December 16, 2018

A Photo Editor’s Nest Goes From Empty to Full, as #ThisIs18 Is Born


As I dropped off one 18-year-old, I inherited more than two dozen other young adults: girls from around the world who were taking photos for an exciting, visually driven New York Times project.

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Shama Ghosh in Chandpur, Bangladesh.CreditCreditTahia Farhin Haque for The New York Times
Sandra Stevenson

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I stood on the stoop of my Brooklyn brownstone and proudly watched as my son gathered his keyboards, skateboard, two bikes and clothes and packed them into two cars for our trek to Ohio, where he would begin the next phase of his life: college. As we headed to the heartland, I wondered what was going through his mind as he transitions from childhood to manhood — and what I would face when I returned home with my husband to an empty nest.

But as I dropped off one 18-year-old, I inherited more than two dozen other young adults: girls from around the world who were taking photos for the visually driven New York Times project #ThisIs18.

The idea was simple. To commemorate the coming International Day of the Girl in 2018, we wanted to know what life is like for 18-year-old girls around the world, from Mexico to Mississippi, Ramallah to Russia, Bangladesh to the Bronx. But here was the catch: We wanted to see those girls’ lives through the lens of other 18-year-old girls.

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Mahak Naiwal, left, with her best friend, in New Delhi.CreditShraddha Gupta for The New York Times

It certainly would have been easier to assign a few professional journalists to create these profiles: We have an amazing network of correspondents and photographers in virtually every corner of the globe. But as I brainstormed with my partners in The Times’s Gender Initiative and in its Styles department, we worried about the fact that we and other mainstream news outlets almost always channel the stories of young people through the eyes of adults. We wanted this project to be different, no matter the logistical challenges.

So how could we find 18-year-old female photographers around the world?

Wanjiku Muthoni Gakuru in Nairobi, Kenya.CreditSarah Sunday Moses for The New York Times

I reached out to a colleague and mentor, the staff photographer James Estrin. Between us, we had a large network of contacts among a close-knit community of photojournalists, editors, organizations and schools around the globe. We began by going to them one by one — about 75 individuals and organizations in all — and asking for their help: Could they recommend young female photographers in their communities? Would they be willing to act as mentors and shepherd them through the project?

Over the course of a month, we received dozens of portfolios to review. I pored over them, studying each photographer’s visual “eye” — how did these young women view their world from behind the lens of a camera? Some came from challenging backgrounds but used photography to help themselves cope. One was a refugee. Others simply loved the art of photography.

Eventually we came up with a list of 26 photographers in a wide variety of cities and towns on every continent but Antarctica. We asked each photographer to do preliminary portraits of — and interviews with — three candidates in her community (from which we would ultimately choose one per photographer).

Shenzhi Xu, left, in Chengdu, China.CreditLuxi Yang for The New York Times

Keeping track of 26 photographers, 21 mentors and more than 50 potential subjects — across varying time zones — was initially daunting. (In the end, 22 photographers made the cut.)

It required color-coding spreadsheets. Communicating in numerous languages across half a dozen mediums: email, WhatsApp, text message, Facebook and more. Talking with parents. Providing a “playbook” and shot lists and interview questions. Our project manager, Sharon Attia, a 23-year-old photographer, kept us from losing our minds (though there were some very close calls).

At times, the photographers were dealing with their own personal problems while documenting the experiences of others. A young photographer in Saudi Arabia was struggling with family issues. It took her longer than others to complete her assignment. And though her work didn’t make the final project, she would not give up. None of the photographers gave up.

Alexandra Yuryeva in Moscow.CreditAnna Dermicheva for The New York Times

Before we knew it, photos began coming in. I get emotional talking about it.

You don’t realize how many young women there are in the world with extraordinary promise and potential until you spend time with a group like this. Each photographer reminded me of myself at a different moment during my teenage years — awkward, hopeful, obsessed with the future, eager to meet and join the rest of the world.

These budding photographers captured their subjects’ authentic selves in a way that I don’t think many professionals could pull off. The young women they featured were unapologetic about who they are — and so willing to allow their peers to document moments of real tragedy and joy.

One photographer, Adèle Foglia of Montreal, captured a girl named Lori’anne singing “God Is a Woman” by Ariana Grande on her iPhone before heading out for the evening.

Another, Julie Lozano of the Bronx, captured the mother of a girl named Maryclare brushing her daughter’s hair out of her face before getting in the car to take her to Brown University. This particularly poignant image spoke to me on so many levels.

Lori’anne Bemba in Montreal.Credit
Adèle Foglia for The New York Times

Now, two months after my own young adult left for college, I’m proud, and a bit tearful, to be sending 22 others out into the world. We hope you’ll take a look at their stories.

Sandra Stevenson is an assistant editor in the photography department at The New York Times. #ThisIs18, which launched today, is a collaboration between the Gender Initiative, the Styles desk, the photo department and many other departments across the newsroom.

Help Us Celebrate Girlhood Around the World

Share a photo of yourself at 18 with the hashtag #ThisIs18 on your favorite social platform. What advice would you give to the girl in the photo? Follow along on Instagram as we feature some of our favorite TBTs.

Keep up with Times Insider stories on Twitter, via the Reader Center: @ReaderCenter.





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