Youth Culture expressed through art

Youth culture dates back to the 19th century when the notion of youth as a separate, stormy, rebellious stage of life emerged


The term ‘ adolescence’ is used to describe the transition between childhood and being an adult. This is often a confusing and an explorative section in many lives in which teens are almost left in a weird ‘limbo’ state of shift; torn between responsibility and freedom. Many teens are expected to behave like children and take on adult roles at the same time. There is now a preference within writers for adolescence being a transitional process instead of a stage. I want to explore what ways youths are distinguished from other generations and through how these contrasts are made. Examining in photography, how is youth identity created and portrayed. In particular, focusing on interior spaces and belongings to further a narrative into one’s character, specifically bedroom spaces. The bedroom of a teenager is often a private and confidential space which can reveal a lot about a character. By entering someone’s personal place I want to research how this could provide an accurate yet personal account of their identity.

The sub-culture of youth focuses on the way adolescents live and the social norms, values and practices they share. There is often a close emphasis on popular music, vocabulary, clothes and dating; a few characteristics that can form distinctive qualities from the rest of society. In regards to identity development, youth culture may be a way of developing an identity during a time when one’s role in life is not always clear.

The medium of photography and art can challenge its viewers to look closely at the documentation and portrayal of young people. Many artists have opened questions of identity through photography, it can be a method of character formation. In particular, I want to explore artists such as Adrienne Salinger who photographs teenagers in their rooms, taking particular focus on their belongings and how this creates an identification. Many of our perceptions of young people are created through photographic and mass media representation. When looking at Salinger’s images it shows how teenagers have made their spaces their own, forwarding the image of personal identity. Rather than looking at just the portrait you almost match them with their interior space.

In regards to teenagers ‘Bedroom Culture’ by Bovill and Livingstone 2001 is a set of typical meanings and practices intimately associated with identity and privacy. This has become linked to the domestic space of youth bedrooms, especially in modern society. The importance of the bedroom is now correlated with identity. Young people are now taking a great interest in the Feng shui of their bedrooms. The bedroom promotes a flexible place where youths can have independence yet create a social space of entertainment. From the perspective of the social psychology of adolescence, ‘Valued material possession, it is argued, act as signs of the self that are essential in their own right for its continued cultivation, and hence the world of meaning that we create for ourselves, and that creates ourselves, extends literally into the objective surroundings’ (Rochberg-Halton, 1984). Adolescence rooms can express who they are and who they wish to be. It’s seen as a private and safe space where conduction of identity can be created. This is again backed by the theory from Brown et al, who offers us a glimpse into the lives of teenagers that associates the construction of identity, space and digital technology; ‘The bedroom is an important place for most adolescents, a personal space in which they can experiment with possible selves’ (Buckingham, 2008, 33). These psychological theorists bring me to connect the photographic series ‘In my room: Teenagers in their bedrooms’ by Adrienne Salinger which offers visual connections to the ideology above.


‘Our bedrooms tell stories about us. They become the repository for memories, desire and self-image’ (Salinger 1995)

This coming-of-age photo series shows great nostalgia, photographing teenager’s bedrooms in the early 90’s. This series focuses on teenagers as the subject matter as they are on the edge of rapid change and identity development. Salinger introduced herself to teens found at malls, restaurants and through friends; she would go into these stranger’s homes and bedrooms asking just one thing from them, not to prepare or clean their rooms. In total she photographed 43 teenagers over a two-year period. It’s interesting to see how different the rooms are decorated, never two are the same.

There are of course similarities that are apparent between the rooms such as musical equipment, mainly guitars, and posters. This reiterates social norms amongst youth culture. Putting forward the values they share especially shown here with music. These distinctive qualities connect the individuals together as a society sharing similar qualities whilst still respecting individual traits.

Salinger was very involved with how people decorated their rooms, making this personal space their own and finding their own identity. It’s interesting to view how people define themselves in a space, the décor and objects they own can work in correspondence in forwarding a personality.

What is engaging amongst these images is the contrast between the objects in the room and the awkward static poses from the subject. The positioning and mannerisms of how the subjects portrayed themselves in front of the camera display this development of youth. Photographer Rainer Matter’s series ‘A girl in her room’ focuses on female impending adulthood. The focus on the girls posing reminds me of the same teenager static positioning shown in Salinger’s work. Taking images of female youths in their bedrooms she again looks at an insider’s perspective of not just who these teens are but how the interior spaces surrounding them prove to be extensions of their identities. She quotes ‘My aim is to portray the girl, when allowed to pose herself as she wishes in front of the camera. I try to capture alternatively the angst, the self-confidence or lack thereof, the body language, the sense of selfhood and the developing sense of sexuality and womanhood, that girls this age experience’ (Mater, R 2016) By looking at the stance of the teenager surrounded by the bedroom decorations the medium of photography works well in portraying the idea of youths finding themselves.

Forwarding the notion of this transitional moment in life. These objects found in the teens rooms can reveal much about the fears and hopes of each individual. They can also display contradictions. Objects from the past and present can show the malleability of identity, and how young people are trying to figure out who they are. Elements of this include, soft toys, pet animals, posters, music equipment etc. One image shows a young boy with posters of Lamborghini cars, caps, stereo equipment and stuffed animals [see figure 1] The contradiction between soft toys and posters of high speed cars furthers the understanding that teens are going through a development point of finding their identity mixed from prior moments and current. It shows the stages that occur when you’re on the edge of change represented through belongings. Young people’s bedrooms are almost an extension and projection of themselves.

