On the heels of the launch of her inaugural book, Young American, photographer Marie Tomanova sits down with COOLS to talk youth culture, the immigrant experience, and what it means to be an American.
Youth has always been an appealing subject matter, for artists and photographers alike. What draws you to the subject personally?
“There is a certain freedom that youth culture embraces and represents. There is room for exploring, and it’s very often a formative period of life. Youth represents vulnerability and openness for me, as well as anxiety and a search for one’s identity.
“Remembering my own early-20s, I felt like I didn’t really know who I was. I remember struggling with one question in particular: “Why am I here? What is my purpose?” I was obsessed with finding answers but, at the same time, I couldn’t find them. Only over time did I realize that lots of answers come with time.
“There is this indescribable urge to live every moment to the fullest when you are young; it feels like you own the world. That is what I am still very fascinated by.”
How do you pick your subjects?
“It is totally intuitive. One of the reasons why I love New York City so much is the number of people who are constantly around. I love the energy of the city when it feels so alive.
“I remember my first few months after I arrived in Greensboro, NC. I would be standing by the window in a posh neighborhood, desperately looking for some sign of life. It looked so pretty; all of the lawns were perfect, all of the houses were perfect, but there were no people walking around, laughing, chatting. Everybody just got in their car in their garage and drove off. It felt so empty and depressing and I hated it. I need the buzzing energy of people. I love to hear life behind the windows of our apartment.”
New York—especially downtown—has a pretty distinct youth culture. How would you describe this little microcosm?
“They are kids who are not afraid to be who they are, and I find that extremely inspiring. New York is a very liberating place in that sense—it allows you to find your own community and be who you want to be. It’s a place where ‘you doing you’ is supported and encouraged, and I am glad I can be part of that.”
How do you hope for this series to change perceptions of how we define being American?
“I am constantly inspired by the diversity and openness that New York City embraces; that is the America I like and feel like I belong to.
“When I started this project, I don’t know if I was necessarily trying to change perceptions of how we define being American. I was trying to find my own space in the American social landscape as an immigrant from Eastern Europe. That little border town where I grew up was a mainly atheist, homogenous society with no class system, still in the long shadow of the oppressive, communist past. I came to the US with a very limited idea of what America was, so there has been a lot for me to explore and discover.
“As I shot this project, it became clear to me that it was about more than my place in the landscape—that it reflected an idea of what America is or should be. This became a very powerful aspect, particularly when the politics started to really get crazy. As an immigrant, there were periods of time when I felt really scared, but, at the same time, I was shooting these inspiring young kids. They are what America is for me. These portraits are really a portrait of America, and they assert the strength and visibility of this country.”