Awkward Years

Most of us try to forget who we were in our early adolescent years.

Awkward Years

Artist Merilee Allred (above) asks people to revisit their awkward years in front of her camera.

Awkward Years

The project aims to give people with painful memories of their youthful past a platform to confront their erstwhile insecurities.

Awkward Years

It’s a wrenching experience, but one Allred hopes offers hope and perspective.

Awkward Years

"Not only do I want them to share their story, I hope that they can feel good about who they are now,” Allred says.

Awkward Years

Of all the her subjects, only one is a man. That’s not incidental says Allred, who received an overwhelmingly female response pool: "I think there are more pressures that are put on girls as they grow up than for boys.”

Awkward Years

Allred is currently hard at work on expanding the series with new photographs.

Awkward Years

She promises that upcoming entries will feature a more balanced mix of once-awkward boys and girls turned confident men and women.


No Wonder Years: Photos From An Awkward Age

It gets better—or at least the hair and the clothes do. A then-and-now project assures teens past and present.

There’s a reason why fully developed 20-something actors play high school students on TV and in movies: In real life, most teenagers are painfully awkward, far too much to stomach observing in the name of entertainment (or even relief, from a safely past-it perspective). Yet there’s also a reason for the can’t-look-away appeal of user- (née loser-) generated Before photo sites and everything Mortified.

Photographer and former awkward teen Merilee Allred addresses this contradiction head—headgear?—on, with The Awkward Years Project. Her mission with the photo series is to let the afflicted know that they too, will soon be cool, with grace and a penetrating gaze. "I wanted to feature people who have been through that awkward phase of their life," she tells Co.Design.

Allred’s now-and-then portraits spotlight subjects who answered her casting call—grownups, all, who stand directly in front of the camera, holding up photos of their former selves. Their expressions as captured by Allred are knowing and comforting, from a smirk to the beginnings of a smile. The message is not quite "I made it!" (no mythical reprieve in adulthood), but more along the lines of "I made it out of this baggy sweatshirt and braces."

The project began as an introspective exercise, with a clearly confident, modern-day Allred stepping out in front of the camera herself, brandishing a portrait of a shockingly different her from middle school: uncomfortable pose, canned smile, untamable hair, oversize glasses.

She admits that the self-study gave her the opportunity to evaluate her past and see how far she had come, and she wanted to transmit this ability to teenagers out there who are still in the thick of it. She’s now accepting submissions at the project’s Tumblr page, asking for a brief description of the photo—and of the dweeby person in the frame.

Allred is currently sifting through new contacts and arranging shoots, and she’s determined to correct the inequality of having only one former teenage boy in her current series. "There definitely are more women than men who want to participate," she says. "I think there are more pressures that are put on girls as they grow up than for boys." Her aim is maximum relatability and reach: "Not only do I want as many people as possible to share their story, I hope that they can feel good about who they are now."

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