The work of South African-born, England-based photographer, Michelle Sank, focuses largely on youth and that turbulent bridging period of adolescence.

Exploring the nature of impending adulthood against a backdrop of youth-obsessed society, through numerous projects zooming in on young carers, plastic surgery-obsessed under-25s and those fresh out of prison, she creates a broad collage of British youth.

Numerous projects, and around 15 years of her work are set to be shown in a retrospective exhibition titled "Lovely Young." We sat down with Michelle to find out more about her work.

So tell me a bit about the exhibition.

The work that’s being exhibited is a summary of a whole lot of projects that I’ve done over the years dealing with youth. I would say that it’s really about that progression from childhood to adulthood and a lot of issues around body image.

Can you tell me a bit more about these individual projects specifically?

There’s quite a few images in the show from a series called “Young Carers,” which I was commissioned to do by a photo gallery in Cardiff in 2004. At that stage there wasn’t a lot of media coverage of young carers: they’re kids who are predominantly from single parent families and they look after a disabled relative, which makes them adult beyond their years because they have to do cleaning, shopping, washing... but over and above that, they were severely bullied at school because they’re different.

There’s also quite a few images from my project, “In My Skin,” relating to plastic surgery. I’m just really intrigued about the pressure on young people regarding body image and how these people are almost obsessively trying to better themselves through cosmetic surgery at a very young age, and in some cases it’s inexhaustible.

What kind of backgrounds are your subjects in this exhibition from?

Predominantly, in this exhibition, they’re from more challenged backgrounds. I think that as a result of my upbringing in South Africa I’m very drawn towards people living on the edge of society because I grew up during Apartheid and I’m also of Jewish immigrant stock, so it’s very much about being an outsider and not fitting into society. So I think I’ve tended to gravitate slightly towards people that don’t fit. And to me there’s a certain spirit and soul inherent to that.

What sort of qualities do you seek out in your work?

I have to say with my work I go for the very ordinary. I don’t go for the spectacular but I think that I find the spectacular in the ordinary.

It’s interesting that you’ve mentioned bullying. I find that there’s something really predatory and animalistic about youth. Kids can be so incredibly cruel before they learn the rules of engagement of polite society. Would you agree?

No. With the way I work with these young people I think that, for me, there’s a kind of sense of celebration with them, even though I’m alluding to self-harm or media pressure. For me there’s something quite beautiful about them, I don’t think I’ve been drawn to deal with the concept of the predator in them. It’s not what I see, I’m aware that it’s there, possibly, but it’s not what I see when I’m working.

So you’re looking for the ray of light in them?

Absolutely. And for me they’re very beautiful. The other thing about this stage is that they’re experimenting with their sense of the individual, they’re using a lot of color, costume, theatre in the way that they address themselves both physically and the world and I find that very, very interesting as a photographer.

How did you find these kids?

Some of it is street work that I did myself, while some of it is from commissions and residencies, but I’d say it’s about half and half. “In My Skin” –my work on cosmetic surgery– was purely my searching and my finding. A lot of the work from “Bye Bye Baby” was street work. “Young Carers” was a comission. It was a mixture of both. But as my reputation started to get out commissioned more in line with the work that I was doing.

Did they really welcome you in? Did you find that they wanted their stories told?

Very much so. First of all the young carers, this was back in 2004 before there was much media coverage on the topic. The people who run the organization were really keen to get these young people’s stories out, and the fact that they were treated as a bit special in the process of the photographic work was really empowering for them. I think that my work is very much about empowering the people that I work with – certainly for “In My Skin,” where I had to reach out to people and they had to respond to me so I had to tell them exactly what I was doing and what it would be used for and how I was doing it, so they made a conscious decision to get in contact with me.

Is there a particular individual that’s really stood out to you throughout your work?

When I was documenting cosmetic surgery there was one particular girl whose photos aren’t actually in the exhibition but she’s only 20 and she’s had every possible surgery done: breast augmentation, nose, lips, but still can’t accept her body, so she takes out credit every month to support her plastic surgery. And even though she’s in very loving relationship, her self-image is so distorted that there’s always more to be done. I really found that quite tragic.

It says in the press release that your work “offers a critical view of Western society’s influence on young people.” What are your thoughts about growing up in the west in this point in history?

I think it’s a difficult place to grow up and the pressures are enormous. The media influx that has occurred between when I began this work in 2004 and now, the kind of pressure to be in a certain way, to conform, to cope with online bullying, it’s become a really difficult place to be. And I think that those pressures have increased because of the access that people have to media and phones and Facebook and stuff. I think that the choices have increased, exposure has increased, so I think how one belongs and how one is accepted has become more difficult and I think that the value system puts a much greater focus on physicality than on humanity. It’s more competitive, there’s less opportunity. There’s just much more pressure.

Are you glad you grew up in the era that you grew up in rather than this one?

Hm… I think that I experienced these kinds of pressures but on a much lesser scale. And I think that for me, growing up in South Africa, there was a lot of censorship during Apartheid so my exposure to stuff was really limited – we didn’t even have TV then. So I guess that the similar issues that someone was dealing with were maybe more contained in a sense.

"Lovely Young" goes on show at Gallery Vassie in Amsterdam on July 2, and will run until August 27, 2016.

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