Shot from the young and hip: Photographic prodigy Eleanor Hardwick

Big claims are being made for the teenage photographic prodigy Eleanor Hardwick. But what is the 15-year-old's secret? And just how does she fit it all round her schoolwork? Words by Charlotte Philby
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The Independent Culture

Eleanor hardwick suggests we have our meeting over coffee and cake at a quiet french deli, behind smithfield market in london. "Some cafés can be so noisy!" she observes, and that would not be ideal. At 11am on the agreed date, a small figure enters the café, carrying a day-travel bag. She is instantly recognisable from a series of portraits found on the photo-sharing website Flickr, which is where – under the pseudonym Lenaah – the young photographer has uploaded more than 2,000 images. They include a series of self-portraits that recently caught the attention of Dazed Digital, the newly re-launched online sister of Dazed and Confused magazine. Eleanor is the first of a group of new photographers whose work is being showcased on the site. And having turned 15 just two months ago, she is setting an impressive precedent.

In the flesh, Eleanor is delicate and doll-like, with a porcelain complexion and big, brown eyes. Her slight frame is exaggerated by an intricate netted frock, cinched at the waist, and finished with mauve tights and white, lace-up shoes. The effect is delightfully anachronistic, not to mention stylish beyond her years. "I think I look at the world differently to other teenagers; I guess I feel older." And it is the dichotomy of age and youth that largely governs Eleanor's photos. "The most cohesive aspect of my work is a play on the idea of childhood; the idea of an adult in a child's body and a child in an adult's body," she says. She is only just in her second year of GCSEs and has taken photographic internships while fastidiously building her personal portfolio. A recent project took place at her school, on the last day of term. "I bought a huge bag full of masks, food and clothes. Five friends and I worked on the idea of what school is like on the surface, against what it is really like, underneath. I wanted it to look 'Nineties American'." Eleanor's philosophical approach extends to her experiences with creative block: "I went two months once without having a single workable idea. I felt frustrated and agitated." But such periods are brief, she concludes, and "somehow everything eventually comes together".

The teenager has a definite life plan. "Ideally," she says, stirring her latte with a slow, distracted hand,"I'd like to be a fashion photographer, working with magazines like Vogue, Dazed and i-D," and live in Brighton. Why there? "Brighton has the sea, the city and the surrounding countryside. People there are open-minded and art-driven." Unsurprisingly, Eleanor thrives in a creative environment. "At school, I like subjects where there is no right or wrong answer. I used to do lots of creative writing, but mainly openings to stories I'd never finish. I'm not much into action or dialogue."

Growing up in a small town near Reading, Eleanor resented being stuck out in the countryside; until she discovered photography, two years ago. Now she appreciates the rivers and fields that surround her, which provide a stage for her elaborate photo-shoots. And when she isn't taking pictures, she spends her time talking online to fellow photographers, dreaming up new concepts for her work, and roping her older sister, Rachel, into modelling for her. "I'm always looking for locations," Eleanor says, her eyes idly surveying the road outside: "When I'm in maths class or science, my mind wanders and I find myself somewhere else." During our meeting, the talented young photographer is eloquent and sharp, yet claims she has difficulty understanding phrases and expressions: "Because I often take things people say too literally, I'll use that in my photos. I took a picture of my friends Amy and Sean hanging from a washing line, and the title was Hooked on You." This, like much of her work, was meticulously planned. But other shoots are more spontaneous. "I once dragged my sister to an abandoned pig farm, but it had gone, and there was just a field." Undeterred, she instructed Rachel to pose with a fishing net, with a view to later superimposing butterflies rising from it, using her computer's Photoshop programme.

Inspiration comes in various guises, and can emerge as much from a prop as a concept. "Many of my ideas stem from discarded objects; things found at jumble sales, or broken bits of furniture. I love things that are broken." Many of Eleanor's ideas linger in a small floral notebook, which she retrieves from her bag. The first page I open contains a watercolour sketch of a distorted rabbit standing before a horse with a giraffe's neck, and a speech bubble reading: "Please." "Oh that's just a silly thing," she gushes, ushering me towards another page. But this one is stuck to another. "I had written something in there, but I glued the pages together. Whenever I write something, I usually go off it. Or I will be too ambitious. I always have big ideas that just aren't possible, like doing a shoot in a hospital, with really extravagant set-ups. At the moment, I can't gain access to such places. But the thought gives me something to aspire to."