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.”

About the author

Sammy is a writer, designer, and ice cream maker based in New York. He once lived in China before being an editor at Architizer.