Andrea Birnbaum: Girls on the Brink

Andrea Birnbaum is a Michigan-based social documentary photographer and educator. Her work as a freelance photographer spans many genres, including editorial, corporate, non-profit and portraiture for more than twenty years. She holds an MFA in Media Arts from Maine Media College in Rockport, Maine. She is currently teaching as an adjunct faculty member at the Art Institute of Michigan and at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit and is a mentor to the 2017 Documenting Detroit Fellows. Today we are sharing her series, Girls on the Brink.

Girls on the Brink

This project is about how girls and women show, through their body language and gestures, the struggle between internal feelings and what is often expected of them by the external forces around them. Conflicting messages from family and friends, media and celebrity make the transition from girlhood to womanhood a very complicated time of life. The ever-present social media, and the cell phone and its ability to capture life as it’s unfolding, without the ability to edit themselves first, only adds to the stress.

I started this project first to try to understand my own teenage daughters better, but then came to recognize that issues surrounding belonging and identity were ones that I had struggled with myself and that I feel is a universal theme, and one I continue to explore in my work.

AB: Hi Andrea, thank you so much for taking the time to share your work with us today, we are excited to have your work up on the site.

Andrea: Thank you so much for having my work on the site!

Why don’t you start by telling us what it was like to have your daughters and their friends as your photographic subjects? Were they initially uncomfortable in front of the camera? Did the camera eventually become an extension of you, resulting in their awareness surrounding the presence of the camera fading away?

Andrea: They were definitely uncomfortable at first, and to some degree, still are. One of my daughters is a photography student at Pratt, so in the past couple of years she has become more willing to let me photograph her, since she understands the process. Because I use a small mirrorless camera, and often shoot at waist level, it is easier for people to forget that I am photographing them, so that helps.

In your artist statement you express that through making this work you were able to come to terms with your own trauma surrounding the unrealistic expectations that are projected onto young girls and women. Can you speak to that?

Andrea: When I was younger I wanted so badly to be as thin, blond and tall as the models I saw in magazines, which was never going to happen! I just wanted to fit in, but unconsciously felt that I couldn’t be myself and fit in at the same time. Conflicting messages are everywhere a young woman turns. It’s hard to admit, but as a young mother I encouraged my daughters to be themselves, yet at the same time subconsciously wanted them to just fit in, so they wouldn’t struggle, and get hurt. So, conflicting messages within one person! It’s even more difficult today, with social media “likes” carrying a ridiculous amount of importance, often dictating what is expected of everyone.

Do you identify as a feminist? How do you feel that your work fits into the conversation of contemporary photography, and furthermore, work that is being made surrounding female identity?

Andrea: I grew up with a mother who was the president of the local chapter of the National Organization of Women (NOW). She was also a working mother long before it was considered the norm. I was raised to always believe men and women were equal, yet obviously saw the contradiction to that everywhere. I think there is a problem with the word feminist, because for so many it carries different, loaded meanings. I believe that everyone should have the opportunity to flourish in the way that they chose to. My work has been compared to Lauren Greenfield’s work most often, but I would argue that while Lauren’s work is a sociological study of young women, and society in general, my work is much more personal and empathetic. I have been following the Instagrams of Girlgaze and other girl and women focused accounts, and I love that there is so much work being made surrounding female identity. At the core, it is all very personal work, but also universal, and that’s where I believe my work aligns.

Do you plan on continuing to photograph your daughters and their friends? You mention the universality of this issue, and I am curious if you are interested in comparing the issues of belonging and identity in groups that differ in socioeconomic standing, and seeing how the relevancy of the issues compare and contrast within diverse environments.

Andrea: I will always photograph the people closest to me! I’m not sure where my work will take me next. Not to rely on labels, but I feel the social documentary photographer I have been may need a break. I’ve been interested lately in trying some constructed images, which is something I have never done before.  But anything is possible!

Thank you so much for taking the time to discuss your work with us today. We look forward to seeing what you do next!

Andrea: Thank you!

To view more of Andrea’s work, please visit her website.