It is hard to comprehend how the older generations dealt with different forms of communication and entertainment. These days, a life without a mobile phone, Sidekick, wireless internet and an iPod would be unbearable for youngsters. Whether you’re working, balling or even flying, access to divergent online or mobile information is only one hand click away. Instant messaging with multiple friends while requesting that information has become out of the common.
During a 5-month road trip through all fifty states, accomplished photographer/writer/director Michael Franzini — who developed Emmy Award winning MTV campaigns — and his crew captured the characteristics of youth culture. While interviewing and photographing a variety of teens in urban, rural, suburban and small town locations, the team came across impressive, inspiring, but also shocking stories about the lives of young Americans. All hundred stories, accompanied by splendid, storytelling pictures, are published in Franzini’s book, One Hundred Young Americans. Read on as Franzini tells Ballerstatus about the unique concept of his book, his work approach and experiences on the road.
BallerStatus.com: In One Hundred Young Americans you captured the lives of 100 individuals, who serve as a window into the lives of American teenagers today. How did you come up with the concept?
Michael Franzini: I wanted to paint the full picture of American youth culture. There is no other book to my knowledge — or TV show or website or anything else — out there that does this. There are a lot of outlets you can see a thin slice of youth culture, like skateboarders or rappers or athletes, but nowhere that you see the full spectrum. Brett Henenberg, the producer of this massive project, sat down with me about 18 months ago and, together we figured out what it would take to tell the whole story — and to make it accurate and complete. We decided we had to hit all 50 states. We had to match census data for gender, race and religion. We had to represent teens from big cities, small towns and suburbs — as well as the country kids and farm kids. And we had to get the full range — from the mainstream quarterbacks and cheerleaders to the fringe nerds, goths and everything in between. In the end, I think we did a decent job of representing the spectrum of teenagers in America.
BallerStatus.com: In the book you describe the current generation as the “instant access generation.” Explain that term.
Michael Franzini: This is the first generation to grow up entirely within the technological revolution of the past 20 years. Teenagers today have instant access to information — and to each other — on an unprecedented scale. Previous generations needed to pick up the phone to talk to each other. And they needed to go to the library to get answers to questions — a place most teenagers rarely if ever go today. Now, the typical teen chats simultaneously with 10 or 20 friends, at the same time as downloading music, watching TV and surfing the web. Often all while doing their homework! This is a drastic change from previous generations and it has all kinds of implications. One is that parents have far less control. Parents have less control over who their kids talk to and what they know. The power of Google means that kids can get instant answers to almost any question they can imagine. For the most part, this is a good thing, but there are some unexpected implications.
For example, we’re seeing a rise in prescription drug abuse among teens. The internet gives them the power to decode any prescription label in their parents’ medicine cabinet and it allows them pick out the ones that they think they might enjoy. “Instant access” also had a huge effect on teens’ identities. Kids can be whatever they want to be, and they are likely to make the decision to do so much earlier in life. We have one guy in the book who’s a vampire. He wears fangs full-time and hangs out with his adoptive “vampire family.” Because of “instant access,” he quickly found many others just like him and settled into this identity. Without this “instant access,” his interest in vampires might have just been a fleeting phase.
The same is true for the countless teen rappers, of which we profiled four in the book. Everyone thinks they have a shot because of MySpace and they may be right. Two of the rappers we talked to have already been contacted by A&R guys on MySpace. The bottom line is that technology is shortening adolescence. In 20 or 30 years, as these young people become captains of industry and government leaders, we’ll see what this means for America.
BallerStatus.com: You traveled 30,000 miles in five months to find a group of individuals who best capture the full spectrum of teen life in America. Tell me more about the team you worked with and how you experienced being on the road for quite a long time.
Michael Franzini: I need to give most of the credit to Brett Henenberg and his team of incredibly hard working twenty-somethings who gave up a year of their lives to pull this off. It was basically half a year of hard work in the office identifying the teens to be in the book and half a year of traveling to photograph and interview them. There were a lot of people involved, using every possible tool at their disposal — MySpace, Facebook and Craigslist, as well as sending out street teams in cities, towns and remote locations throughout America.
