They say you can take the girl out of the town, but you can’t take the town out of the girl – something that photographer Elize Strydom’s 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. “I remember sitting in my bedroom when I was a teenager, looking out the window and thinking, ‘I’m missing out on life! There’s so much life out there and I’ve got to wait until it’s my turn to step out into this world that I know is out there.’ I was so dramatic,” 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 she’s living in Sydney, and whether she misses her hometown. “I am definitely very happy in the city,” she says, “but when I went back to Woolgoolga recently for three days, I was like ‘oh this is paradise!’ It’s always that ‘grass is greener’ thing. [Seeing both sides though] has certainly made me appreciate what I had growing up.”
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 ‘Small Town Girl’ began to form.
“I’d 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 2011…,” she explained. “Being 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.”
Deciding to share her thoughts with a close friend, Elize realised she just had to put her dreams into action. “I 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.” 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 it’s probably a good thing she’s a female photographer; I mean, after all, it could get a bit awkward going on the hunt for ‘’teenage girls’’ through your mother’s church if you were a man. “Yes! Exactly,” she laughs. “I definitely feel like I have access that I wouldn’t have if I were a man.”
Since those small beginnings, Elize has explored tiny towns across Australia, America and South Africa, participating in unusual traditions (such as an ‘annual lobster bake’ in Maine – “It was like their 33rd annual bake!” she laughs) and creating unforgettable friendships along the way. “The kind of towns you’d drive past and not think twice about,” she says when telling me about her travels. “Towns that made you realise that it’s not about the place, it’s about the people who are there.”
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. “The first girl I photographed – Mpho – 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 I’d like to meet Mpho’s 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, ‘Hey, how do you feel about me photographing you for a week and just hanging out with you?’ She was thrilled – we pretty much just hit it off straight away, and had this incredible week.
“The 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 there’s so much potential in South Africa; it feels like people there are really engaged and invested in the country’s future. Travelling there as a woman, I think I was a little bit worried, but when I was with people who lived there I didn’t really ever feel like I was in danger. A lot of South African people were always saying to me, ‘Go 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.’”
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. “I think that’s because of the internet,” she says. “When I was growing up there [was no online shopping] and only a few shops to choose from and everyone wore the same thing.” 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 ‘small town’ experiences. “I think the gap is being bridged now,” she notes. “It’s not as wide as when I was younger, and with these girls, whether you’re in Broken Hill, or Justin Texas, or Byron Bay, you can buy everything online.”
And what’s planned for 2016? Will Small Town Girl head to new countries? “I’m planning to go back to South Africa in April!” Elize excitedly reveals.“The idea is not to shoot more small town girls, but to revisit the girls who I’ve already photographed, because I feel like we established such a great connection. It’s been kind of hard to stay in touch, and I want to reinforce those relationships and kind of expand on what I’ve already experienced with those girls; to see if things have changed or if they’ve stayed the same.” Beyond this, Elize is also looking into options which may see her travel to Iran and Israel! “Don’t tell my mum!” she laughs. “They’re not locked in, but they’re options at the moment.
“Also, in terms of continuing in Australia, I’m in talks with a number of refugee advocacy and resettlement groups, about photographing girls who’ve 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.”
To keep up with Small Town Girl project, head to: W: instagram.com/smalltowngirlproject/
Elize’s travel tips…
“I 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 – I write a lot and always need to be reflecting, so I make sure that’s 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 ‘I don’t know what to wear!’
On why she loves shooting old school…
I love the aesthetic qualities of film, I feel like they have more texture and more depth; they seem to have colours that you can’t quite capture on a digital camera. Also, I think having the limitation of 36 shots per roll means that I don’t 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 I’m with the girls though, to share photos on Instagram.