What heightens the idea of showing youth identities through this image sequences are the two hour interviews Salinger did alongside the photographs. In the book she created, she accompanies the imagery with quotes which highlights and represents that person’s life also creating a more forceful narrative. Knowles and Sweetman argue that ‘the use of visual materials such as photographs in ethnography is worthwhile because photos can achieve something that methods relying on speech and writing cannot’ (Knowles, C ,Sweetman, P, 2004) . In this example the photographs can visually stand for themselves but with connecting quotes, from the teenagers themselves, the ideology of youths is put forwards stronger and some stereotypes are removed.

Offering us a glimpse into bedrooms around the world, photographer John Thackwray again promotes ‘Bedroom culture’ in a more global demeanor. ‘My room’ a photo series by Thackwray is a comparable project to Adrienne Salinger’s Teenagers in their bedroom’. Thackwray started photographing his friends in their Parisian bedrooms with focus to capture their style, interests and hobbies. He wanted to document the divergent lifestyles of the millennial generations, exhibiting how they express themselves. Capturing a large subject matter, he photographed 1,200 portraits over 55 countries. By including a larger sample, he forwards bedroom culture being a worldwide theory.

Keeping a uniformity amongst his images Thackwray shots them all in the same perspective, a centered high angled shot. The subject was then positioned in the middle looking up. Similarly, to Salinger when finding young participants, he looked through social media, local organizations and in the streets. One aspect that is the most apparent similarity is the contrast in changing belongings. Thackwray’s image titled ‘Marcello’ [see fig. 2] displays an 18-year-old boy in the center of his room. The room is contrasted with intense colours but what stands out again is the diversity through his belongings, soft childlike throws and teddies scattered in opposition from TV’s and music equipment. Dodman (2003, p.294) argues, ‘The subject nature of a photograph in a context such as a young person’s bedroom can be very useful in determining the different ways in which bedroom culture can manifest, shift and change over time’ (Dodman,2003). Thackwray’s work combines visual anthropology and social photography. Alongside his imagery he also conducted in-depth interviews about love, education and lifestyle, giving a greater insight.

Looking back on the idea of youth being a transitional ever-changing state Thackwray states in an interview about his up and coming book from this project ‘I’ve chosen about 100 people, who in my opinion represent the youth of the world. I’ve written their stories and given them a way to express themselves about the world of tomorrow.'(Thackwray,2016)  Photographs are often used to forward a voice that can be made more apparent visually, another theory that emphasizes this is by Steele and Brown (1995) where they have demonstrated photography’s use in difficult to access spaces such as young people’s bedrooms they found ‘the bedrooms and the bedroom culture captured opened up an unexpectedly rich vein of information about adolescence identities and media use’ (Steele,J Brown,J 1995)

Considering these images taken in Bolivia to Salinger’s images taken in America, there is a suggestion of sameness throughout the world in regards to bedroom culture within youths, again reiterating this importance amongst teens. Going back to the point on youth culture, it focuses on the social norms and values that teens share. From both photographic series’ it’s apparent that social norms found within the bedroom are consistent amongst youths worldwide.

Examining youth ‘bedroom culture’ amongst cross-cultural studies ‘In my room’ is a digital bedroom project’, including 50 participants from Pietermaritz.  Here the girls took digital photographs of their bedrooms to create and then show a presentation. The photographs digitally produced by these girls shows an interesting display of ‘girl stuff’ ranging from dolls, iPods, soft toys, photos of families and friends etc. As part of their presentation they were then asked to select their favorite objects and to take photographs of ‘girl spaces’ images of places that they would hide their precious things, for example drawers. Also asked to present hiding spaces for themselves when they want to be alone. This compliments and extends the work of McRobbie and Garber who manufactured the term ‘bedroom culture’ in 1976 to describe the cultural space of girls and young women. By looking at the visual data collected from this study we can explore what girl’s bedrooms reveal about their identity.

McRobbie and Garber wanted to address the ‘invisibility of the girls in studies of youth sub culture’.(McRobbie, Garber 2015) They found that the girl’s bedrooms where an array of public and private spaces. Spaces where social interaction could take place; they could talk on the phone, write in diaries have sleepovers etc.

Again another notable interest within this study, just like the others, was the objects the girls were photographing. They mixed images with ‘big girl’ accessories such as belts and handbags. Again mixing future and past objects to show the change and growth in youths. The difference between this study and the photographic series by Salinger and Thackwray is that the girls themselves where choosing what to photograph instead of the photographers. By self-representing it can almost work in coherence with the identity they want to illustrate and who they wish to be, similarly to the décor of the bedroom. As noted previously the way young people decorate their rooms can be a portrayal of who they wish to be mixed in with multiple transitional personalities.

Experimentation and exploration is an important factor in growing. This duality often occurs in the bedroom itself. The idea of youth identity can be created and furthered by the medium of photography which shown here seeks to visually represent this stage of change, especially in relation to bedroom culture. The transitional period of adolescence is made apparent through interior spaces and the way teens decide to decorate and furnish their personal space. By entering someone’s intimate place you can see, through objects past and present, ideas of the ever changing and growing teen. Forwarding ideas on who they were and want to be. Showing that youth identity is a malleable state in one’s life in which the bedroom plays an important part in finding this development.

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