They say you can take the girl out of the town, but you canât take the town out of the girl âÂ something that photographer Elize Strydomâs visual work captures beautifully.
WORDS: Jas Rawlinson
Celebrating the unique wonder, freedom and lives of girls in rural communities across Australia and the world, Small Town Girl Project is a series of fascinating images that paint a vivid picture of life beyond the city.
Growing up in small towns herself, Elize Strydom always felt that she was destined for bigger things. Moving from Grafton in NSW, to the seaside town of Woolgoolga in her late teens, Elize would find herself looking out the window and dreaming of life in the big city. âI remember sitting in my bedroom when I was a teenager, looking out the window and thinking, âIâm missing out on life! Thereâs so much life out there and Iâve got to wait until itâs my turn to step out into this world that I know is out there.â I was so dramatic,â she laughs, reminiscing as we chat about life in a small town. Having also spent my childhood and teenage years living in small towns, I asked Elize how she feels now that sheâs living in Sydney, and whether she misses her hometown. âI am definitely very happy in the city,â she says, âbut when I went back to Woolgoolga recently for three days, I was like âoh this is paradise!â Itâs always that âgrass is greenerâ thing. [Seeing both sides though] has certainly made me appreciate what I had growing up.â
Drawing on her experiences of growing up away from the big city, Elize began to wonder what life was like for other teens in rural towns, and gradually, the beginnings of her project âSmall Town Girlâ began to form.
âIâd been thinking about it in vague terms for a while…but I guess [the idea] initially formed when I was studying in New York for three months in 2011âŚ,â she explained. âBeing in such a massive city lead me to reflect on my life and my teenage years, and how foreign and far away it seemed from where I was in that moment.â
Deciding to share her thoughts with a close friend, Elize realised she just had to put her dreams into action. âI told my friend about this idea of revisiting my hometown and seeing what life is like there now for teenage girls, and she told me it was something I had to do. So the next day I applied for leave and took two weeks off.â Putting out a callout and chasing connections through her friends and family, Elize met up with a few teenage girls around North East NSW. As she tells me this, I joke with her that itâs probably a good thing sheâs a female photographer; I mean, after all, it could get a bit awkward going on the hunt for ââteenage girlsââ through your motherâs church if you were a man. âYes! Exactly,â she laughs. âI definitely feel like I have access that I wouldnât have if I were a man.â
Since those small beginnings, Elize has explored tiny towns across Australia, America and South Africa, participating in unusual traditions (such as an âannual lobster bakeâ in Maine â âIt was like their 33rd annual bake!â she laughs) and creating unforgettable friendships along the way. âThe kind of towns youâd drive past and not think twice about,â she says when telling me about her travels. âTowns that made you realise that itâs not about the place, itâs about the people who are there.â
Using the power of social media, and her family connections (she was born in South Africa), Elize was able to spend time with some families in a remote town a few hours from Johannesburg, and talks fondly when recounting her time in South Africa. Was it one of her favourite places, I ask? Most definitely, she says; excitement still punctuating her words. Â âThe first girl I photographed â Mpho â came about really spontaneously and in a really beautiful way. I was staying with my Uncle and Aunty in a small town a few hours from Johannesburg, and one day she asked if Iâd like to meet Mphoâs family. We went to this township where only black African people were living, and we spent the afternoon with Mpho, and her mother and grandmother. I had such an amazing time, and at the end of the afternoon I asked Mpho, âHey, how do you feel about me photographing you for a week and just hanging out with you?â She was thrilled âÂ we pretty much just hit it off straight away, and had this incredible week.
âThe people were just so incredibly lovely and so willing to share their lives and the way that they live. It feels like such a young nation, and thereâs so much potential in South Africa; it feels like people there are really engaged and invested in the countryâs future. Travelling there as a woman, I think I was a little bit worried, but when I was with people who lived there I didnât really ever feel like I was in danger. A lot of South African people were always saying to me, âGo back and tell people from Australia that South Africa is a wonderful country! They should listen to some good news stories as opposed to all the bad news stories.ââ
One thing that really stood out to Elize in all her travels, was just how connected to technology, fashion and city-life these girls were, regardless of how isolated their towns. âI think thatâs because of the internet,â she says. âWhen I was growing up there [was no online shopping] and only a few shops to choose from and everyone wore the same thing.â As Elize talks, I suddenly have a vision of myself dressed in cheap, fluoro nylon outfits from Supre, the only shop where I could find teenage clothing that fitted me (the surf shop brands were all too big!). Elize sympathises, and we have a laugh at our shared âsmall townâ experiences. âI think the gap is being bridged now,â she notes. âItâs not as wide as when I was younger, and with these girls, whether youâre in Broken Hill, or Justin Texas, or Byron Bay, you can buy everything online.â
And whatâs planned for 2016? Will Small Town Girl head to new countries? âIâm planning to go back to South Africa in April!â Elize excitedly reveals.âThe idea is not to shoot more small town girls, but to revisit the girls who Iâve already photographed, because I feel like we established such a great connection. Itâs been kind of hard to stay in touch, and I want to reinforce those relationships and kind of expand on what Iâve already experienced with those girls; to see if things have changed or if theyâve stayed the same.â Beyond this, Elize is also looking into options which may see her travel to Iran and Israel! âDonât tell my mum!â she laughs. âTheyâre not locked in, but theyâre options at the moment.
âAlso, in terms of continuing in Australia, Iâm in talks with a number of refugee advocacy and resettlement groups, about photographing girls whoâve arrived as refugees and been resettled in small Australian towns. I thought that would be a really interesting way to push the project forward, and still photograph girls who are Australian, but have backgrounds in other countries and came here to start a new life.â
To keep up with Small Town Girl project, head to: W: instagram.com/smalltowngirlproject/
Elizeâs travel tipsâŚ
âI try to pack as light as possible. When I went to South Africa for two weeks I just took a duffle bag. Just music, one book, my journal âÂ I write a lot and always need to be reflecting, so I make sure thatâs the one thing I take. I kind of like being limited with what I can wear, and not having to stand in front of the cupboard everyday thinking âI donât know what to wear!â
On why she loves shooting old schoolâŚ
I love the aesthetic qualities of film, I feel like they have more texture and more depth; they seem to have colours that you canât quite capture on a digital camera. Also, I think having the limitation of 36 shots per roll means that I donât just shoot off a whole lot of photos on one thing…I try to really get it right the first time. I do use my phone a lot when Iâm with the girls though, to share photos on Instagram.