olive and oak

elize strydom's photo journal

Category: small town girl

small town girl – usa


“I grew up in a small Australian town cut through the middle by a wide river, its two sides joined by a bendy bridge. I didn’t think the life I lived was anything special; I just did my thing and that was that. It’s only now with a bit of hindsight that I realise how unique those years on the cusp really were: Alive with possibility and yearning and so completely raw.

Almost exactly a year ago I posted this – a description of my Small Town Girl project and a call out to teenage girls in little US towns who were willing to have me come stay with them and photograph their average week. Friends and friends of friends shared the post and I had an amazing response from interested teenagers and their families. In June 2013 I flew to LA and set off, living with/photographing two girls in Oregon, one in Ohio, one in Maine and one in Texas. I landed back in Sydney in August and thought I was done. But I’m not done. I’m still curious. And so on June 9, I’ll touch down on US soil and set off again.

This time, I’d like to find out what it’s like to grow big in a small town if you’re African American, if you’re Native American or if you’re of Hispanic origin. I’m looking for 13-18 year old girls of diverse cultural backgrounds who live in towns with a population of 10,000 or less. I’ll live with you and your family/friends for a week and follow you around, taking fly-on-the-wall style photos that will form a body of work to be exhibited in galleries in Australia and the US.

If you’re interested or if you know someone who knows someone who knows a teenage girl who fits the bill, then please comment here or email me for more details: elizestrydom@live.com.au Feel free to share this post on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and any of your other networks. Many thanks!


an inspiring thing


I was stoked to discover that someone on the other side of the world wrote something lovely about this very blog. Thanks, Bijan! When I post my pictures and type my words, I must admit, I’m not thinking about how many people I’ll inspire or encourage. But it is quite heartening to know that my captures/ramblings are resonating. I’m trying my best to use this space to express my most authentic self and speak my heart as truthfully as possible – forget judgement, forget trends and what’s socially acceptable, forget trying to be what I think others think I should be. If that ends up being an inspiring thing then hooray!

Meanwhile, this week I’m getting serious about planning my next US trip and lining up some Small Town Girls to stay with/photograph. Tickets have been purchased – I fly out June 9 – and I may or may not have just booked four days at the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs to kick off the adventure. After that it’s down to business though, I swear!

land of the bloody unknown


Back in late November 2013, Dan and I got in the car and drove over 13 hours west to a town called Broken Hill. I spent a week there in December 2012 shooting the Small Town Girl project (some photos from that trip here and here) and this time I was there to hang the photos for my exhibition at the Regional Gallery. Rural Australia fascinates and frightens me: the breathtaking land of the bloody unknown where a quiet and complex melancholia pervades.


^^ Dan preparing our dinner on the bonnet of an old car.


^^ Setting up at the gallery. It was such a thrill! The staff were super professional and treated me like a real artist which felt a little funny. Lovely Dan kept reassuring me that my work deserved to be there just as much as the work of artists I consider to be ‘real’. Oh, Dan :)

small town girls go west


Tomorrow I’m going on a big adventure with my Australian Small Town Girls. Okay, so I won’t be with the girls in human form…but they will be sitting beside me in frames. Yes, the Small Town Girl photo exhibition is heading to Broken Hill in the far west of outback New South Wales. Dan and I will pack the car and drive for over 12 hours past towns like Dubbo, Cobar and Wilcannia as we wind our way through landscapes we’ve never laid eyes on. I have a feeling I’ll be pointing my camera lens out the window constantly and ordering Dan to pull over every few kilometers so I can snap a photo of a tree or a road sign or a dead kangaroo (thanks in advance!) I can’t wait to experience more of the country I live in but hardly know. Once in Broken Hill, I’ll hang the work at the Regional Gallery, ready for opening night on Saturday November 30th. Sadly, I won’t be able to attend the opening celebrations but I’ll record a little video message for those who do go along. Seeing images from this project hanging on the walls of a gallery will be pretty special, I reckon. At this point, I can’t think of anything I’d rather do with my life than travel around Australia/the world, shoot fulfilling projects, exhibit the work and publish a few books.

As well as taking a bunch of ‘real’ photos, I plan to do a bit of Instagram-ing along the way, too. Follow along here.

an ending (until next time)


A few days ago I received the last lot of Small Town Girl USA film scans from Richard Photo Lab. I felt a mixture of relief and accomplishment plus a little sadness, too. It’s complete – hooray! It’s over* – boo! As I was scrolling through the images this shot of Jenn from New Albany, Ohio, stopped me in my tracks. You see, Jenn is a competent and confident young woman. She’s whip smart, creative, gorgeous, talented and driven. She’s 12 years my junior yet it was like we were the exact same age – at times I even felt like the teenager! But in this photo I’m reminded that she is so very young with a lifetime of adventure, love, growth and learning ahead of her. I’m not implying that she’s innocent and naive, but that she was a child just a few short years ago and it’s easy to forget that. Dear little Jenn, beautiful inside and out.

