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Danielle Levitt's Favourite Tribes

The documentary photographer on her love affair with America's tribal gatherings

Danielle Levitt began shooting teenagers in the early 2000s, and has since become one of the decade’s most important documentarians of American youth culture. Her body of work spans celebrity portraiture and fashion editorial, but most unique and captivating are her numerous portraits of teenage tribes around the US. “I guess I reached a certain age where I started recognising youth culture as something that just seemed new and fresh. I hadn’t been in high school for over ten years, but when I started to pay attention, I found that nothing had changed – kids were still trying to express themselves in all these different and unique ways.”

“One of the first ones tribes I shot was the Goths. In the early 2000s there was nothing trendy or fashionable about goth culture – the kind of support and idolization of Goth that we have now didn’t exist. I think contemporary fashion has adopted a lot of its cues, and as a result it’s more familiar now, but when I started documenting them Goths were still very much outsiders.”

“I started approaching strangers in the street, especially in LA where I was spending a lot of time. I think LA played a strong initial role in my explorations: it’s so large and sprawling that you end up seeing so much stuff. Around the same time there were a group of Russian girls in Brighton Beach, near Coney Island, who were first generation teenagers in this heavily Russian community. In the beginning, it was really just a matter of identifying youth –not specifically any particular group of them, just teenagers with the purity of a teenager.”

Gradually, Danielle became immersed in exploring different youth phenomena and rites of passage, at the same time creating exclusive windows into worlds that she had never experienced for herself. “Growing up, I probably wouldn’t have gone to a spring break, party-beach type of town. But as an adult I wanted to see what it was about, so I started using these opportunities to visit things I wouldn’t necessarily have done when I was in high school.”

In turn, her portraits have become points of access, intimate looks into social cliques normally guarded by the secrecy of adolescence. “I think one thing that has allowed me to produce the work I’ve done, is that there is an inherent trust between myself and the subject. I choose to celebrate my subjects and they really feel and believe that. I’ve had a lot of great experiences with kids even if they’ve been hesitant, like these boys I met who build crazy tall bikes in their garages and ride around on them in a little group. Their culture is very special to them and they’re not looking to dilute it by having any sort of media come in and expose it, but they trusted that I was there to explore and celebrate it.”

Since Danielle started out over a decade ago, the idea of celebrating the extraordinary and unusual has gained popularity, and idolizing certain tribes of outsiders – like the Goths – can often seem like a particularly fashionable strand of contemporary culture. Actually discovering tribes and witnessing the gradual development of youth culture, however, demands a deeper fascination. 

“One group I remember that really fascinated me was the African-American surfers and skaters in LA. I saw the transformation of a prominently white beach culture really open up and become universal. The queer identity kids are another group – while I’m reading all this stuff about trance, gender and identity now, these are things I’ve been exploring for a long time. These things might be parts of our contemporary culture now, but they definitely were not when I first started uncovering it.”

Some groups personified the idea of a tribe more than others, leaving more of an imprint on Danielle’s work than just the portraits. “I went back and made a documentary on the wolves. Wolfie, now 21 years old, is this beloved girl who for whatever reason really feels like she’s part wolf. She’s the leader of a crew of kids whom, in solidarity – and just because they felt like her – started identifying themselves as wolves too. There was nothing scripted or planned about her ascent to this tribal leader status, it was just her thing. She became somebody who took a lot of adverse situations and became extraordinarily confident within them.”

“It was definitely weird, but all these kids are essentially just finding ways of feeling supported. To me, the tribe thing is a matter of self-preservation. You don’t want to be flying solo if you can avoid it, you know? You find like-minded people and create a community; a family where you help each other understand the world. The wolves did just that.”

Danielle Levitt recently shot Original Penguin's new season – view her films here