That breathing in and out remembers lost or quiet things you always wanted [1]

Somewhere I still have the photographs my friends and I took of one another dressed up in my sister’s clothes when we were only eleven. We posed with props that empowered us to perform new and different identities: my sister’s electric guitar, a plastic tiara and a purple exercise ball.  This memory is of a specific hot-blooded communication that occurs between girls, where the move from childhood to adolescence is navigated together and where there exists a tension between solitary and shared experiences. The cloudy photographs, taken on a disposable camera, show undeveloped bodies in poses that awkwardly practice how to simultaneously present the allure and integrity of being a woman.

Child play is a safe and private rehearsal for ‘real’ life’s performance. The intimate spaces created in pre-pubescent secret-sharing, lies and games create a particular momentary excitement, which can verge on both the erotic and sinister. Play between girls exposes that the nature of intimacy between women is inextricable from emotions responding to the socially constructed performance of femininity. This unconscious awareness of performance creates a tender, trusting understanding of how it feels to be perpetually watched. Though never overtly explained that this is the way of the world, through social codes and the pervasive construction of gendered behaviour, certain rules are learned.

Becoming a woman felt a bit like becoming famous [2]

Deborah Paauwe’s staged portraits of pre-pubescent girls are intimate considerations of the volatile transition from girlhood to womanhood. The images capture the complexities of navigating this time with secrecy, ambiguity and take a sensitive approach to the physical indicators of innocence budding into awareness.

Like most of Paauwe’s photographs, faces in the Stolen Riddles series are obscured from view. We glimpse teeth awkwardly finding their position, presenting a confronting and grotesque image of childhood development, further heightening its precariousness and uncertainty. Subtle suggestions of narrative are constructed through the coupling of the girls, emphasising their solitude in the singular photographs. The physical interaction between the girls draws attention to their vulnerability. A protective arm folds over a flat chest, unformed hips are embraced and supple arms are linked in mutual union. When viewed as a whole, the tension between the girls coupled and isolated speaks of states of loneliness and alienation, where the difficulty of navigating private and public spaces becomes an experiment with freedom and an emerging awareness of the significance of beauty is formed.

In Stolen Riddles there is a focus on the lushness and allure of hair. The wigs are sumptuous and appealing. In some photos they look like ripe fruit, while in others they are arranged awkwardly and shambolically, like soft shields or bad hiding places. The obstruction of faces with hair has an uneasy edge and gives the impression of dual identities, heightening the sense of a shared secret game. Of course in all games there is an initiator and an initiated; a complex web of power relations. There is something more assertive about the girls in this series. The gestures of hair-shaking and protective unification have a strength that feels as though the subjects play a more active role than in Paauwe’s previous work.

once we had the peculiarities and history of our bodies in place we went on to the stories…

The contrast of young girls together and in private is at the centre of this series as Paauwe reveals a tender embrace, the desire for escape and a sense of alienation. These images could be seen as responses to memories or might remind us of the mysterious ways our own childhood recollections manifest in adult experience. This transitional time in the lives of pre-pubescent girls is both intriguing and uncomfortable. There is pleasure in looking at these photographs, yet the contrast between the girls’ innocence and awareness destablilises our gaze, creating a pervading sense of unease. To counter this discomfort we try to decipher what it is, and in that process, create narratives of our own.

Kate Power, 2015

[1] Eimear McBride, A Girl is a Half Formed Thing (Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2013).

[2] Caitlin Moran, How To Be a Woman (London: Ebury Press, 2012).

[3] Alice Munro, Too Much Happiness (London: Vintage Books, 2010).