'To Be Thirteen:' Photographer Documents The Beauty Behind This Transitional Age

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Tuesday, June 5, 2018 - 3:52pm
Updated: Friday, June 8, 2018 - 3:40pm

Audio icon Download mp3 (10.93 MB)

To Be Thirteen Betsy Schneider Phoenix Art Museum
Betsy Schneider/Tilt Gallery
"Jack" Sharon, MA, 2012.

It’s this time of transition for most of us. We’re right at the end of childhood, on the cusp of being a teenager. It’s not easy, but one artist decided to zero in on this time in the lives of more than 250 13-year-olds, because she thinks it’s actually a really beautiful moment in their lives.

Photographer Betsy Schneider’s resulting project, "To Be Thirteen," is showing now at the Phoenix Art Museum. In it, she explores, through portraits and videos, what it means to be at this transitional point in life.

When The Show spoke with Schneider more about it, she said it started with documenting her own daughter at this tenuous age.


LAUREN GILGER: All right for this next segment, I have an important question for you Steve. Do you remember what it was like when you were 13 years old?

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, Lauren, my incredible model good looks turned against me at that point. I had to start wearing glasses for the first time, which of course, as a 13-year-old boy feels fantastic.

GILGER: Yes, yes. I remember really being very awkward. My hair was very oddly wavy at that point in my life, and it's really, it's a time of transition for most of us. We're at the end of childhood and kind of on the cusp of being a teenager, being more of an adult. It's not easy but one artist decided to really zero in on this time in the lives of more than 250 13-year-olds because she thinks it's actually a really beautiful moment in their lives. Photographer Betsy Schneider's resulting project "To Be 13" is showing now at the Phoenix Art Museum, and in it, she explores through portraits and videos what it means to be at this really transitional point in life. When I spoke with her more about it, she told me it started by documenting her own daughter at this tenuous age.

BETSY SCHNEIDER: You know, my practice has involved making art out of my life. I did a lot of work with my kids when they were little. I had a camera with me all the time. I had this idea of kind of blending being an artist and a photographer with being mom and I hit this point where my daughter was getting closer to adolescence and I was actually at a play, actually in Scottsdale, where people were performing monologues written by mothers. There was another piece that was this woman talking about her 12-year-old daughter, and she was talking about her daughter becoming an adolescent, being 12, and how she kind of was hurting her all the time and being mean and rude, and intellectually, I was actually thinking, this is a little trite. I was thinking, this is kind of like, you know, yeah, we all know this, whatever, poor mom thing. But, I was crying. I was like, oh there's some cognitive dissonance going on inside of me right now. My daughter is maybe 10 or 11 at that time and I started to think, you know, wow, maybe you have some issues about this impending adolescence. So that was one of the angles and I started to think, okay, how can I transform this anxiety into something creative, into art? But I was also really, I think I was scared for her, too, because of — scared is a strong word, but I was anxious because I just started to remember how, vividly, how hard middle school had been for me, and how much of an outsider I had felt like. So that was kind of the beginning of it.

GILGER: So now there are 250 13-year-olds documented in this. So who are the rest of these kids? How did you find them when you branched this out?

To Be Thirteen Phoenix Art Museum Betsy Schneider
Betsy Schneider/Tilt Gallery
Betsy Schneider, Adele, Tempe Arizona, 2011. Photograph.

SCHNEIDER: So it started with my daughter, and then it started with her friends, and it started with my partner's son and his friends, and then I found people through Facebook. Colleagues found me people. There were a few people who actually went out and found 13-year-olds that they knew. My college roommate, who lives in Portland, I went up there and she found me 20 kids that she knew. I started tapping into networks. It kind of spun out. It was hard though. I mean it's hard in some ways. Early on, I was looped into my own demographics and I realized how hard it was, in fact, to get out of my own demographic, which that took some time and effort on my part.

GILGER: Yeah, yeah I'm sure. So you talked about how this kind of, the idea came because your daughter was slowly entering adolescence and 13 is the sort of perfect transition age there. So as you documented these, as you look back on it now, what are the things that you think you can see and you've learned about that stage in life for different kids?

SCHNEIDER: It's interesting. I think I went at it feeling like I had been singularly different at that age, and one of the things that I realized is almost everybody feels like that. So that was one of the things I learned. I learned that there's this strange combination of awareness and lack of awareness, and almost every single person, there was this awareness that they're at some point of transition. I saw a lot about people asking questions about lots of levels of identity and I'm really interested in 13 being this place where everybody's an "other" for a period, a brief period.

GILGER: Yeah. So how do you see those things come out, those ideas about the transitional phase that they're in, this cusp of adulthood? How do you see those things in the work? How do you see those in the video and the portraits?

SCHNEIDER: I think there's something about the beauty in that age. I really realized I find them, actually, I find them really beautiful. I think you can see there's an awkwardness but I think there's something about the skin and just the last moment of a little lack of self-awareness that's really pretty profound and I think, you know, just being on the cusp of really transforming into adults. So I think that that for me has shown me something, but also, the videos ended up being more... they were just really incredible, I thought. I mean I felt like I didn't really do much besides just turn on the camera and talk to them and the way they talked to the camera and the way there was this chance for them, I think, to to open up and the way they did open up, which was really kind of incredible. I mean, not all of them, but a few of them would just get on camera and they would say things and you could see as they were saying them they were realizing what they were saying and realizing, not necessarily the absurdity, but sometimes you can see them almost, like, shift, you know, to see themselves from the outside or they'd have an opposite moment, where they'd they'd be guarded and then all of a sudden they'd say something, like, really emotional and revealing. There are several segments that I cried. I cried the first eight times I watched them and I finally don't for a couple of them now.

GILGER: So you mentioned that you've talked to some of these kids in the project since this was done in 2012, so they're all 18, 19, 20 now. What kinds of reactions have they had, the ones who have come to see it?

SCHNEIDER: So in some ways it's been really surprising, as I think they've been more empathetic towards themselves than I expected. At the opening reception, there were a couple kids who are actually, and they're not really kids anymore, young adults who were really anxious and nervous to see their picture because they remember that time period and when they actually saw the picture, they weren't as upset as they thought they would be. There's this real kind of distance, like I keep using the word compassion and empathy for their 13-year-old selves. They were excited in some ways and kind of honored to have been in it, which was interesting to me because I felt like they were all doing me a huge service, that you know they were giving me so much by being in this project, and a couple of them came to me afterwards and said that being in the project was really valuable and important for them, and they were able to either talk about something or process what they were going through at that age. They've been really philosophical in a way that's really been surprising and really nice.

GILGER: Yeah. Betsy Schneider, thank you so much for coming on The Show.

SCHNEIDER: Thank you.

GILGER: Betsy Schneider is a photographer and artist. Her show "To Be Thirteen" is at the Phoenix Art Museum right now.

If you like this story, Donate Now!