I recently met the director of a local, not-for-profit agency that provides health care, social services and educational opportunities to one of the most at-risk populations in our society--unwed teenage mothers. I was immediately interested in her work and eventually asked if I could come in one day and take portraits of the girls.
During my conversations with the director in preparation for the shoot, I learned something about the young women that she serves. Some of these girls--as young as 13 years old-- became pregnant as a result of a short-term relationship with a neighborhood boy close to their same age and engaged in unprotected sexual activity far too soon to comprehend the long term emotional, social, and psychological consequences of becoming parents without education, job skills, career prospects, housing or the substantial financial resources that it takes to raise children.
The director also shared stories that confirmed some of my worst and darkest fears. Many of the girls are victims of rape by adult male predators, in their 30's and 40's, who in many cases have families and children of their own. She described scenarios where these girls are literally stalked over the course of time going to and from school, at bus stops and subway stations, where these men learn their potential victim's routine, slowly befriends the young girl, gains her trust and eventually takes advantage of her youth and naivete'.
During my 2 hours at the facility, which does have the limited capacity to house those in most dire need, I did witness at three instances where immediate crisis intervention was needed. Keep in mind that most of these girls are from some of the most traditionally under served, low-income, high crime areas. Some already have substance abuse issues, both during pregnancy and parenting. By the way, no one I met was over 17 years old.
I found the girls to be very upbeat, and for the most part, very eager to pose for the camera in the makeshift portable studio that I set up; After all, regardless of circumstance, very few teenage girls do not want to be photographed professionally.
This project was at once satisfying and heart-breaking. Satisfying to have the young girls smile for the camera, especially those that had their boyfriends with them; and yet so heart-breaking with the knowledge that at a such a tender age, they have this awesome responsibility to figure out how to be good mothers to children when they are yet children themselves.