by Lauren Greenfield
Los Angeles is where I grew up and formed many of my ideas about myself and the world. As a documentarian often focused on other societies, I wanted to turn my attention to a subject of more immediate personal relevance. Previously I had photographed cultures, from French aristocrats to Mayan Indians, where gaining access to a closed world was a feat in itself. By exploring my own culture, I could begin with a level of access and understanding impossible elsewhere after the most extensive research and field work. Since I first left Los Angeles to go away to college, my most vivid memories of the city have revolved around high school. When I moved back to Los Angeles as an adult and as a photographer, I returned to the evocative site of a formative time of my life. Fast Forward is the result of my ensuing four-year journey into the world of L.A. youth.
I began this journey in the place most familiar to me, my own high school. Crossroads, a private college-preparatory school on the west side of Los Angeles, was a natural jumping-off point. Personal memories served as an inspiration and rudimentary road map which I detailed, altered, and expanded with the help of the people I met and photographed. From the beginning, I taped interviews with my subjects. Directly and indirectly, they told me what to photograph and what was important. Their candid and perceptive words educated me about their experience and guided me through confusing territory. By the end of the project, I had traveled through worlds I could have never imagined.
My joumey was a serendipitous and associative one. I began by following my intuition, which I supplemented with more traditional journalistic research as I progressed. A common theme that kept me focused throughout was the sense of an early loss of innocence. I observed this in many forms, and the young people underlined it again and again in their interviews. As one teenager said, "You grow up really fast when you grow up in L.A. It seems like everyone is in a rush to be an adult. It's not cool to be a kid."
Los Angeles is a unique city to grow up in: as the center of the entertainment industry, it generates much of the popular culture so integral to teenage life around the world. Like young people everywhere, L.A.'s teens are greatly influenced by the television and films they watch, the magazines they read, and the music they listen to. If anything, Hollywood's proximity amplifies its import and influence. At the same time, the experience of L.A. teens has inspired many popular media products, such as the television series Beverly Hílls 90210, the movies Clueless and South Central and countless music videos. Through their influence on mainstream media, L.A. teens help create the trends and attitudes that reverberate among international youth. The relationship between Hollywood and the teens growing up in its shadow epitomizes the modern dialectic between kids and media, reality and fantasy.
Since I began my work in a private school on L.A.?s Westside, the subjects of my early photographs were often affluent. Although Crossroads has a diverse student body because of a generous scholarship program, there are nevertheless many students whose parents work in the entertainment industry. I was intrigued by the Hollywood-influenced culture that all the students seemed to share, regardless of their families' economic circumstances. The material concerns of the children were striking from the beginning. Early on in the project, three seventh-grade boys asked me what I was doing. "A project about growing up in L.A.," I told them. One boy shot back, "If you are doing a story about growing up in L.A., you have to show money. That's what it's all about." He and two friends then held up bills for me to photograph. It wasn't until I looked at the processed film that I realized that the thirteen-year-olds were waving $100 bills.
Although I remembered the importance of cars and clothes, and, by extension, money, from my own high school experience, I also noticed a new phenomenon. In the years since I graduated from high school, MTV had become a major cultural force ushering in the rise of "gangsta" rap and hip-hop culture. In music, fashion, attitude and language, its influence was apparent and widespread. The gang as a new type of family, the desire to be "hard," the extravagant materialism expressed in hip-hop culture all had an appeal that seemed to cross socioeconomic divisions. Kids from all sides of the tracks idealized the images of gangsta rap and mimicked those that were missing in their own lives. Affluent kids dressed and talked like gangsters; inner-city kids simulated the trappings of wealth.
Although trends come and go, especially among teenagers, I was intrigued by the role of the media as a homogenizing force. Against the foil of obvious material and cultural differences, I began to explore the ways in which young people from diverse backgrounds are similarly influenced by a popular culture they share.
As a collection of suburbs connected by freeways, Los Angeles is a city where residents can live most of their lives in virtually homogeneous enclaves. Having grown up on the Westside, the first time I went to South Central was as a photographer covering my first news story for Newsweek?the 1992 riots. After the civil disturbances, many adults in Los Angeles spoke of an increased awareness of neighboring communities, a sort of awakening. In an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, writer Richard Rodriguez said that Los Angeles had lost its suburban innocence and that a new city was forming. "People in Los Angele~ are preoccupied with one another, cannot forget one another." He concluded that it was "better not to like one another than not to know the stranger exists."