BallerStatus.com: What were your main criteria for identifying and selecting these teens?
Michael Franzini: Our number one goal was diversity. For this to be a success, we had to paint the full picture. Number two was finding teens that represented a key segment of American youth culture. For example, we found an outspoken virgin in Massachusetts who travels around to high schools preaching about abstinence. This was a part of the story we wanted to tell — teens are actually having less intercourse now than in the past. This started out as a photography book — although with 100 in-depth interviews and a website packed with additional content — it’s turned into much more. The images are still important, and we tried to select individuals that were in some way visually interesting. I’d say we succeeded at that across the board.
BallerStatus.com: When you spotted an individual that met the criteria; how did you approach them and convince them to participate in the project?
Michael Franzini: We had a whole team of people doing this, and everyone had their own style. Some of them got on the phone with the parents right away. Some of them sent out packages of information and links to my website. For the most part, people were eager to be in the book. The biggest hurdle was for parents to accept the idea that a car full of strangers who met their kid on the internet are going to show up at the house and start taking pictures. We got past this by having many, many phone conversations and trading emails before we ever met the people.
BallerStatus.com: The photos in the book are impressive and have a dominant presence. What kind of role did you want images to play throughout the book?
Michael Franzini: Thank you. I’m glad the images had the desired effect on you! In a word, I wanted the images to be arresting. I wanted them to stop you in your tracks and make you want to know more about the individual. Every time I see someone turning the pages of the book, I’m happy to see that the photos do in fact grab people this way. There are few books in which the images and the text play equally important roles. I believe they do in this book.
BallerStatus.com: The teens had full control of the photos; they chose the location, pose and their outfit. In general, during a session, how many pics would you say you take to find “the right one?”
Michael Franzini: I shot hundreds of pictures of each individual in the book. This book could easily have been 1,000 pages instead of 256. There’s definitely more than one “right picture” for each of the teens.
BallerStatus.com: As a professional photographer you worked for numerous high profile clients. What first inspired your interest in photography? What continues to inspire you?
Michael Franzini: When I was a little kid, I’d hang out with my brothers in their basement dark room, in our house in New Jersey. By the time I was 12, I was going to sporting events and sneaking down to the sideline and yelling to get the athletes to look in the camera. I was just doing what I enjoyed. And I still am.
BallerStatus.com: Do you have any formal training in the art and science of photography? Did you go to art school?
Michael Franzini: I have zero formal training. I went to USC film school, but I didn’t learn anything about photography. Anyone with at least one good eye can learn about photography. Just pay attention to the images you see every day and notice which ones you like. You’ll start to see a pattern, and it will make you a better photographer.
BallerStatus.com: One Hundred Young Americans contains a lot of inspiring, but also heartfelt stories, such as the soldier from Iowa who lost both of his arms in Baghdad, Lexi from Cali who is HIV positive… and the killing of 13-year-old Bryce. Now every story in this book is impressive, but what is your personal favorite story and photo in the book?
Michael Franzini: Wow, that’s impossible to answer. For the time we were with them, every one of them stood out. In fact, I think that’s one of the most important things we took away from the whole experience. Even the kids who hang out in the corner of the cafeteria by themselves are complex interesting individuals with a lot to say. They just need to find someone to listen.
BallerStatus.com: Looking back at your research, what was the most surprising finding about the “instant access” generation?
Michael Franzini: I’d say the biggest surprise was how much older these kids seem than they are. We met a lot of 14 and 15 year olds who seem and look like adults. Kids are doing more at a younger age, and they are growing up faster.
BallerStatus.com: Hip-hop has become one of the most popular music genres throughout America and is known for its extensive culture. While observing and interviewing these teens, how would you describe the presence and importance of hip-hop music and music in general among youngsters?
Michael Franzini: Hip-hop was, by far, the most popular genre of music for the teens we met. There were exceptions — especially in the South, where the city kids like hip-hop and the country kids like country. Hip-hop music and style is a huge guiding force for this generation.
BallerStatus.com: What else is on your plate right now, apart from One Hundred Young Americans?
Michael Franzini: While doing this interview, I’m traveling around the country shooting young Olympians headed for Beijing, as part of a campaign for Johnson & Johnson.