation of New Yorkers that doesn’t shy away from distinctions, to celebrate individuality. And just like photography showed me a different side of myself – what I could be and I had never been before – I hope Teenagers will inspire others to face the future on their own terms.”

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