For our first of many features about exceptional photography that has grabbed our attention, we are showcasing the work of New York based photographer Jennifer Loeber. Juxtaposing the title, we observe young people at ease and pleasantly united, however, the narrative takes us beyond the viewer’s typical understanding of the American summer camp tradition. Loeber’s uplifting images are riddled with sense of cruelty that these moments are short-lived for the subjects, who have to return to lives where their voices may not be heard.
Grounded in the ideals of a counter-cultural past and freed from the forced constraints of a conventional camp experience, these photographs explore a society of teenagers empowered through otherwise impossible freedoms.
Nestled in the mountains of Massachusetts is Rowe Camp, a summer utopia self-governed by teens. In the real world, the campers are too young to vote, but here they’re allowed to give strong opinions about the way they live. It’s a glimpse into what life might be like if no ideas were too absurd and eccentricity was the rule, not the exception. My own summers spent at Rowe were both a culture shock and nothing short of paradise. Years after my initiation, I returned to photograph the rituals and intricacies of this unusual community.
For the first time in their young lives, the looming presence of adults becomes almost non-existent. They are given the opportunity to define their relationships and daily behaviors without the smothering influence of typical social expectations.
This series explores my personal reconciliation with the slowly fading memories that once had an indelible impact on my path to adulthood. I spent several weeks living with and documenting the emotional landscape of Rowe’s current inhabitants as part alumnus, part outsider. Connecting with my subjects through a shared history afforded me the trust necessary to be able to watch events unfold without censorship. Drawing from my own self-discovery within this same space, I focused on conveying the spontaneity and supportive atmosphere that is the foundation and legacy of Rowe.
The series’ title (named after Nagisa Oshima’s landmark Japanese New Wave film) refers not to the camp population, but to the life they must return to after tasting true independence for a fleeting moment.
As a young person, how did you come across the unusual Rowe Camp?
My Dad was friendly with the former camp director years before I was born and knew he wanted to send me there once I was old enough. I had just turned twelve the first summer I attended. I was terrified.
You comment that in documenting Rowe Camp, you found that you were on your own path of self-discovery. What did documenting this series of photographs teach you about yourself and your work?
Living at the camp for several weeks and getting to re-live the rituals and traditions that make up a large part of the Rowe experience was nothing short of magical. Being able to immerse myself in the community as an adult and see just how much freedom and experimentation I was allowed as a teenager was a great reminder of how important it was to my own creative path and how special of a place it is in general.
How does this series fit in to the wider context of your work? Are you primarily concerned with social documentary through your photography?
I’ve been photographing subcultures of different sorts since my undergraduate work so social documentary photography has always played an important role in my work. Documenting this unconventional summer camp is absolutely an extension of that work with the added element of a deep personal connection. The series I’m currently working on centers around a transgender woman that I originally met when we were teenager campers at Rowe so the impact of my time there continues.
To view the entire series and Jennifer’s other work, visit: www.jenniferloeber.com.