As a photographer, Kate Engelbrecht is like a fly on the wall. She shoots spontaneously, capturing fleeting moments in time. Her passion for photography began in her early twenties while working in advertising in New York. There, she saw beautiful images for ads as they floated in and out the door of her firm. Soon after, Engelbrecht left that job, began shooting, starting her love affair with the camera.
She fell into wedding photography and later moved into working with families and children. Approaching the family portrait as a documentary, rather than in the traditionally stiff, posed manner, Engelbrecht was able to create cohesive images that told a story. This experience created the foundation for The Girl Project.
Englebrecht wanted to create a captivating coffee table book, but needed an equally captivating subject. She found it in her fascination with the growing media content focused on teenage girls. She was curious to discover if what she was seeing on television, in shows like "Gossip Girl" and "The Hills," was indeed accurate. and if today’s teenage girls were being correctly represented. She had a sneaking suspicion they weren’t and wanted a truer portrait. She needed to discover what could have gone so terribly wrong, or perhaps catch a clearer glimpse into the culture of today’s American girl.
So, about two years ago, Engelbrecht purchased 5,000 disposable cameras and sent them to teenage girls ages 13-18 across the country, asking them to simply document their everyday lives. The only guidelines were to take honest pictures, with parental consent of course.
When asked about the kinds of pictures she received, and what was most surprising. "The most shocking thing is that there is very little shocking material at all,” Englebrecht said. “One of the most important findings was how innocent these girls actually are, which is easy to forget with all of the images that are out there in the media now." The candid images were introspective, innocent, and serious in a most revealing way.
Along with the disposable cameras, Engelbrecht sent out questionnaires for the girls which were initially created to double check herself and make certain she read the images correctly. The words and sentiments the girls sent back far exceeded simple questionnaire answers and took on a life of their own. Engelbrecht plans to use snippets from these as text in her book.
"There is a lot of beautiful candor in these questionnaires that is really, really touching," she said.
Touching indeed — so much so, that Englebrecht has said that her goal for "The Girl Project" has totally changed. A coffee table photography book will not be enough. She said needs to add some narrative, so that the girls’ stories and perspectives are conveyed through both words and images. She is now actively pursuing the concept of a traveling exhibition.
Professionals are professionals because they have studied and mastered their craft. There is another interesting aspect, however, particularly when it comes to photographs. Englebrecht has proven that sometimes the most honest and truthful images can come from the innocent and untrained eye. No special lenses, lighting, angles or direction was needed. These girls just pressed a button and created a raw snapshot of their own lives.
The project has evolved immeasurably in two short years. Starting with a friend’s two daughters, Englebrecht has now had girls from every state take part, and even has a large presence on social media sites like Facebook.
When asked if she may ever undertake a similar venture with teenage boys or even adolescents from across the world, Engelbrecht responded with bright anticipation.
"We are all living very similar and very different experiences," she said.