In Tabitha Barnard’s Delicate Photographs of Girlhood, Violence Lurks
Her knees are scabbed, Band-Aids peeling in the sun. She wears a bruise like the map of the land. Pomegranate-red juice stains her teeth and runs down her chin. There is an intimacy to these images of girlhood: their arms woven together, faces an inch apart. Legs, freckled and scarred, unfold from lycra swimsuits into the water, light shining off the small wavelets near the shore. The sky is gold, orange, soft-fingered.
Tabitha Barnard’s photographs display the tenderness and brutality that is inextricably linked in the experience of being a teenage girl. Her images, full of delicate beauty, sun-glazed and etched with the shadows of pine trees, are thrown into relief by moments of quiet, mundane violence: a tooth spat into the sink, or mutilated cuticles.
Taken at her parents’ house in rural Maine, Barnard’s photographs locate the teenage body as a site with the potential for violence both acted and enacted. By email, Barnard explained that she wished “to co-opt this idea of a violent nightmare, but put the women back in charge of it.” The images are imbued with a sense of closeness—the girls are her sisters, Sophie and twins Claudia and Grace—as well as a deep familiarity with the female body. Images of thighs painted with silvery stretch marks and backs dotted with acne scars center the idea of a body in flux, of the inherent trauma of teenage girlhood being impossible to separate from its loveliness.
“Sophie has all these scars from bug bites that she picks endlessly,” Barnard commented. “I really liked the idea of taking something that is hyper-sexualized, like a woman’s legs, but documenting them with all of her scars and scabs.”
That subversion runs through all of her photographs, but it’s most evident in the image of blood whirling down Sophie’s thigh, the bright-red of roses and kissed-lips and neon. For women, menstrual blood is commonplace, yet it remains taboo. The close-up details her sister’s sodden T-shirt and underwear, allowing her body to exist on its terms without sanitisation or sexualisation. It’s a conscious decision of Barnard’s, she noted: “Whenever we make images of her scars or of bruises and hickeys, it’s more supposed to be a finger pointing back to the viewer.”
Barnard’s use of the teenage body as a means of reflection points to Barnard’s deeply religious childhood. It’s evident throughout her work, whether explicitly referencing iconography or not. Wooden crosses hang on walls, while Claudia baptizes Grace in the lake, the latter’s hair blooming in the water. Barnard’s fascination with pomegranate and cherry stains is also part of that religious undercurrent. “The blood and bruises on my sisters always make me think of the crucifixion and communion you take at church,” she explained. “The idea of drinking blood or eating of the body manifesting itself literally.”
But away from the overt references to Christianity, there’s something else—less religious and more occult. It’s a sense of ritual, of shared transformative experience, in the way that only sisters can know. In these photos, the girls peer out from the images. They hold hands and rest their heads on each other’s shoulders. In one image, Grace and Sophie lie on the ground, turned to each other, a slash of sunlight illuminating their eyes, the rest of the scene in shadow. This is a club you are not invited to, one of private handshakes and shared secrets. There is a darkness lurking nearby, unknowable to the onlooker.
It’s seen in the surrounding landscapes, too. Tranquil, idyllic, and yet eerie in its isolation, the environment parallels the girls themselves, who interact with it almost constantly: pale fingers linked under dappled water, rings flashing like fish. Barnard’s inspiration comes from stories set in mysterious places, with her favorites being “the ones that scared me the most—stories about Baba Yaga [of Russian folklore] and other witches in the woods.” Here, the threat of violence lurks: fragments of bone lying atop a table; the splayed feathers of a dead bird held up for the viewer; insects—a butterfly, a dragonfly—lined up on a leg like jewels, beneath them a scrap of a latex bandage that could almost be mistaken for another set of wings.
“They are the ones scaring the viewer—they are not scared,” Barnard underlined. It’s the interplay of that strength and vulnerability she sees in her sisters that seems to best define her work—photographs of teeth and knees and secrets that truly show us the bloodiness and beauty of being a teenage girl.