The children I photographed were already preoccupied with one another and never had "suburban innocence." In many ways, they are more connected to each other's experience than are their adult counterparts. They have spent less time with their parents than children of previous generations and have been increasingly socialized by the media and by each other. They are members of a new kind of community. Theirs is not a traditional one in the sense of shared geography or social institutions, but a community in the sense of Marshall McCluhan's "global village," a community of shared influences that create shared values.
Within the context of this new community, the project evolved organically, expanding from the affluent Crossroads community to the worlds of East L.A. and South Central. Students from the private schools introduced me to each other and to the world of tagger crews, party crews, and gangsters. Beverly Hills introduced me to East L.A. My television introduced me to hip-hop culture and gangsta rap. A struggling rapper brought me to the wealth of suburban Calabasas. South Central and East L.A. turned me on to the latest fashions. The fashion magazines showed me the images of beauty to which children aspire. I didn't know how all the pieces would fit together, but I let one subject transport me to the next.
As my work progressed, I also sought out subjects that I thought might illuminate the nature of Hollywood's reach. I photographed public school students from Hollywood High who traveled long distances from the suburbs and inner city to pursue show business dreams at a magnet school for the performing arts. They showed me the powerful allure of the Hollywood dream, as well as the dramatic contrast between the run-down neighborhood that is the geographical Hollywood and the mythic "Hollywood" associated with the entertainment industry (much of which is now located in more upscale parts of L.A.) I photographed children who were already stars and children working hard to make it in "the business."
A striking commonality throughout was the importance of image and celebrity. As innocuously as throwing the most extravagant party or creating an individual style, as gravely as killing a member of another gang, L.A.'s kids are engaged in the age-old Hollywood pursuit of making a name for themselves. The quest for notoriety has become a rite of passage. At a time of life when young people struggle to form their identities, that struggle is raised to new heights in the context of Los Angeles and Hollywood. Whether it is the desire to be an adult when one is a child, to be a gangster when one is privileged, to be famous when one is unknown, or to look like a model when one does not, young people are preoccupied with becoming other than they are. Los Angeles, in her traditional role as the city of dreams has bequeathed the quest for the dream to her children. The self-consciousness that underlies their aspirations inevitably costs them their innocence.
The photographs and interviews in this book are the result of a dance between myself, my subjects, and their realities as I have seen them. All has been filtered though my own perception, informed by observation, research, and personal experience. I spent as much time as possible with my subjects, and many of the situations in the book are ones that I saw repeated in various forms on different occasions. Sometimes, my photographs and interviews are from the same day. In other cases, the interviews took place weeks or months after the picture was taken. As the photographs reflect my perceptions, I hope the interviews allow the children to speak for themselves. They too express subjective interpretations, which must be kept in mind when it comes to their comments on parents, teachers, and other adults or children.
This work in no way aims to present a definitive picture either of growing up in L.A. or of any particular individual. Although my journey involved a great deal of wandering in which I photographed a wide variety of situations, the final work as it appears in this book is narrowly focused on the way that Hollywood values play themselves out within the rituals and daily life of young people. As a consequence, many aspects of the subjects' full and diverse lives are not included in this work. The pictures are not intended as portraits and do not attempt to portray the "essence" of individual subjects. Rather, I have tried to make pictures that reveal an element of our culture as it manifests itself in the lives of children. If readers sense a critical perspective in my pictures, it is a criticism of the culture and its values, not of the children or parents who adapt to it. More than anything else, my perspective was influenced by my subjects' views of their own worlds.
For the children and families I photographed and interviewed, I have only the deepest gratitude. They gave me the greatest gift by letting me into their lives and educating me about their experience. They candidly told me their stories and allowed the ordinary rituals of their lives to unfold in front of my camera. Hopefully, we can all learn from their generosity, as I have. They have helped me to better understand myself and to grow up in the process as well. In many ways, this project was my own coming of age.
I am especially grateful to one child in particular, Ennis Beley, who was a beautiful photographer in his own right. He befriended me shortly after I had begun this project, when he was only twelve years old. While he was rarely the subject of my photography, as a friend and as an advisor he taught me much about the experience of growing up in Los Angeles. He was killed in a brutal gang murder just before his sixteenth birthday and just as I was finishing the book. In his life and in his death, Ennis made me understand what a delicate and fleeting privilege childhood is. I cannot think of growing up in L.A. without thinking of him.
I dedicate this book to his memory, and to my parents, to whom I owe everything.
"Fast Forward" is a book published by Knopf and Melcher media and is a travelling exhibition organized by the International Center of Photography.
"Fast Forward" was made possible by generous grants from National Geographic, A&I color labs and the Maine Photographic Workshop.
Lauren Greenfield can be reached at: LGreen66@aol.com