WHEN lockdown came in March, teenagers were suddenly denied the rites of passage that become lifelong memories.

Exams, proms, Saturday jobs, the carefree summer between school and university...it all disappeared overnight.

With her own three teenagers at home in lockdown, Saltaire photographer Carolyn Mendelsohn was curious about young people’s experience of isolation, and decided to give them the opportunity to document it. The result is Through Our Lens, a remarkable photographic project involving youngsters aged 12 to 18 across the Bradford district. The teenagers’ images - which include glimpses of the outdside world through bedroom windows, poignant journals about missing school, and self portraits reflecting the sense of isolation they feel - are showcased in an online gallery which has gained global attention.

It started when award-winning portrait photographer Carolyn’s own work evaporated due to lockdown. “I had a major exhibition about to start, with a book due later on. All my other commissioned work went too. I lost everything,” says Carolyn. “So when Bradford Council started its brilliant ‘response’ grants; using arts and culture funding to allow artists to find ways of responding to Covid 19, I set up a group for young people to document their lockdown experiences photographically.

“While, as an artist, I was documenting my own experience, I felt young people’s voices hadn’t been heard. This a huge challenge for them to deal with. One of my sons was meant to be taking his GCSEs now. At that age they have a structure to their day; they look forward to meeting up with friends and the end of exams. Suddenly their world was turned upside-down. I was intrigued about how they were dealing with isolation.”

Carolyn put a call-out through social media - and was overwhelmed by the response. “They had to be from Bradford, aged 12-18, and I stressed that it didn’t matter if they’d never even thought about taking a photograph,” says Carolyn. “From the word go, the response was amazing. Their quality of work is breathtaking - raw, real, insightful.”

Carolyn leads weekly Zoom sessions, mentoring over 20 young people: “Many haven’t taken photographs seriously before; they’ve mainly used mobiles and a few have cameras. We look at how they can build skills to document how they see the world at this time. I encourage them to be creative, to make mistakes, learn from each other and develop all the time. Their commitment is phenomenal and they inspire each other.”

The photographs are now a fascinating online exhibition, praised by even the New York Times. “People have been really moved by these powerful images,” says Carolyn. “It has caught the eye of renowned photographers who have been so generous in liking and sharing the project online. I’ve been contacted by a teacher in New Zealand who wants me to set something up with her students. It’s amazing how this has evolved. Not only has it changed the participants’ experience of lockdown, it has made my own so much better too.”

Carolyn aims to exhibit the images at Bradford’s Impressions gallery once lockdown is lifted. “I’m so grateful to Impressions and Bradford Council for their support, which will enable the project to continue. I’m setting up another group, as a second phase, involving young people from more diverse backgrounds. This is an important archive of our time. It’s important that the participants continue to tell their story. One 14-year-old said, ‘I will always remember this’.”

Harry, 16, took a series of self portraits in her bedroom, surrounded by school books: “I wanted to convey the stress of having to learn in isolation. My bedroom turned into my classroom before I knew it.”

Amy, 15: “If I’d known how easily life could be ripped away, I would have enjoyed every second of my normal life. I’m now wishing for things I wouldn’t have even thought twice about losing: freedom and safety.”

Phoebe, 17: “Quarantine is scary; the school routine is gone, friends aren’t around me every day. On the bright side, I’m spending more time with my family watching movies, cooking together and playing quizzes.”

Hamza, 14: “Looking at the beautiful world outside and not being able to go out is one of the hardest things. But photography keeps my mind busy and give me happiness.”

Morgan, 16: “I poured sweat, blood and tears into my revision”...”coronavirus meant my exams were cancelled. I was watching TV as it was announced. All I remember was feeling numb. From primary school this is what we were heading towards, for it to be pulled from underneath us.”

* See Through Our Lens on Instagram @carolynmendelsohn and @through_our_lens_covid19_proj/

Twitter @tarlyn

Visit carolyn-mendelsohn.format.com