It all started with the merging of two passions. The visual language of photography and a deep-rooted desire to change the world of teen girls.
My masters' thesis in graduate school was how to help teen girls maneuver the rocky terrain of adolescence. In early 2009, when we started Teen Identity, we decided to go with our gut and strictly focus on teen portraits, but then focus even more specifically on photographing and working with teen girls. There were no other studios with that single charge. We didn't know if it would work. What we did know was that it was needed, it spoke to the core of my passions, and if it worked, it could have life-changing consequences.
That summer my husband (Dare Dreamer Media director/producer Ron Dawson) created a promo video for our new studio where I shared my heart for teen girls and how I wanted to use my photography to raise their self-esteem, build their confidence, and help them unleash the true beauty within. From day one, it was more than just pretty pictures or technical images. It was about the power of visual imagery to change the way we see ourselves and therefore, how we interact with the world.
We spoke at a number of photography conventions that year, showing the video as an intro for me. The reaction we received was unexpected. Photographer after photographer commented on how much they loved our "movement."
We thought, "Movement? This isn't really a movement." But it opened our eyes to a need in the photography industry as well. We then started getting email inquiries from other photographers asking if were a franchise, or if they could copy us. We knew then that what we were doing was perhaps bigger than what we ever imagined.
“Every day young girls are relentlessly bombarded with images and messages in the media telling them that in order to be noticed, they have to wear less, say less, and be less than they were meant to be.” ~ Teen Identity VISION
That quote is from a 1-minute video we produced to highlight the profound negative effect media has on teen girls. Their level of self-esteem is intimately tied to what they see: how women are portrayed; the icons they look up to and how they carry themselves; and the shows they watch. We wanted to help teen girls realize that there is so much more to who they are than how they look or dress.
So we started our Media & Model Program. In the program, we work to achieve our objective to raise the self-esteem of teen girls by 1) producing fun and amazing concept photo shoots where they feel like celebrities, 2) producing fun and entertaining original YouTube video shows starring our girls team, and 3) giving them a voice via our online (and soon to be printed) magazine.
Our tag line for the program is "empowering teen girls to take back the media."
The latest project we completed was our most epic shoot to date—a fantasy-themed fashion photo shoot and corresponding original short film. The girls had a blast. Their parents got involved and had an amazing experience. To add to the experience, we produced a series of images where the girls look beautiful, bold and strong (as opposed to the way much of fashion photography depicts girls/women in dominated, victimized or over-sexualized poses and outfits).
You Too Can Make a Difference
As an artist, it is so fulfilling to know that my art is making a real difference in the world. The photography I get to create is indeed fulfilling. But in all honesty, it’s not all fun days and exciting shoots. There are times when I don’t want to care so much, when I wonder if it really matters, when I wonder if it’s worth the work. Whether it's dealing with price-conscious clients, or competing in a market where some photographers sell an hour-long photo shoot and a CD of edited high res images all for $40 (no, that's not a typo. That's $40, as in four-zero).
What keeps me going though are the girls... my girls, as I call them.
I find the strength to keep going when I get comments from a parent with tears in their eyes as they share how their daughter, who was completely in a shell due to severe bullying, is now confident, talking up a storm, and feels beautiful. Or when we receive a late-night note from a girl saying how she couldn't look in the mirror for a year, then after just one of our presentations, she looked at herself completely differently. Even when I have my doubts, that feedback makes it worth the effort.
Here are five tips on how you too can improve your craft, and make a difference:
1. Be authentic. First and foremost, be authentic. Let the girls see you as you really are. Show them you're not all together. Make them feel comfortable knowing that all the awkwardness they feel is normal.
2. Offer more. Our Media & Model program is the key differentiator between Teen Identity and surrounding studios. With the advent of HD DSLRs, there's no reason you couldn’t be working video into your repertoire of services. Also, think about other ways you can offer more than just "pretty pictures." If not video, maybe it's more elaborate photo shoots. Maybe it's customized photographic art (not selective color though). You have to create something that is empirically superior to what the average Jane or Joe can produce with their camera.
3. Learn about the girls. A key way we help the girls "unleash their true beauty" is learning as much as we can about them ahead of time. We send them a questionnaire that asks them about their favorites shows, music and movies. We encourage them to bring samples of poses or "looks" from magazines they may want to emulate. We learn about their hobbies. All of this helps me direct them in the photo shoot in a way that elicits their inner beauty.
4. Sexy doesn't have to be sexual. We've been shocked and dismayed at some of the extremely provocative poses and outfits we've seen teen GIRLS in... emphasis on "girls." There are ways you can show a beautiful, dare we say even "sexy," without it being "sexual." It's about showing their true selves, confidence, attitude... not about showing skin, body parts or sultry poses that we all see in fashion magazines.
5. Give back. A surefire way to raise the self-esteem of a teen is empowering them to help others. Organize a charity shoot and get your teens involved. Last year we produced a PSA to raise the awareness of the sexual exploitation of under-aged girls. We even did a corresponding photo essay. One of the girls commented that she never thought she could make such a difference in the world. That is powerful stuff.
Who knows how far Teen Identity will reach. It may explode onto the world stage, be spotted by the OWN network, and literally change the world of teen girls everywhere. That’s our dream. But it may stay within the confines of our current reach through our Facebook fan page and locally in our small town and surrounding areas. Either way, we believe that if it dramatically changes the life and world of just one girl, ultimately, that is worth it.
If you'd like to learn more about what we're doing with teens and how we can help you do the same with your clientele, visit teenidentity.net and become a member of the Teen Identity Network.
Tasra Dawson is an award-winning author and photographer who has reached billions of viewers internationally via appearances on NBC, ABC, Deeper Living, and Harvest TV. Her photography has been seen in galleries across the nation and her commercial work has been commissioned as far away as Korea.
Prior to launching her inspirational photography blog tasra mar/transform and Teen Identity Portraits & Magazine, Tasra was department and event photographer at Apple Inc. She is a sought after speaker for national conventions and conferences for photographers, filmmakers and authors, including teaching a master class at WPPI 2012 on Redefining Senior Portrait Photography.