Teen Encounters

A photograph of a gaunt, scarred Palestinian teenager under house arrest hangs on one wall. In images opposite it, suburban Texas teens proudly display their homecoming corsages: giant beribboned mums bigger than their heads. While certain aspects of being a teenager may be universal, the group show Teenagers: Portraits of Identity and Expression at the Houston Center for Photography shows how different their lives can be.

The image of the Palestinian kid is by Israeli photographer Natan Dvir. Dvir's work is all about focusing on "the human aspects of political, social and cultural issues." The three works on view are from Dvir's series Eighteen, in which he photographs Arab teenagers in Israel, at that turning-point age. The teenagers are photographed in their bedrooms and Dvir prints his images large-scale and life-sized, forcing the viewer to confront Dvir's subjects as individuals. In Mohammad (Nazareth, Muslim), 2009, Mohammad, the subject, stares out at the viewer, his closely shaved head cocked to the side revealing a scar across his skull. His hands are crossed over each other and his right arm bears a deep scar as well. The accompanying wall text tells something of Mohammad's story.

He was injured in a car accident while in high school. He dropped out of school after classmates mocked his scarred appearance. In another culture and political climate, his might have been the story of an unlucky high school misfit. But six months before the photo was taken, he was on his way to buy shoes and got caught up in a demonstration. Policemen claimed that Mohammad, whose injured arms are severely weakened, had thrown stones at them. He spent an abusive month in jail and was released to house detention. He wears an electronic leg bracelet as the judicial process drags on and on.

The bedroom Mohammad stands in is long and narrow, with twin beds lined end-to-end along one wall. Sheets and clothes are heaped up along the other, and the walls are unplastered gray concrete block. If you took all of the contemporary details out of the picture and printed it in black and white, with his lean frame, hollow cheeks and shaved head, Mohammad's portrait could easily be mistaken for a WWII era photograph of a Jewish teenager in a concentration camp. While that may be seen as ironic, it is also understandable. Research has proven that Middle Eastern Jews and Palestinians are genetically almost identical. (Ditto Syrians and Lebanese.) This, of course, makes the tragic conflicts in the Middle East all the more cruel — casting Palestinians and Jews killing each other as a case of widespread fratricide.

In other images, Ehab (Be'ine, Muslim), 2009 shows a handsome young soccer player standing in a pink bedroom next to a near-child-sized twin bed. A Palestinian flag hangs on one wall while a Leonardo Di Caprio poster hangs on another. Dina (Jaffa, Jewish-Muslim), 2010, captures a lovely young woman, born in the Ukraine, the daughter of a Russian Jewish mother and an Israeli-Muslim father who met in medical school. Dvir shot her in her room where she lives in an Arab and Jewish human rights collective. A portrait of Che Guevara hangs on the wall behind her. Dvir's striking photographs are packed with narrative detail.

The artist's three subjects confront the camera with hostile and guarded looks, and this isn't a stylistic affectation coached by the photographer. As an Israeli Jew, creating these photographs was a political statement in itself for Dvir, who said in a statement about his work "I aim to confront, and dispute the widespread misconceptions of the 'other,' the people within my own country who I was brought up to consider more as foes rather than as allies." He explains that, "The hostility and suspicion that I expectedly felt at the beginning of most of my encounters were soon replaced by interest, curiosity and hospitality," adding, "If I, a Jewish Israeli man, have been accepted and was allowed into my subjects' personal lives, so can others."

Lebanese photographer Rania Matar is (independently) producing her own series of photographs of teenagers in their rooms. Teenage girls in particular decorate their rooms to define themselves and in A Girl and Her Room, Matar is capturing those clues for us to decipher as she photographs girls in America and the Middle East. Marwa 18, Shatila refugee camp, Beirut Lebanon 2010 captures a girl in a pink but cell-like bedroom with two twin beds barely an ankle-width apart. A pink teddy bear sits on each headboard, while a glowing laptop open to a Facebook page rests on one of the beds, a nod to the technology that has helped fuel the activism that has spread through the Arab world. Meanwhile, Lilly 15, Brookline MA, 2009 shows a blond American teen in a room that seems palatial in contrast. She's sitting on her own rumpled bed, staring into her own laptop, the luminous "apple" glowing out at the viewer like an all-seeing eye. We know that in this day and age, it's not inconceivable that these two girls on two different continents from two different cultures could become Facebook friends, digitally sharing with each other all manner of things, from teen angst to politics.

Much closer to home, Nancy Newberry captures the Texas teen ritual of the big-ass homecoming mum. Shot in suburban homes, teen girls and a guy display the baroquely beribboned corsages (or arm garters in the case of the guys), each one festooned with individual symbolism. It's a goofy ritual, but it's somehow nice to see that kids still have traditions. They're good images, but if you look online, Newberry has much more interesting or surreally set images from the series. I think HCP was trying to find simpler and less over-the-top shots to work with the other pieces in the show, but those aren't Newberry's strongest.

Alison Malone's series, The Daughters of Job, photographs girls participating in an even odder ritual. Her three portraits show young girls in what look like bed sheets retrofitted as angel costumes for a Christmas play. In reality they are wearing the garb of some sort of Freemasons girls' auxiliary. They're nice photos, but the Freemason backstory is the clincher. The pale, awkwardly angelic-looking girls are shot against a white background, imparting a consistently hazy otherworldliness to the series.

They are identified not by their names but by their roles in the group, "fourth messenger," "recorder" and "marshall."

The individual works in "Teenagers" are interesting and the show itself hangs together pretty well. I found Martine Fougeron's work to be the only off note. She presents a series of photos of two teenage boys — getting their hair cut, reading Catcher in the Rye on the subway and reading Amin Maalouf in what, from the label, we suppose to be a French country house. In other shots, one of the boys is photographed about to kiss a girl, who looks rather irritatedly at the camera, and the two boys, er, decidedly good-looking young men, are photographed from behind as they stand in a country road in their underwear, waving to a departing car. They're okay photos, but nothing to write home about. Then you learn the photographer is their mother, a woman who has created and published lengthy photographic series about her sons. Now we see why the girl looked irritated, now the underwear shot that shows the guys' physiques to good advantage becomes kind of creepy. Now the shots of their reading material seem a little like maternal boasting.

I think every parent is struck by the beauty of his or her own children, but these photos bug me. It's not like it is some Larry Rivers-filming-your-unwilling-daughters-naked project, and it's not as intimate (or potentially controversial) as Sally Mann's naked pictures of her kids. Artists have long used family members for subject matter, but photography is an especially exploitative medium. Beyond that, most of us realize that while we find our own children infinitely fascinating, others may not. The series is more about a mom annoying and obsessing over her kids than it is about the teenagers themselves. "Teenagers" might have been a little stronger without it.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer