When I started looking for stories about young people in New Zealand, I discovered that a lot has been written about them, but very little of it spoke to actual teenagers.
This is what you might learn about teenagers from the media: Teens have higher rates of mental illness than ever before. They protest against climate change, but also, they’re not as wild as their parents were. Less sex, fewer drugs. They’re spending an awful lot of time on social media. They’re really pessimistic about the future.
We hear from the people around them—their parents and teachers and counsellors. The people who watch them and worry about them. We don’t really hear their own worries, thoughts, concerns.
Part of this is because it’s delicious to be outraged about what the youth are up to, sure. But part of this is also to do with good journalistic ethics—it’s not cool to put a kid on the spot for a quote. We’ve all said dumb things as teens and none of them are written down in the pages of a national magazine.
And yet, as the pandemic went into its second year, I couldn’t help but wonder what it was like to be on the precipice of adulthood at this moment in time. An uncertain present and an uncertain future. The big OE temporarily out of the question. Family finances strained. A tough job market to enter. A second world, online, which never stops or sleeps—and which you can’t opt out of without losing friendships.
We knew that if we wanted to produce a story about young people, it would require time. A lot of time.
Enough to really get a sense of a person, a family, a circumstance. And it couldn’t be about just one person—there would have to be many. It was the kind of project that was too big and expensive to make. It went into the box of impossible stories.
Then, in the wake of COVID-19, NZ On Air began offering grants to magazines like this one. Normally, NZ On Air only provides funding to broadcast journalism—television, video and radio—but during the pandemic, for a three-year period, it expanded its remit to include written journalism and photography.
We received funding for a year-long project to document a group of young people who were broadly representative of the ages, locations, and ethnicities of teens in New Zealand today. We sought out teenagers. We met their parents. We mobilised a big group of writers and photographers.
We bothered our teen participants as they studied for exams (Liam and Seilala), got ready for the ball (Vidi, Will, Ceejay), at their birthday parties (Hawaikii, Ceejay), at their prizegivings (Vidi). We photographed their bedrooms (Te Orahi, Ceejay) and their soft toys (Jaxon), their breakfasts and board games and sports tournaments (Mihi).
It turned out to be a tough assignment. “I honestly think these might be my most challenging interview subjects yet,” one writer said. There were floods and COVID-19 outbreaks and a lot of unanswered messages, calls, chats, DMs. But it was also joyful. Documenting one of Seilala’s performances at Papatoetoe High took photographer Edith Amituanai back to her high-school Samoan group dancing days. Photographer Becki Moss sat in on a health class she wished she’d been able to take in school. And we all came to care for these teens and their families. We hope that comes through on the page.