We Are the Youth is an ongoing photojournalism project (and a beautiful book) that documents the as-told-by experiences of gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, transgender and questioning youth across the country. AWT spoke with We Are the Youth founders Laurel Golio and Diana Scholl about what inspired them to hit the road in search of these unique stories, and what they’ve learned in the process.
How did you come up with the project idea?
Diana Scholl: Laurel is a photographer and in 2010 was interested in photographing queer youth. She approached me to see if I knew anyone, and I suggested that I could interview the youth that she photographed. This was right around the time Constance McMillan wasn’t allowed to bring her girlfriend to prom, and LGBTQ youth were just starting to be part of the news but the stories being told were pretty narrow, so this was an opportunity to broaden the lens.
What is the origin of the title?
Diana Scholl: Laurel and I went to high school together and our friends had a band that had a song called “Beware (we are the youth).” A couple weeks after we started collaborating for this project we both simultaneously thought of “We Are the Youth” as the name of the project. It so fit what we were trying to show.
How did you find your participants? How did you approach them?
Laurel Golio: We find our participants all sorts of ways. Some find us through word of mouth, social media or by reading articles about our project. Some we find by reaching out to LGBTQ youth groups or individuals directly. We do a lot of outreach when we travel, try different approaches and one person or group usually leads to another. We even found a participant through a Craigslist ad when we were in Nebraska!
Was it difficult at first to make people feel comfortable enough to share their stories with you?
Diana Scholl: Not really. We approach everyone very respectfully, and take cues from the youth on what they do and don’t want to share.
Laurel Golio: I find it helpful to sit in on the interview before taking the portrait, to try to get a sense of the individual. Usually we talk for awhile before the portrait session.
In regards to participants’ stories, what are differences you noticed in the many regions you visited?
Diana Scholl: It varies person to person, of course. One thing we noticed was in the South, people placed more emphasis on religion that in other areas.
What was the most touching story for each of you?
Diana Scholl: I love Noah’s story, since, like many, he has such a nice arc of overcoming adversity and becoming an activist. I also love Elliott and Izabela’s stories because they are so different than other profiles and both illustrate the theme of our project—that there is no one way to be queer.
Laurel Golio: I don’t know if I can pick a “most touching!” It’s like choosing your favorite child or something—you love all of them equally! The stories from the younger participants always move me. Jazz, who was 12 when we interviewed her, was (and still is) such an amazing young person. We met her at the Philly Trans Health Conference along with many other younger participants (Phoenix, who was 15 at the time), and I found those stories to be very touching. The majority of our participants range from I’d say 17–20, so it’s always great to hear from younger people.
Did you purposefully seek out a wide range of ages, backgrounds and ethnicities or did it naturally occur?
Diana Scholl: We purposely and deliberately seek out diversity. A lot of it happens organically but we are very conscious of sharing a wide range of stories.
Laurel Golio: Yes, this is one of our main goals—to really seek out diverse stories—to try to represent and share as many experiences as possible. We still have a long way to go, but it’s definitely a priority for us.
To fund this project you’ve done two successful Kickstarters and worked together with Cameron Russell’s Space-Made. How long was the process and how did you come up with the strategy?
Diana Scholl: We haven’t really had a strategy. Over the last 4+ years we’ve set goals and tried to figure out what resources we’d need to achieve them. The Kickstarter campaigns were ways to fund travel and expand the diversity of the project.
Working with Cameron Russell’s Space-Made was a happy accident. We have long wanted to do a book as a way to create a lasting archive of our project, and Cameron was seeking out artistic endeavors that wouldn’t be funded elsewhere. Hence the collaboration was born.
Whose hands would you most like the book to be in?
Diana Scholl: We’d love queer or questioning youth who live in isolated communities to read these stories and know they are not alone.
Laurel Golio: We’d also love the book to get into more libraries and schools across the country. Not just high schools but the younger grades as well. It’s so important to have diverse reading material in schools and community centers. Our project aims to show that there isn’t one way to be queer, there are many different queer experiences. The wider the reach of that message and the more exposure these stories get will hopefully allow more young people to see themselves (or someone similar to them) represented.
Buy the book: We Are the Youth
Read also: We Are the Youth: Phoenix’s Story