Deanna Templeton’s new book, What She Said, is a stark and challenging self-reflection, part memoir and pair social documentary, addressing the challenges young women face during adolescence. The book is composed of two basic elements: fragments and scans of diaries Templeton kept during her own teenage years, and pictures made of young women she met on the streets of California during her adult life, spanning two decades of her work as a photographer. The book feels like both a personal catharsis and confessional, and also a plea for all of us to take a much closer look at the pain and struggles so many teenage girls experience. As Templeton writes herself in the book’s introduction:
As someone who survived a turbulent transition into adulthood, I hope that this look into my teen-aged mindset and adolescent dramas, paired with these modern girls evolving into adulthood, will convey the sense that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and we will all be able to look back at our youth and smile, remembering how intense life feels at that age.
As relayed in the included diary entries, Templeton had a challenging youth, full of incredible self-doubt and self-destruction. She addresses such issues as eating disorders, drugs, self-cutting, and rape. The diaries are presented as scans of the original artefacts – as the pages of a bubblegum pink notebook, a few snapshots, and saved concert posters – as well as fragments typed out at a later date.
The included portraits have an interesting quality. There are a number of great bodies of photographs made of adolescent girls – like Lauren Greenfield’s books Thin and Girl Culture, or, more recently Rania Matar’s theatrical portraits of girls in the United States and the Middle East – but Templeton’s have a different edge. The girls in What She Said all seem fiercely independent (in the introduction she calls them “bad-assed”), but also willing to embrace their own roles on the peripheries of normalcy and social acceptance. They are presented with clarity and compassion, making all of them feel charismatic and self-possessed.
If Templeton’s book is part biography and part social documentary, I’d like to share a response that is the same. I had a strong personal reaction to the book, on two different levels. I have a daughter the same age as Templeton was at the time she wrote the included diary entries, and she too is confronting many of the same issues. I found Templeton’s narration of her own adolescent life unsettling, adding much more gravity to the teen-aged angst and drama I am currently living with daily, but also strangely comforting, providing a clearer understanding that my daughter is not as isolated as it often feels to her and all of us supporting her through these challenges.
I’m the same age as Templeton – so my relationship to this work spans generations – and strangely found What She Said to be a generational piece, in a way reflecting my own childhood as a teenager. Granted the sort of angst and drama I felt as a teen-aged boy was a bit different, but no less poignant, and characterized by the same social iconography. Thus, the narrative of the book feels relevant to me, as a documentation of teenage counterculture in the 1980s.
Templeton’s portraits substantiate my belief that photography is often at its best when most simply conceived. There is nothing groundbreaking about her approach to portraiture, but the pictures are strong, clear, and concise, providing a great sense of empathy and respect to the subjects portrayed. More often than not, this kind of approach reveals more substance than the trickery often employed to make pictures feel more “contemporary.”
The book itself brings together some interesting elements in a way that feels unique and innovative. Photographers as diverse as Bill Burke and Peter Beard have included diary pages in their books, but never with the sort of reflection that time and distance offer. Templeton gives a mature self-awareness to temper the incredible emotional abundance offered by her youth. Most photobooks that include written diaries treat the photographs as similar material, with the images offering congruent information and perspectives as the written entries. In What She Said, however, the photographs and the diary entries are separate but parallel narratives, each adding substance to the other, making the narrative that occurs between the diaries and the photographs the real content of the book. Thus, Templeton’s book offers something a bit more elusive and abstract, and presents a narrative about a more universalized pain that accompanies young women through adolescence.
What I admire most of Templeton’s book, however, is the honesty, bravery, and incredible lack of embarrassment or shame. I often feel all our lives would be better with much more transparency about our emotional being, and What She Said provides a photographic testament to all we have to gain when offering ourselves publicly with so much courage.