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UK Politics

Scottish independence: Meet the 16-year-olds who could change the referendum's outcome

On 18 September, they will turn 16 – and head straight to the polling station. As Scotland prepares to decide on its independence, the photographer Craig Easton toured his homeland to find out how the UK’s first under-18s to be given the vote are bearing up to the responsibility

It's quite the 16th birthday present: the chance to decide the future of your nation. Well, to have a say in it, at least. That's the situation a clutch of Scottish teenagers will find themselves in on 18 September, as the referendum on independence allows 16-year-olds to cast their vote on whether to stay within the United Kingdom or go it alone.

Although he no longer lives in Scotland, the Edinburgh-born photographer Craig Easton works in his native land a lot and feels the referendum is "potentially a major turning point in the history of not just Scotland and England, but the UK as a whole and the wider world too". While the debate rumbles on, he was struck by how, despite the bold decision being taken to give teenagers below the age of 18 the vote, no one was really asking for their opinions.

"Inevitably with these debates, the headlines are concerned with politicians, business leaders, celebrities and activists who strive to make their voices heard," he says. "It occurred to me that if we are asking 16- and 17-year-olds to vote, they should be given an opportunity to take part in the debate and have their opinions heard." And so he set about photographing and documenting the opinions of Scotland's newest voters.

Easton has no axe to grind; this project was determinedly not concerned with his opinion on independence (he won't even reveal his own stance for this article); it was about the next generation of Scots. And so, in order to give as random and unbiased a sample of teenage thoughts as possible, he hit on the idea of finding the very youngest, freshest of voters: those whose 16th birthdays fall on 18 September.

He went through councils and schools to track down his sweet 16s, because – bizarrely, given that these young people are being allowed a say in the potential break-up of the United Kingdom – they're unable to consent to being photographed. Easton had to obtain permission from parents and guardians first, "something that will bring a wry smile to many a documentary photographer", he drily observes.


Easton's images show the teens against backdrops that convey something of their life, personality or hobbies. "I wanted to know a little bit about each of them, their interests, their passions, where they hang out," he explains. "It then seemed obvious to include a reference to that in the picture. Sometimes it's the location we chose – school, bedroom or outdoors. Sometimes it was a hobby – bagpipes or ballet. I wanted these portraits to be an opportunity for each of them to present themselves and their opinions in their own way."

To that end, the project also includes each subject's handwritten notes, explaining their voting intentions and their thoughts about independence. From neat lines to scruffy scrawls and furious crossings-out, they hum with individuality. For Easton, it was a precious opportunity to present these young people's opinions entirely unmediated.

Their comments reveal, as you would expect, a wide range of opinions, ranging from a Yes vote because they see independence as offering a chance to establish a fairer society, to a No vote under an "if it ain't broke…" rationale.

Easton was heartened by his discussions with his subjects, finding them to be an engaged, thoughtful bunch. "There were one or two who expressed feeling a heavy weight of responsibility and that they didn't feel equipped to make such an important decision, but all of them are thinking very deeply about it and are very knowledgeable about the issues," he says.

"I think they are very conscious that it is their future that they are voting on, and I heard really impressive and coherent arguments put forward on both sides."

Some may argue that 16 is too young for responsible voting. We don't let 16-year-olds drink, drive, get a tattoo or even watch particularly gory movies, after all. But if there's one thing the project has proved to Easton, it is that Scottish youngsters deserve to have their say.

"It could be argued that the youngest voters have the most at stake, so their views are as valid and as important as everyone else's. It's their future, and it seems to me that they are at least as well informed as any of the adults I've spoken to."

For more: craigeaston.com