Robin Bowman is a New York-based photojournalist devoted to documenting social and political issues, both at home and abroad.
After majoring in Anthropology at Wheaton College, Bowman studied photography at the Maine Photo Workshops. In 1984, she moved to New York City where she worked at Magnum Photos before pursuing a career as a photojournalist. She now resides in Maine.
She has worked as a freelance editorial photographer for such publications as the Berlin Journal, Fortune, Life, Newsweek, the New Yorker, Sport’s Illustrated, Time, and U.S. News and World Report. She also spent four years as a contract photographer for People.
Her magazine and book projects have taken her to Bosnia, Cuba, Finland, Haiti, Israel, Mexico, Nepal, Rwanda, and South America. For the last five years, Bowman has been interviewing and creating collaborative portraits with teenagers across the United States, which will be published by Umbrage Editions in the Fall of 2007.
In 1995, 1996, and 1999, Bowman’s photographs earned awards of excellence from the Communication Arts Photography Annual. She is the recipient of a 2005 W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund Fellowship, and she has received several grants from Polaroid. Her photographs have been included in exhibitions worldwide and are part of the International Polaroid Collection.
For the last five years, I photographed and interviewed more than 400 teenagers across the United States, documenting personal histories of the largest generation of adolescents born since the baby boom.
Adolescence is a time of insecurity feeding off the trauma of change, an often volatile time when teens experiment with different identities and seek to define who they are becoming. They challenge the definition and boundaries of normality. The breadth of my inquiry has ranged from grandchildren of a presidential family to teenage gang members in New York City, from a prodigal teen born to talent to one of the only teenage coal miners in West Virginia.
This project is not an outsider’s assessment but a collaborative effort. My use of a Polaroid camera allows the teens to view their pictures immediately and to refine poses and appearances until the final image captures the way they want the world to see them. It is through this process, informed by feelings of trust and openness, that the impact of this study is generated.
The power of these images is complemented by the words of the teenagers themselves. Through candid interviews, I have captured their complex thoughts and feelings about their lives, hopes, fears, families, beliefs, and undefined futures. Their responses to a series of 25 questions allowed me to explore their attitudes toward sensitive subjects such as race, religion, sexuality, and the trauma of 9/11. While the words and images provide no final answers, the project offers many solid clues about the shape of this generation—and the country that formed them.
New ethnic groups seeking freedom and opportunity have rivaled the surge of early immigration that made this country great. Many Americans feel a sense of pride about the country’s diversity, but many others, especially in rural America, hold on to a sense of national identity that is threatened by diversity. Ethnic groups that leave the urban centers and relocate to more remote areas of America are changing these communities and challenging attitudes toward differences. Their teenage children, confronted with the desire to assimilate and the need to preserve cultural identity, are part of the cultural face of contemporary America.
Other themes, familiar from the recent election in which the nation seemed divided into warring camps of red and blue, also emerge from the images, especially the clash between state and religion, war and peace, individual freedom and the demand for communal control. Equally telling, and disturbing, are the common threads: there is no shortage of absent parents, irrelevant schools, drugs both legal and illicit, and violence. But the project is not despairing. Rather, it finds hope in the strength and courage displayed by these remarkable young people as they struggle to define themselves.
Most people have a preconceived notion about what it means to be an American. I hope that the diversity of these stories will challenge and change some of these long-held beliefs.
—Robin Bowman, June 2007