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Photographer Kate Engelbrecht's book Please
Read (if at all possible) The Girl Project
is a beautiful collection of photos and questionnaires taken by teenage girls across the country. I loved how honest all of the girls were, choosing to capture not only the magic of teenage girlhood but also the trials and tribulations. I recently spoke to Kate about the project.
—Hazel Cills

Why did you decide to create The Girl Project?

I wanted to do a photography book project, that was my number one reason. As I was thinking about different subject matters I realized I have always been fascinated with teenage girlhood and I care very deeply about women's issues. The inspiration was sort of the fact that, in my opinion, teenage girls were being horribly misrepresented by our culture and the media. I felt that the teenage girls out there were there simply for our culture's consumption. And that is not right or fair, especially since the culture is getting it wrong.

So for the project I wanted to find out what teenage girls are actually like today. Had it really changed so much from my own teen years? Then I was just curious about what it is like to be a teen girl today. It seemed like an interesting concept to explore and it quickly grew into what it is now. The girls got excited and involved and as their images and words came back to me, it became really important to get this information out there.

How did you find the girls who participated in the project?

It was a very slow process at first. I had a really hard time because I didn't know any teenage girls. I contacted everyone I knew and asked them "Do you have a daughter? Do you have a neighbor?" and I think I got like two responses. Then I contacted leaders of Girl Scout troops and Girls Inc., and then I put little ads on Facebook that would pop up on the pages of girls ages 13-18 living anywhere in the United States and who had expressed an interest in photography. From there I started to wake up every morning and get emails from girls requesting a camera.

Why did you choose the title, Please Read (if at all possible)?

This letter [asking if it was too late to send a camera in] from this girl Jordan was so sincere and to me it encapsulated who she was and who girls are at this stage in their life. On the outside of her letter she wrote, "Please Read (if at all possible) — Thanks" and it was so polite. "If at all possible," she says, like if you have the time please read this. It really showed this lovely and sincere side of girls and that is not the voice that the world is selling.

How did you choose which pictures got into the book?

We eventually had something like upwards of 27,000 photos. The themes became very apparent early on. The girls were talking about similar issues so we recognized those themes and picked photos that touched on them.

So many of the pictures (like mirror shots or the page with just pictures of scales on it) are extremely similar. Why do you think many of the photos are, almost, the same photo?

I think it's very telling that, one: it's no secret that body image is a huge issue, with girls and with women. I think, two: it tells us that girls living across the country from different backgrounds share this in common. It's interesting that a lot of those pictures are very heavy and dark. When I was showing the photographs to people and was shopping the book around to publishers a response that I often got from grown-ups, in particular from men, was "Oh, this is too dark" or "It's too negative." To me, they just seemed very real. I don't think of those things as being particularly shocking or negative, it's just a part of life. I think for a lot of adults it touched on a subject that they didn't really want to think about. That's not how they wanted to see girlhood. They didn't want to think that maybe their teenage daughter is struggling with those things.

Do you have a favorite photo or quote from the book?

One of my favorite quotes is the girl who answered the question "What are you most afraid of?" with "I'm afraid of not knowing where to sit at lunch." And I just thought, who isn't? For a teenage girl that's a genuine fear and it's a fear if you're the least popular or if you're the most popular. It's a fear as a grown-up as well! Hopefully you're a little more confident as a person but when you walk into a lunchroom or a party you still don't know exactly where to go, how you fit in, or who to talk to. The girls in the book said things very simply and they revealed universal concepts not just about girls but about people in general. It does get better as you get older, but adults don't have everything figured out.

Do you think The Girl Project will help change the stereotypical image of teenage girls?

It has definitely changed the way I view girls. I was so pleasantly surprised to know them in this way. These girls are really inspiring and the fact that they are going to be the leaders of our society in the upcoming years and decades is really excellent news. Do I think the book will make a difference? I hope so. I think people who read the book could potentially be inspired enough to spread the message, the truth, of what it means to be a teenage girl.

Do you think the world is listening to teenage girls as much as it should be? Do you think their emotions and experiences are undervalued?

Absolutely undervalued and I don't think people are listening to them. I think people are watching them and I think society is consuming them. Society likes to be entertained by them and finds them amusing but I don't think society is really valuing who they are or what they have to say. People have created this story about these girls that is completely false.

What do you want teenage girls to take from The Girl Project?

I want girls to understand and recognize that what they're going through and what they are experiencing, although it's very unique, is not just happening to them. It is a shared experience and they are not alone in their frustration and insecurity. I think particularly when you're a teenager it's really easy to get into your own head and believe that whatever you're going through, you're the only one. Recognizing that you are not alone is a very powerful realization. You can write that on paper but to really understand it is a meaningful experience.