Deanna Templeton’s new book What She Said explores the struggle for independence, agency, and self-expression that defines female adolescence.
In the 1980s, as the first generation of truly disaffected youth came of age, Generation X watched hippies trade in their “save the world” idealism of their youth to become yuppies who believed everything could be bought and sold. In Reagan’s America, neoliberalism took root, transforming corporations into people and people into brands. Raised as latch key children born to members of the “Silent Generation,” Gen-Xers understood they were on their own. Although taboo issues were finally starting to be spoken of openly on daytime talk shows, after-school specials, and the occasional made-for-TV movies like The Burning Bed, by and large, silence continued to cloak the struggles many faced.
Hailing from Huntington Beach, California, American photographer Deanna Templeton lived in the quintessential suburban home that epitomized American life. But for all her family’s strides, Templeton felt lost in a culture that pushed a shiny, pretty, picture perfect image of womanhood promoted by fashion magazines. As a teen, Templeton kept a journal, chronicling the pain she felt inside, exacerbated by the endless capitalization of unattainable standards of beauty foisted upon girls in their youth. Like so many others, Templeton equated her innate value with her attractiveness, channeling her sense of self worth into her appearance to detrimental effect.
“By the time I hit 14 I was hard on criticizing myself for not being the way I wanted to be,” Templeton remembers. On November 17, 1986, she wrote in her journal, “Tonight for the 100th time I looked at myself in the mirror and realized how ugly I am and how cute I could of [sic] been. My acne is so horrible! I don’t understand why I am so ugly. I hate it. I wish I was dead until it went away. Someone please help me.”
Templeton left her journals out, hoping her parents might read them and speak with her. But if they did, they never said a word. Instead, the journals piled up, collected in boxes that Templeton took with her when she moved out. About 17 years ago, she started perusing the pages of her youth — the angst of adolescence struggling to find her voice and stand up for herself. Those journals became the basis for her new book, What She Said (MACK), which brings together street portraits of teen girls in the United States, Europe, Australia, and Russia. Drawn to outsiders rebelling against the strictures of gender and identity, Templeton recognized in these girls the fight for independence, agency, and self-expression that defines female adolescence.
“I wasn’t able to say ‘Look at me,’ so I found other ways to try to get my family’s attention be it starving myself, cutting myself."
As a high school student in the mid-1980s Templeton was surrounded by popular kids, preppies, punks, and the “Rod Squad” — a group that took their style cues from rock star Rod Stewart. She found an alternative scene where she felt at home, crimping her hair like singer Siouxie Sioux and the girls from Bananarama. By 15, Templeton was hitching rides to Los Angeles to catch bands and hand with other self-identified freaks.
“I used music a lot,” she says. “I would blast Suicidal Tendencies from my room, ‘I Saw Your Mommy’ — not that I wanted my mommy dead, it was just like, ‘I’m in pain, hear me.’ I would find lyrics that spoke to me and try to amplify it so someone would hear.”
But the silence was deafening. To release her pain, Templeton began acting out, using self-harm to cope. “I wasn’t happy and there were things I didn’t understand going on with me,” she says. “I wasn’t able to say ‘Look at me,’ so I found other ways to try to get my family’s attention be it starving myself, cutting myself. I know my mom saw my carvings but she just glanced and looked away. They grew up in a generation where you didn’t talk about things.”
Cities in Dust
Templeton got into photography tagging along with a high school friend with connections in the local music scene. “She started taking me to concerts and I would go into her photo class during the lab hours to watch her process her film. It was magic witnessing how a photograph becomes a photograph,” she remembers.
But Templeton didn’t start making photographs of her own until a very unexpected twist of fate. “I had another girlfriend at the same time who had a bad home life. She decided she wanted to run away and I didn’t want her to go by herself because we were only 14 or 15 years old. I left a note telling my family I was running away, but I didn’t say why. It was vague, just ‘Gotta go,’” she says.
“We had no idea what we were going to do. We spent the whole night walking around. By morning, we found a friend who would take her in. I called home from a payphone at school to see if someone would pick me up. My mother burst into tears but didn’t say anything. My brother grabbed the phone and said, ‘Dad’s been out looking for you all night. I’ll come get you.’ He brought me home. I was hugged, but nothing was said. No ‘Why did you do this? Don’t you ever do this.’ I wasn’t put on punishment. Instead, my mom took me out and bought me a camera — a Canon T-90. Looking back on it now, it makes no sense. They gave me a coming home present.”
Though Templeton’s camera was later stolen and the photographs from that era have since disappeared, she began photographing in earnest in the 1990s, when she became engaged to her now-husband, photographer and skateboarder Ed Templeton. By 1999, she had struck upon a body of work, a series of candid street portraits of teen girls who unconsciously reminded her of the person she once was. But Templeton didn’t know what she was going to do with the photographs until she started thinking about the things she had written about in her journal. Suddenly everything clicked into place.
“I like small groups, I am a one-on-one person, but then I do get a little more nervous and quieter in large groups,” she says. “With photography, I wasn’t as scared to approach or talk to people. Having the camera helps me connect with people. Some people think the camera is a barrier but I think it’s the thing that brought me to you.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.
What She Said (MACK)