Portfolio: Teen spirit

Remember what it's like being 14, hanging out with your friends, having your first taste of grown-up pleasures? Photographer Toril Brancher persuaded her children and their friends to let her into this secret, special world. Rose Shepherd joins them for a wistful reunion
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Step into Toril Brancher's homey, slightly scruffy house in Abergavenny, south

Wales, walk down the hallway, follow

the sound of mirthful laughter, and you find yourself in the kitchen, where Em, Jess, Jo Katherine, Tony and Toby sit around the table, eating strawberries, reminiscing, breaking up with hilarity at their shared memories.

They are all firm friends from way back, members of the same large, amorphous group, but something has changed between them lately. They hate to say it, hate even to think it, but they've grown out of certain shared enthusiasms, grown ever-so-slightly apart. It is almost two years now since Toril started following them with her camera, trying to distil the essence of their young lives.

Oslo-born Toril, 44, came to Britain with her husband, Carl, in 1977. She began the photography project as a result of a five-year, part-time, BA course. Through two of her three children, Katherine, 15, and Toby, 17, she gained access to the private world of these teenagers, earning their complete acceptance. They were 13, 14 then, and on the cusp of adulthood. Those were bad times, they say, as well as good, but as they think about them now, a wistfulness settles on them.

Your reaction to this intimate and touching work will depend on your view of modern youth. Do the subjects appear bored, sullen, disaffected, idle, vain? Or questing, sensitive, loyal, even noble? They may be any or all of the above, but it was their loyalty and essential decency that struck home with Toril in a way it never had, somehow, in the domestic environment. "It was seeing this developing person. I found out about the closeness of the friendships, with everyone taking care of one another."

"I was worried that you'd be like, `Oh, what are you doing there?'" confesses Katherine. "And I was happy because you weren't at all. You were just there taking the pictures."

"Looking back," says Jo, "when someone asks, `What do you remember most about your childhood?' it will be this.'

"It was so special."

"I feel really sad now."

"I think we should go out."

"Shall we go down to the river?"

"We've changed a lot," says Em, "Become more sophisticated, I suppose, isn't it?'

"The experiences we had as a group," says Jess, "not all of them were good. And that was what made us grow up, isn't it?"

`Hanging Out', photographs by Toril Brancher, Lauren Greenfield, Eric Larrayadieu and Albrecht Tubke, Rocket Gallery, 13 Old Burlington St, London W1 (0171-434 3043).

Katherine and Jo get ready to go out

"I find it odd looking at my legs," confesses Katherine (far left), "because I never show them. I hate showing my legs. I don't like them at all. When we were at Toril's degree show, I was listening to what people were saying, and someone was looking at that picture, going, `That's a bit revealing!' This was taken slightly before we became grungers, which was a pretty hard thing to be in Abergavenny ... I didn't wear the purple dress, I changed again." "We don't get dressed together any more," says Jo, regretting it, as she regrets having her long hair cut off. "Now we don't do it at all," agrees Katherine. "But it was a highlights of that night."

Toby and Taz argue

"This was in J's garage," recalls Toby (right). "J is Jonathan. His parents lent us their garage for the winter. We had a stereo in there, and we'd watch TV and play computer games." Here, what they did was get drunk. "Taz thought that if you poured alcohol into a little bottle with a narrow neck and drank it very quickly, you'd get really drunk. That's Taz for you. His purpose in life is to be meaningless. Here, he's showing me how to drink it, telling me, `Just down it, just down it,' and I'm trying to explain to him that I don't much care to get drunk.'

Katherine in the bath

"Do you remember what you said to me as you were plucking your eyebrows?" asks Toril. "You said, `You can't say I can't do this, now, because you've taken a picture of it.' "It's strange your mummy being there, yet you're doing something grown-up," says Katherine, "You were always saying, `You shouldn't pluck your eyebrows.' "

Tony with Jess, as Kyle slashes his jeans

Tony and Jess show what close friends they are. Laurie is the one in the "Nocturnal Supremacy" sweatshirt. "We were all just hanging around in Jess's bedroom," he recalls. "Em, I remember, you were rolling around on the floor doing Toril impersonations," says Katherine. Now Kyle is Em's boyfriend. "I remember," says Toril, "you weren't together yet, were you? So he was just eyeing you up."

Pile-on in the garage

"Those are Toby's legs," says Toril. "It's called a pile-on. That's J in the Umbro, which was the thing at the time. When I show this picture to grown men, they either go, `Wha-at?' or they go, `Oh, yes. I remember this!' How many people in a pile-on? Any number, they say - 20, even."

"I was at the bottom of one once," remembers Jo with feeling. "I didn't know everyone was going to do it. Someone jumps on the floor ... " "Or someone falls," says Tony; and they all dissolve with mirth.

In the playground

"Laurie was drunk," Katherine reminds Tony (pictured left), "and the two of you were plotting. You always used to plot things."

"This was in the playground the night we got chased by the police," says Toril. "Somebody called the police. It's quite funny, because I was standing there, it was getting dark, and there was this shout, `The police are coming, the police are coming.' They all ran off, but I stood there. I thought, `I don't need to run.' Then I thought, `Oh, I'm going to have to explain what I do, with the camera, and the big flash, and everything.' Then I just ran."

Flopped out on the grass

"This is Em here with Kyle," says Toril. "They were in the early stages of their relationship, becoming more comfortable with each other."

"Because he'd stopped scaring me," says Em. "I'd got really scared of him for a time because he was a bit crazy. He used to run about and jump." "And he used to scream at people," puts in Tony.

"He was just a joker," says Em.

"But he's cut his hair now," says Katherine, "and wears suits and things."

"The girl on the bench is called Helen," says Toril. "They all look completely drop-out, but it's boredom more than anything. You know, when parents say, `Where are you going? Who with?' I've realised it's impossible for them to say."

"We'd start off at someone's house," Em explains, "then we might say, `Oh, we'll head down to the river,' but it would take us two hours to get there ... We were free to do what we wanted."

Big night out

Jess dries her hair before going out. An Oasis poster and smouldering Paul Nichols image bear witness to teenage preoccupations. Certificates of merit show a more serious side. Out of shot are Jess's mates. "It's an ordinary-sized bedroom," says Toril, "with a bed, desk, sofa, dressing- table - and maybe about six girls getting ready, trying various outfits, discussing make-up." Inevitably, the discussion would have turned to more sensitive issues, but Toril was deaf to that. "I actually couldn't look and listen, which was probably a good thing. I concentrated so hard that I couldn't hear. It was part of the process of letting me be there, that I wasn't listening. I might catch, `Oh, shush, Toril's here!' but I wouldn't have heard whatever it was. I'd turn up for about an hour, shoot one, sometimes two films, and I'd have had it." n

Taz with a gun

"If everybody who used the garage had been there at one time," says Toby, "there would have been about 12 people. But those who did more of their school work wouldn't come out so much. They'd spend more time with their parents. Like Leighton [seated, foreground]. More or less every night we would be down there. It would be our meeting place. Sometimes we'd move on. There's a little pub down at the corner where we'd play pool. The nice thing about it was knowing there was somewhere we could go. Taz is pointing a gun that can fire corks and things. We made the garage nice, but after six months, J's parents didn't want us there any more, which was fair enough."