* The STG USA project isn’t technically over. I plan to go back to the States again next year to photograph/live with four more girls. I’m hoping to find an ethnically diverse group of teenagers; perhaps an African American girl and a Native American girl. Meanwhile, I’m aiming to exhibit the STG USA story so far in Sydney next February or March. I’ll keep you posted…

hey LA, you’re okay


At the end of my US trip I had five days free and no plans. I wasn’t short of options, though. A new friend had invited me to San Francisco, another wanted to meet up in Austin. I was looking into a three day hike into the Grand Canyon while tossing up whether or not to find a sixth ‘Small Town Girl’ to shoot. I even considered going up to Alaska to watch bears catch salmon after the link to this live cam was shared all over my social networks. But when it came time to make a decision, the thought of getting on more buses/trains/planes, settling into new accommodation, finding my feet in a new place then getting on another bus/train/plane to Los Angeles, finding accom there and then getting myself to LAX for the 14 hour flight home was just too much. I had very little interest in exploring LA but in the end spending a few days there just seemed like the path of least resistance. So I jumped on Airbnb and found a room at Matt’s place in Silverlake and figured I’d have an okay week in a town I didn’t care for much.

And theeen I ate a huge slice of humble pie because I ended up LOVING the place. It was warm and friendly and so different to the over-the-top plastic LA I had imagined. Each day I went for a run around Silver Lake then spent a leisurely hour or two sipping coffee/journalling/people watching at Intelligentsia before walking (and walking…and walking) around the city, turning down streets with cool sounding names, dropping into stores, chatting to whoever wanted to talk, taking picture after picture of the amazing cactus plants, succulents and palm trees. Matt thought I was a little crazy when I told him the neighbourhoods I’d trekked to on foot but I really do think it’s the best way to see a place. I caught the bus out to Santa Monica and Venice Beach and did more of the same, basking in the sunshine and good vibes. Apart from the Getty Center, I didn’t really visit many tourist spots or landmarks. I did want to check out Huntington Gardens (as recommended by Maria) and Griffith Park but they were a little further than my legs could carry me. I ate multiple meals (and smoothies – coconut milk, almond butter, date and vanilla bean, anyone?) at Cafe Gratitude in Hollywood and Venice, Cortez + Cookbook in Echo Park, Tacos Delta and Intelli in Silverlake…plus a jar of almond maple butter (ahem). LA, you’re okay and I’ll be back.


^^ This is Megan McIsaac. I have so much respect for her as a photographer and as a woman. One afternoon I happened to walk into Myrtle and she was working there. I couldn’t believe it!

once upon a time in texas


I spent a week on a rambling farm in south east Texas with a family of nine, the Schnakenbergs, plus their 500 chickens, 22 pigs, 16 cows, seven goats, six dogs, four sheep, four cats, a horse and a donkey. Each day the temperature hovered around 40 degrees Celsius and the humidity hung heavy. I shared a room up in the roof of the house with Hannah, Lydia, Sarah, Rachel and Johanna – the littlest girls slept in one single bed so I could have my own – and the two boys slept in a bunk bed in the lounge room. The days were filled with chores and farm work and meal times were a big deal. The three older girls and mama Schnakenberg had a knack for creating delicious meals using little more than farm eggs, goat’s milk, produce from the garden and some quinoa. When the bell tolled everyone stopped what they were doing and took their place at the table. After breakfast papa Schnakenberg would read from the Bible and ask one of the kids to pray for the day ahead. Had it not been summer holidays the children would then have then spread out their books and started their schooling. But it was early August so they still had a few weeks of freedom. With all of the cooking, cleaning, washing, gardening and tending to the animals, Johanna and her siblings didn’t have a whole lot of time for much else. During my stay they did manage to fit in a dip in a nearby lake (and part time alligator playground), guitar lessons, a trip to ‘town’ to go thrift shopping, a mid-week church service and a two day conference for home school families in the big smoke (Houston). Their lives were simple but not necessarily sheltered. The three older girls were very well read and up on all of the latest pop culture references. They had political opinions and a desire to see the world. Johanna had spent the first nine years of her life in Romania. She was a talented photographer and keen blogger. And I’m embarrassed to say that I was a little surprised. It’s easy to buy into the stereotype of country kids as slow, ignorant or lacking in some way but it just isn’t true. Elements of the experience reminded me of my own childhood but the fact that I felt out of my comfort zone made it clear how different my inner city Sydney life is now.


