11 Questions with Anya Strzemien
The Deputy Editor of New York Times Styles Reflects on her latest project, #ThisIs18 — through girls’ eyes
By Day One Agency
Last week, the New York Times published a ‘zine within its own walls titled, #ThisIs18. The multi-media, multi-platform photojournalism endeavor aims to capture what life is like for 18-year-old girls around the world. #ThisIs18 features 21 girls, from a dozen time zones and every continent (except Antarctica), speaking 15 languages, and all of the photography is shot by other young women. These girls shared everything from their goals, to what they had for breakfast, what they’re listening to, and what inspires them. From an Iranian bagpipe player who performed in a woman-only concert in Tehran, to a young mother in Mississippi who is studying for her GED, #ThisIs18 shares a screenshot of what life is like at this pivotal age.
We were fortunate to speak with Anya Strzemien, Deputy Editor, from the New York Times Styles section, who was one of the Editorial Directors on #ThisIs18. Anya shared with us some great insight into the project, as well as reflection on herself at 18.
Why did you start #ThisIs18 and what is your mission for this project?
Our mission was to document what life is like for girls turning 18 in 2018. To show the similarities and the differences. And we chose 18 because it’s a fascinating crossroads — you’re technically an adult and still sort of a child.
How did you find the amazing girls featured in this project and their photographers?
We realized early on that we didn’t want to do the traditional thing of having adults photograph young people. Girls are so often in front of the lens and less often behind it, so we decided we wanted to see young women through the eyes of other young women. With that mission in mind, our amazing photo editors, Sandra Stevenson and James Estrin, used their networks to tap mentors around the world. Those mentors helped us find young photographers (ranging in age from 17 to 24) in their regions and then each of the photographers was tasked with pitching three possible subjects (none of whom could be their friends). Then we selected one subject for each photographer and eventually had our final list.
By the numbers, there were 21 subjects, 22 photographers, 23 mentors, 17 countries and the West Bank, and 15 languages.
What does turning 18 mean in 2018, and how is that different than other points in history?
Well, historically speaking, Cleopatra became ruler of Egypt, in 51 BC, at 18, Victoria became Queen of Great Britain at 18 in 1837. More recently, when Malala Yousafzai turned 18 she opened a school for Syrian refugee girls and by the time she was 18, Britney Spears had had two albums appear at #1 on the Billboard chart and at 18, Emma Gonzalez has become the face of a movement to end gun violence.
Millions of other 18-year-old girls don’t live their lives this publicly, but given how much transformation is happening around the world right now, and the fact that most 18-year-olds in most countries have the right to vote, their voices and perspectives have more power than ever.
How did you connect this piece to social media? When first pitching this project, did you think of it as social-first?
We didn’t think of it as social-first, but it was a close-second. We used social to build a community around the project. On October 11, the day it launched, we asked readers to post photos of themselves at 18 — along with advice to their younger selves — with the hashtag #ThisIs18. We are still inviting people to do that.
How is journalism changing today?
We are in a time of rapid transformation because journalism today is inextricably linked to developments in technology and the behaviors of the people who read, watch and listen to our journalism. While updating the way we work to be sure we are able to reach our audiences wherever they may be, we have been able to remain true to our editorial judgment and journalistic principles across continents and platforms — we have over 1,450 journalists telling stories from over 150 countries each year and their journalism appears on everything from audio programs like “The Daily” to our social feeds to the front page of our print paper.
How have smartphones and social media changed photojournalism today?
Smartphones and social media mean that, in a way, we’re all journalists now. We’re all documenting the events that shape our lives every day. And some of the photos for #ThisIs18 were shot on smartphones, like Yasmine Malone’s photos of Madison, a teen mother in Mississippi.
How do legacy newspapers reach new audiences?
By doing projects like this! Global in scope, social in reach.
In such a saturated news cycle, why tell this story?
At The Times, we are lucky to be both committed to breaking the big news each day but also investing in deeply-reported journalism and longer term projects like this one. We also believe that girls who are coming of age during this wild news cycle deserve to have their voices heard and their lives understood.
What were you doing at 18? What were your goals at 18 and have you achieved them?
I had just finished producing a ‘zine actually! (I made a ‘zine called Love from my bedroom in Connecticut from the ages of 15 to 17.) I was also reading the Styles section — in print — religiously and thinking that those were the types of stories I wanted to tell. So doing a ‘zine at The New York Times as an editor on the Styles section was loaded with significance for me.
What advice would you give your 18 year-old self?
To have fun, first and foremost, and to keep prioritizing fun as you age. If you’re having fun, you’re more creative, more positive, more inspiring to others, and there’s nothing shallow about that. Needless to say, this project was a lot of fun.
What has the response been towards #ThisIs18?
Over 2,000 women on Instagram alone have shared their experiences so far and we continue to see engagement. We have also seen a higher-than-usual percent of readers from outside the United States. We are thrilled with the response!