003 / 09 July 2014 / FEATURES
Photography by Sergio Mejia
Text by Jameson Fitzpatrick
Sergio Mejia does not want to be interviewed. He doesn’t like to have his picture taken either, he tells me, and “isn’t into selfies at all.” But aptly enough, the young photographer doesn’t look so unlike his usual subjects: adolescent males caught in the teenage haze of becoming. A narrow mustache proves his age (21) and slight seniority, but he otherwise looks the part; when we meet, his dark hair is restrained beneath a backwards baseball hat—that ubiquitous uniform of boyish, unlabored cool.
Mejia, who was born and raised in Colombia, then went to high school in New Jersey before attending Parsons, suggests that growing up in an all-woman family may have inspired his photographic inquiry into masculinity. “It’s something that I never really got to see a side of, so my interest comes out of curiosity. It’s about learning, about observing.” This interest led Mejia to the male-dominated subcultures of skateboarding and garage rock, and a desire to document the moment in life that these communities of like-minded boys begin to emerge.
In high school, “I was very removed from that,” Mejia says. “I didn’t fall into a specific character type, how they make you see it in movies. I just drifted between different groups, didn’t have a specific place.”
Today, his photographs “idolize these tribe-leaders” as idealized but real exemplars of the teenage experience. The ongoing project began with a candid series Mejia shot at a local skate park; after he decided he “needed to push a little more,” he asked to begin taking portraits.
“I like to photograph people I’m very interested in. It’s not like I just go through them, the way some photographers—especially in fashion—go through models, lightly. I like to have a relationship with the people I photograph. Ultimately what I’m interested in is themselves, not so much what I project on them...though in a way it is, both.”
In his story for this issue of Tabula Rasa, a mixture of professional models and “kids” from the skate park wear clothes by Raf Simons, most of which they picked out themselves. Though Mejia admits that “when you’re working with someone you don’t know, you have to play more around them,” in these images he is less preoccupied by the distinction between models and ordinary teenagers, and more by the similarities between them.
“I’ve been working in fashion for about three and half years, and have always been interested in how the modeling industry picks out these kids at fifteen, fourteen—they’re thrown into very adult situations without any guidance. Fashion is this machine of consumption, really, and it’s interesting to see how these kids react to it and what it makes them to be.”
Mejia first met Richard, one of the models who appears here, while working a styling job. “He was doing homework on set. It was funny to see a teen in that environment.”
For this story, which he describes as “personal” and “dreamlike,” Mejia shot his subjects in mostly-outdoor settings, highlighting the sense that he might simply have happened upon the young men in their natural habitats. In composition, some of the photographs feel more like traditional portraits than others, but almost all are shot from below. The angles vary, but the position is a revealing one, intimate. The expressions of the boys vary too—from proud to wary to listless—but whatever their attitude toward the camera, Mejia’s photographs seem to have gotten very close to the truth of their subjects, past adolescent diffidence to the dynamic undercurrent below.
About adolescence, Mejia says, “it’s the one specific time in your life when society starts pushing things on to you. Throughout childhood you have this blank slate—everything your parents tell you is true—but then when you get to adolescence, not only is your body changing, but your interactions with people become different because you’re no longer a little kid. And the sexuality that comes with adolescence is very present; it’s a lot of things that happen all at once.” But if there’s eros in these images, still they’re not eroticized—Mejia’s gaze is one of studied observation rather than interpretation. “I find photography kind of quiet,” he says. “You’re just proposing an idea and letting the viewer take it for what it is.”
In addition to a Polaroid camera (“it’s quick and nice to hold”), Mejia shot most of this story with an old Hasselblad from the 1950s. “You kind of look through the top; I like how removed that makes you from the subject, because you’re not looking directly at the person, distancing yourself a little.” It’s no surprise that camera-shy Mejia affords his subjects such respect, especially given his sense of photography as a collaboration between photographer and subject.
Yet for all his deferential detachment, Mejia says he considers his work “a direct representation of myself as person. If it speaks honestly about me, then I’ve done my job.” By that standard, Mejia can consider himself a success: these images capture his preoccupations—and reticent swagger—in earnest.