As a 16-year-old in Los Angeles, Joseph Olkha’s life as a teenager wasn’t exactly the high school experience often depicted in movies. After being excluded by his peers on numerous occasions, Joseph’s self-esteem suffered as he began to question himself, wondering if something was wrong with him socially. Having been left out of group chats, parties, and videogames with friends, Joseph decided he’d had enough of high school. He finished early and enrolled in a community college.
Experts say they’ve been seeing more of this since the pandemic, as more kids’ lives shifted online. While schools have implemented antibullying campaigns, and most kids now recognize what constitutes bullying, online exclusion is more difficult to identify, call out, and punish.
Julie Jargon, a mother of three, is a Family & Tech Columnist at The Wall Street Journal who assists families in addressing concerns about how technology is affecting their lives. WSJ enlisted Los Angeles-based portraiture and documentary photographer Lauren Justice to visually tell Joseph’s story and shed light on the impact cyberbullying has on teens.
I shoot in a documentary style and I infuse as much of the personality of the person I’m photographing as possible. It was all about who this person is, what their space is like, what kind of routines they have, and how to convey that visually.
I’ve been working with WSJ for many years. I believe I first met an editor here at the Eddie Adams Workshop and when I went freelance we reconnected. From there I received referrals to work with other editors at the paper.
After receiving a very thoughtful note from the editor outlining some ideas and thoughts for the shoot, Lauren knew the direction she would be taking for the project. While this type of mood boarding doesn’t always happen with portrait assignments, Lauren was extremely appreciative that this editor took some time to share her vision.
It helped me go in with a certain frame of mind and I was able to see the way that worked with what was actually presenting itself to me in the scene once I was there in person. Sometimes a vision doesn’t align with reality, but in this case everything came together really beautifully.
Lauren visited Joseph at his home to photograph him doing some of his favorite daily activities. Joseph often writes at his desk and uses his computer for gaming, where he had set up various lighting arrangements. This ambiance gave a really interesting look and tone for the lighting indoors. For the second half of the shoot, Joseph and Lauren went on a walk around his neighborhood with his dog Milo. The sun was setting so the light was softer and more golden.
Although some of the lighting challenges both helped and hurt when photographing Joseph in his room, Lauren didn’t use any of her own lighting and instead used what was available: a window light, light from a computer monitor, and various strings of lights and neon signs Joseph had in his room. In some cases the images felt too dark, but in others that lower light really helped the tone and mood of the images, and helped show what Joseph’s room is actually like when he writes and games. Lauren took care to depict Joseph as authentically as possible.
We wanted the images to be intimate and to reflect the person I was photographing. He was talking to us about some mental health challenges and finding a way to convey a thoughtful mood as well as some of the coping mechanisms he uses to help himself was important to us. The shoot was based around some of his coping mechanisms and routines – writing, gaming, and walking with his dog are the three we focused on.
Lauren was the only person with Joseph on the day of the shoot. Since Joseph had already interviewed with the reporter, Lauren and Joseph were able to talk before they started and throughout their time together.
It’s important to me that they feel comfortable and safe, especially when they are sharing more intimate, personal stories. This story was about cyberbullying and mental health, so we talked a lot about friendships, mental health, and his hopes for the future. This shoot felt very relaxed and natural. He is a very thoughtful person so his responses would often lead to me asking more questions and the conversation we had helped the images feel more natural and comfortable.
See more of Lauren’s work on her website.
Photo Editor: Danielle Amy
Read more about Lauren on our Published blog.