this place


In the middle of my Small Town Girl USA project I took a week off in New York City. I’ve long been in love with the place and first visited in September 2009, on a whim. I booked a flight and told my boss I’d be back in three weeks. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. My jaunt happened to coincide with All Tomorrow’s Parties and I wrangled a photographer’s pass to attend the three day festival in upstate New York. I shot some epic bands: Sufjan Stevens, Animal Collective, Shellac, The Flaming Lips, Nick Cave, Bridezilla, the Drones, Iron & Wine, and Deerhunter – a surreal experience. The city got under my skin and the buzz of my little solo adventure never really wore off. Once home, I started thinking of ways to get back there. I knew I wanted to stay for a substantial period of time but I didn’t want to simply be a tourist. So in June 2011, a day after Bon Iver released Bon Iver, a day after seeing one of The Middle East’s last ever shows, a day after starting a relationship with a dear boy, I got on a plane and flew to the States. I’d been accepted into a photo journalism course at the International Center of Photography and had lined up 11 weeks accommodation with an Australian couple living in Brooklyn. What can I say about that time? It was a dream; I was learning so much about myself, my craft, the way the world works, the way relationships don’t work. At times I was wide eyed, hungry, curious and in awe. Then sometimes I was bored, lonely, lost and longing. I couldn’t get over how much freedom I had. Looking back, though, I see my heart was still very much at home. Still, when it came time to leave, it physically hurt and I certainly wasn’t ready. Which is why I couldn’t wait to get back there in July this year. But, if I’m honest, it just wasn’t the same. I found the city too loud, too hot, too smelly and too busy. Everyone seemed to be hustling, hard. The little crew I hung out with in the summer of 2011 were scattered all over the place, the couple I’d lived with in Brooklyn had broken up, I didn’t have much money and my sense of wonder seemed lost somewhere. After spending five weeks with warm families in close-knit communities, it was fair to say I experienced some form of culture shock. Of course, I could have been over-thinking the whole thing or maybe I was just a little worn out. I definitely did have fun and there were moments when I was reminded just how crazy special the city is….I was just in a different frame of mind, my focus had shifted. I’m sure the next time I visit I’ll have a blast and wonder what I was thinking during that week in July 2013…


33rd Annual Morgner Family Lobster Bake


I’ve been a vegetarian for 12 years but a sweet, tender lobster put an end to all of that.

As part of the Small Town Girl project, I stayed with a family in the coastal village of Damariscotta, Maine. It just so happened that my stay coincided with the 33rd Annual Morgner Family Lobster Bake.

On the day of the bake Allie, her father, brother and I woke early and went to pluck the lobsters from the water and transfer them to a couple of eskies. Back home, seaweed that we’d collected the day before was laid out over a low platform above a big campfire. Potatoes and onions wrapped in foil were placed on top then the lobsters were poured out of the eskies. Corn on the cob was arranged alongside the lobsters. Wooden boxes of muscles and clams and crates of eggs went on next. All of that was covered with another layer of seaweed and a canvas tarp went over the top of everything then a fire was lit underneath. Once the tarp was too hot to touch, I was told that the lobsters would need another 20 minutes. When the time was almost up an egg was removed and cracked open. It was done and that meant the lobsters were, too. The tarp was lifted off and the seaweed shovelled away to reveal bright orange lobsters. Men, women and children couldn’t grab their cardboard box lid trays fast enough. The food was piled on and the feast began. I was given just the smallest sample and had to really psych myself up to put the soft, white meat into my mouth (you can see that moment here). At first it felt all wrong but once I relaxed I realised I was actually enjoying what I was eating. So I had another bite…and another. And then there was no turning back.

It was such fun to be a part of this family’s long running tradition. Bill Morgner (dad) was so excited to include me in the process and explain how and why he did certain things. I find gatherings centred around food fascinating; there’s so much more to them than the actual meal. I’ve been such a strict vegetarian for the longest time but eating the lobster felt like a natural, respectful thing to do that day. I’m constantly observing and analysing and capturing life but sometimes it’s important to just be in it.


red, white and blue

ImagePeople keep asking me what Australians think of (north) Americans. ‘How would you describe us?’ ‘Patriotic,’ I reply. ‘You seem so sure of where you’ve come from and who you are as a nation.’ I think Australians are uncomfortable with patriotism; I know I am. Isn’t it a bit arrogant? Should I be proud of my country’s history? What makes up our national identity anyway? When I see the Aussie flag I can’t help but think of bogans with Southern Cross tattoos and ‘we grew here, you flew here’ stickers on the back of their cars. Pretty sad, huh? That said, being away from home and immersing myself in another culture has given me much more clarity on the issue. And my little identity crisis certainly didn’t stop me celebrating the Fourth of July with Small Town Girl subject Jenn in Ohio.

35mm film developed and scanned by Richard Photo Lab in Hollywood. Thanks!



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