Lauren Tepfer is a 17 year old whose eye for photography has her at 16.4k followers and counting (which is, funny enough, actually double the population of her town). Her photography work, which focuses on themes of suburbia, nostalgia, and beautiful lighting, calls to mind feelings of isolation and simultaneous hope. She’s started to move to film where she’s finding a passion in moving image and the expansion of time. With her work shown in exhibits across the country, the high school senior is now gearing up for graduation and her future.
The text below is an edited excerpt of a conversation between Lauren and The Light Leaks Founder, Kim Hoyos.
LAUREN: I think a lot of being an artist is taking the initiative and like being motivated and it can be hard to do that especially when you’re young because like I’m 17, I don’t drive. I’m not an adult so I can’t do a lot of things on my own. But especially with the internet, there’s so many spaces you can find for yourself that can help you continue doing the work that you do.
KIM: I feel like the greatest freedom to have in the world as a young artist in 2017 is having an email address. you know? How do you think the internet serves as a good or bad vehicle?
LAUREN: For me it’s been a good vehicle as a means of putting myself out there and finding other people who are interested in the same things I am, especially going back to that whole school and creative community thing. I mean sometimes it can be bad because then you can feel like there’s some kind of competition, but I think if you look at it more of like an opportunity to find people who are like you and a place for you to publish your work and find inspiration. I honestly don’t even know what I’d be doing if I didn’t have the internet. That sounds so crazy but like if I didn’t have the internet like we wouldn’t be sitting down and talking. There would be nowhere for me to be an artist if it wasn’t for the internet, because with the internet I can reach so many bounds and like places like I mean I’ve had my art in LA, but I’ve never been to LA.
KIM: How is it like to create art about being sad in the age of Instagram while still in high school? Personally, I feel like it’s a major shift when people start to realize you create things- it can be awkward.
LAUREN: I’ve always struggled with depression and anxiety. I think everybody has like some kind of diagnosis. Obviously being a teenager, being sad is so easy and it can be like fun to be sad when you’re a teenager, especially when you’re an artist and a teenager. I feel like I’m portraying it in such a terrible way but it can just be such a good like vehicle for creation. It’s hard to create things that are depressing and really authentic and meaningful and then go to school the next day. Two weeks ago, I wrote an Instagram post about my eating disorder. Only two people from my school knew I had an eating disorder- I was out of school for months last year and nobody knew why. I went Instagram and just wrote about it. I mean I know people from school follow me on Instagram and talk to me in real life about my internet presence and I was like “Oh my god who’s going to see this who’s going to say something to me”. But the truth is I’m lucky that I don’t have people bullying me about the stuff I put online. When I see people being real and true and authentic on the internet, I think it’s so amazing and I really gain a lot of respect for somebody if they like are real on the internet. Because I was afraid when I posted my whole thing about my eating disorder on the internet- I didn’t want it to be an attention thing but more of like this is what I struggle with, this is what I’ve been struggling with for a year, this is where my art has like grown from. I think a lot of meaning derives too from when you know how someone’s feeling and then looking at their pictures or their films or their writing, you find more meaning.
COMMUNITY & AUTHENTICITY
KIM: How do you define community and what do you think the importance of it is? You kind of talked about that earlier, but like what do you consider community?
LAUREN: I felt the most in a community when people who understand what I’m saying have surrounded me or I can really understand what they’re saying. There’s a facebook group for Rookie and, I haven’t been a part of Rookie for that long, but there’s group for the people who have been a part of Rookie since it started. And they all just go on there and talk to each other and genuinely care and ask “what have you been doing?”, it’s very candid.
KIM: How do you feel about authenticity?
LAUREN: I think it’s important It’s weird because whenever anybody asks me about my brand – which I hate the whole “branding” thing now, even though its so real. Like have you watched this season of America’s Next Top Model?
LAUREN: I really don’t watch TV. Honestly, the only reason I watch it is because I am interested in watching them do their shoots. This whole season they’ve been doing more of branding than being a model and I hate it, it’s so terrible. But, the whole challenge they did on the episode I watched was like not even a shoot, it was staging an Instagram post at an event. I think if I were to brand as a person it would be authenticity which is weird because authenticity and branding are kind of like antonyms.
ON ART & COLLEGE APPS
LAUREN: I am a woman who is very interested in the arts and being creative.
KIM: What do you wish you saw more of in the arts?
LAUREN: I think in the arts I wish I saw more of resources for young people. I know in my high school there’s no room for me to be creative besides the theater program so that’s where I’ve really found my thing in school. It’s hard for young people to find creative spaces. I think if mainstream media and just anybody of the general public could be more catering and inclusive to young people, I think it would make the arts more interesting and better.
KIM: It’s interesting you bring up not having art classes. The first thing I think of are college applications for specialized schools. So what do you think is expected of young people in terms of being creative in regards to college apps?
LAUREN: I don’t know what’s expected but l totally understand your question. I feel like a lot of people who go to creative and performing arts definitely have that one up. I’m not victimizing myself- I also think that you learn a lot more when you’re on your own. My freshman year I took a free documentary class in Philadelphia at a news station. I would tell people that I did that and they would be like “Oh my god I’m so interested in that like how did you get involved”. I was like ” I looked for it”. It can be really discouraging because I mean, I’ve had my mom who’s helped me pursue all the stuff that I’m pursuing, but I’ve also done a lot of it on my own. My advice to young people who are like creative and don’t go to a performing arts or like arts high school- I think it would just be find your spaces and look for the things that you want. I submitted to Rookie and now I’m like a part of Rookie, I just found all of these places myself.
KIM: Tell us about your journey with Rookie Mag!
LAUREN: I submitted a photo diary to them the spring of my sophomore year and then the August going into my Junior year, Tavi [Gevinson] emailed me. It was a big gap in between emails- I submitted in May and didn’t hear back until August and I had honestly forgotten about it and like given up or whatever. Rookie’s been such a big part of my life since I was in eighth grade and I feel like I say that all the time but I truly do really mean that.
FILM & REPRESENTATION
KIM: So you’ve been moving a little bit towards film, so like how do you feel about the relationship between video and photo in terms of like retouching versus like photo editing? How do you feel about sticking to your authenticity while diving into video editing?
LAUREN: I mean I really never thought I was going to make the transition into film so quickly. But I think moving into it now and so soon has been so good for me because I’ve really learned what I like. All the photographers I’ve ever admired, like Petra Collins or Olivia Bee, they moved into film and I think people are really receptive to photographers who do film. When I retouch my pictures I think its just me casting what I see when I take the picture onto the picture. When I take the picture I see it the specific way but that’s not what my camera picks up so its more of a process of me having to go into it and doing it myself. It can definitely be really deceiving and confusing to people who don’t know anything about like photography or art in general. They’ll see my before picture and my after picture and be like “What the heck, that’s not real”.
KIM: So what are you liking best about video so far?
LAUREN: I think just like the ability to extend- its almost like extending a picture. You can extend a moment and you can make things more depth and meaning. The first big project I did was a music video I directed which was in October. It was just such a crazy experience for me because so many things on that set would have made incredible pictures but I feel like it being a video was so much better. I found it a lot easier to tell a story through video because its not just visual things, but also is timing, what you involve, how you cast your subject and what kind of music you use. There’s a lot more dynamics and its a lot more complex and I really like that about it. It’s a challenge.
KIM: Absolutely. So how do you feel about representation in film? Both on screen and off screen.
LAUREN: I think there’s so many independent filmmakers and people who make things online who are making such incredible movies. It’s just so confusing how status plays into representation and just like the way things are released. Who decides what makes something good? I guess it’s all subjective.
KIM: How do you feel like your age and gender dynamics affect what you make?
LAUREN: I mean, this whole question and idea of “what does being a woman” and “what does being a 17 year old” have to do with what you’re making- for me so far it’s benefitted me. People are like “Wow you’re so young and you’re doing what you’re doing”. But I think there’s so many people who are making such incredible things but are like “nobody cares” because they’re like either young or they’re like a person of color or they’re like a minority and its just, it’s really weird to watch the dynamics, especially on the internet
KIM: Yeah, you’re kind of just like learning it and watching it happen.
LAUREN: I mean I’m a woman, but I think that’s kind of like the only non-privileged part of me. I think like all other parts of me are like pretty privileged. I just I feel there’s so many things that are working against other people and its so frustrating seeing the same people just succeed. I i feel like this doesn’t mean anything coming from me. It’s just frustrating seeing the same people win every single time and the same kind of films and people in general just like doing well.
KIM: What do you feel about art in regards to the election?
LAUREN: Oh my god. I don’t know. I mean I think there’s so much incredible art coming out of everything that’s happened. My friend Alanna, she’s younger than me and I hate talking about age like you just said but she’s so incredible.
KIM: I feel weird being older than you and being in awe of you, but I shouldn’t be surprised, you know what I’m saying? Its this weird thing that we’re all built into that we also play into but its important, its as important to talk about it as to not talk about it, if that like just makes sense.
LAUREN: No I totally agree. Sometimes it’s frustrating when people say it and then sometimes I’m like “I appreciate you recognizing that”. So my friend Alanna, she’s 15. She’s younger than me and she’s really incredible and she’s so smart. She made this incredible short little video post election and it was just like a contrast between the videos that were rallies in Philly. Then the sound you heard while watching the video was a voicemail from her dad, who’s a republican and was excited about the election and everything that was happening. It was a really cool thing. There’s so much good art happening now and I’ve been trying to find my way to contribute to it. I don’t know how I’m going to do it but I mean we have four years. It’s been really hard for me to talk about it too because I feel like I don’t have the platform to talk about it.
KIM: It’s so weird because I feel like a lot of people don’t understand like platforms, like some people are like “oh the most you could do is vote”. I’m like that’s not all you can- there has to be more ways to contribute in the ways you know how to contribute.
LAUREN: I just feel like I don’t know enough to contribute. I feel like right now all I need to do is like kind of learn. I’ve been in a really weird place with it, because I understand and I’m passionate about everything go on. I don’t know enough to like do something, if that makes sense.
KIM: There hasn’t been another election it’s not like we’re talking about the issues because we were never just talking about the issues with this. I feel like regardless of what education anyone has on anything like this wasn’t something anyone was prepared for, like absolutely not.
LAUREN: Yeah, like it’s’ just so weird to me that like, I’ll be able to go to college next year and he’s going to be our president. It’s just a strange dynamic- older people have a greater tolerance for this kind of thing and I think especially since we’re young we’re just saying “No”.
KIM: I don’t think its because we’ve been coddled though, which a lot of people kind of push the “Oh millennials are coddled, you guys have safe spaces”. We’ve created those, we’ve decided that we’re not going to put up with certain things because its just not okay to disrespect people- hate speech isn’t okay and people need warnings for certain things like you know?
LAUREN: Its a piece of humanity, and it’s just I think that’s the whole things that’s made this whole experience so hard and heavy. It’s not just opinions. I fell asleep before it happened too. I woke up, I was sleeping in my mom’s room and the small TV read “Trump is President”. I was like “I’m going back to sleep” because it literally felt like I was going to die.
KIM: It’s hard to not feel guilty about things and not feel like you’re not contributing to a larger piece, because I was going to axe this project when the election happened. A bunch of my friends were texting me and they were like “What are you doing?”. I was talking to my friends and my boyfriend and kept saying “I’m not going to do this, I can’t do this. I should be doing something in politics- I should be doing something more. This isn’t helping anyone”. They all said the same sort of thing saying it was exactly the things that people who voted for him wouldn’t want- people empowering themselves in terms of art specifically, art with a message and in spaces.
LAUREN: Yeah, that’s very reassuring to me too because I feel like horrible.
KIM: You’re not a politician though, that’s the thing. We’re not politicians, we’re artists, we can’t do anything besides exist in our bodies and there’s no point in feeling useless.
LAUREN: I know, I know- I need to write that all over my body because this is all very useful and helpful and reassuring.
PAST & FUTURE
KIM: What do you wish you knew when you were younger. Is there anything?
LAUREN: I feel like as like we grow continuously as people I know there’s things that I do currently that I’m like “Oh my god like in ten years I’m going to bully myself for doing this”
KIM: Which is totally fine and also fun- it’s growth!
LAUREN: No, it’s really fun. But it’s also very anxiety invoking for me because sometimes I’ll find things that I wrote on twitter a couple years ago and it’s so embarrassing. When I was younger I also wish I knew that I am capable of creating things that are impactful.
KIM: What do you hope to do in the future?
LAUREN: In the future I hope to go to college, which I know is going to happen so I’m excited. I want to graduate high school and just make art that I’m proud of. That sounds so general and cliché but I really feel like I can’t put a label on what I want to do like. I just want to be creative and be happy in what I’m doing and feel like I’m contributing to something. I eventually want to be a director, whether that be a creative director, a movie director. There’s so many things I could see myself doing and it’s so stressful but at the same time it’s exciting because I feel like I will never not be interested in something.