Think IN BED: Small Town Girl by Elize Strydom

Interview by Elisha Kennedy
Images by Elize Strydom

Eight years ago, Elize Strydom started a personal photography project, Small Town Girl. Documenting everyday moments in the lives of teenage girls living in regional communities, the project was borne out of Elize’s interest in the lived experiences of ordinary young women growing up in out-of-the-way places, having spent her own adolescence living in the rural city of Grafton, NSW.

The project has since taken Elize further afield, continuing to challenge and inspire her with each new phase. We asked Elize to share her thoughts and intentions for the project with us, and she generously gives us a behind-the-scenes look at her work.

Viroux and friends in Eendekuil, Western Cape, South Africa

Happy in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

You’re in your eighth year of this project, how has it changed shape over the years?

Initially I was content to document the lives of teenage girls in small Australian towns but eventually I decided to include the USA and South Africa, too. In September 2012, I had no idea what I was starting! I took a few weeks off work and went to stay with 17-year-old Merryn and her family in Byron Bay. The week after I stayed with 15-year-old Emily in Grafton, my hometown. Then 18-year-old Savannah in Parkes and 14-year-old Jannah in Broken Hill. I hung out with the girls and their friends and took photos of whatever they got up to. I adopted a fly-on-the-wall approach and captured candid in-between moments. At that point I didn’t have a clear sense of what I wanted the project to say or show; I just knew I enjoyed getting to know these girls and felt grateful to be allowed a glimpse into their lives. Growing up, I consumed a lot of American culture - sitcoms, books, movies, music, magazines - and became enamoured with the US of A. Summer camp, high school cafeterias, proms – I found it all strangely fascinating, so it made sense to take the project there. If Australia is the country I grew up in and the US the country I wish I had grown up in, then South Africa is the country I should have grown up in. My dad is Afrikaans and my Australian mum met and married him there. My brother was born in South Africa, but mum and dad’s relationship broke down before I arrived and mum came back to Australia where she raised my brother and I. I had a little contact with my dad and always wondered what it would be like to live in South Africa. So I used this project to find out! Small Town Girl has changed shape as my subjects have grown up and entered their 20s. I’ve stayed in touch with most of them and have documented some of the developments in their lives. In 2019 I pivoted slightly and teamed up with a program called Links to Learning which is run through YWCA Australia. It’s an alternative education pathway with a focus on developing confidence, self-esteem, social and life skills as well as building resilience and establishing relationships in the local community. I went along each month and photographed the girls as they participated in the program. It’s about to change shape again…in quite a big way!

Viroux in Eendekuil, Western Cape, South Africa

Merryn in Byron Bay, NSW, Australia

How do you meet, or engage with your subjects?

The first few Australian girls I photographed were (and still are) friends of friends or relatives of friends. I asked if I could stay with them for a week and take photos of their daily life. When I decided to shift my focus to the USA, I did a ‘call out’ on the blog I had at the time. Friends and family shared the post and a bunch of teenage girls emailed me saying they’d like to be involved. In South Africa I tried the blog post approach again and it worked, but I met one of the girls (Mpho) spontaneously on the second day I was there and ended up photographing her for the first week. I always prefer if it if the girls themselves are driving their involvement in the project rather than me trying to coax them or a family member nudging them in my direction. It’s rare to have the time or the opportunity to get to know teenage girls in a genuine and meaningful way. If you’re not their teacher, parent or peer, then why would you? But I believe respectful and honest relationships between younger and older women are vital and so very rewarding. We have so much to learn from each other!

But I believe respectful and honest relationships between younger and older women are vital and so very rewarding. We have so much to learn from each other!

Sarah and her little brother in New Waverly, Texas, USA

Florence and baby Lethabo in Jouberton, North West Province, South Africa

Where else do you hope to take this project? 

The next phase of the project is documenting the lives of women who have teenage daughters. I feel we see and hear so much about new motherhood and what it’s like to parent small children, but I want to explore life for women who are a little further along the journey. What are they experiencing right now? How has their identity shifted over the years? Are they struggling to

let go as their daughter/s gain independence? Are they on the cusp of their own right of passage? There’s so much to unpack! I’m keen to get to know and photograph a diverse range of women: single mums, same-sex mums, step mums, BIPOC mums, mums with a disability and more.

STG Elize Strydom 11 Tara in Winthrop, Washington, USA

Maya and her family in Justin, Texas, USA

Can you share a favourite anecdote from one of these images, each one is so rich, evocative and provokes curiosity, you want to know their whole story.

The photo of 15-year-old Maya and her family at the roadside fireworks stall was taken on July 4th , US Independence Day. Anticipation had been building all morning and Maya was especially excited because her mom had mentioned the possibility of driving us from their tiny 3000-person town to a carnival/fireworks display a few towns over. Around lunch time, Maya’s mom finally relented and agreed to buy some fireworks from one of the many roadside stalls nearby. As we were getting ready to go to the carnival, Maya’s dad was called into work meaning he’d have the car and we’d have to stay put. Initially deflated, Maya and her brother let off their fireworks in the backyard and then we walked around the neighbourhood together, watching spontaneous amateur displays, eating cheap candy and shooting the breeze. It was a warm summer night and everyone we encountered was in good spirits. We felt free and invincible and it was a really nice shared experience. At the end of our time together, Maya and her family dropped me off at the airport and she told me it had been the best week of her life. I was quite taken aback because we hadn’t done anything remarkable or out of the ordinary. On reflection, I realised that for Maya the remarkable thing had been someone, an outsider, taking a genuine interest in her and her life. I was there for the everyday moments – the moments that aren’t noteworthy, that aren’t going to end up on Instagram or be celebrated in any way – and that had an impact. I think when we’re truly present with someone and show that we really do want to know who they are and are willing to accept whatever they want to share; it can be life changing.

I think when we’re truly present with someone and show that we really do want to know who they are and are willing to accept whatever they want to share; it can be life changing.

STG Elize Strydom 1 Jannah and friends in Broken Hill, NSW, Australia

Rebecca in Nieu-Bethesda, Eastern Cape, South Africa

See more of Elize’s work at: