25th May 2016
Words by Elize Strydom
All photos by Elize Strydom (The Small Town Girl Project)
Merryn must have been about seven or eight when we first met. She is the half sister to Ali, my best friend from Lismore uni days. I spent a lot of time visiting them at their family home on Sydney’s northern beaches during the 2003 summer break. At the time I thought Merryn was a cool little kid who was obsessed with horses and singing. Ali always raved about how beautiful and talented she was and I saw that, but I saw something else too.
Over the next 13 years our lives would become inextricably linked. Ali had a baby and her family moved to Byron Bay to be closer to her and the new little family. Merryn started year nine at Byron High before moving to the local Steiner School for grades 11 and 12. Each time I visited Ali and her growing family, I’d catch up with Merryn too. We’d chat about music, travel and boys. It was an easy relationship – mutually respectful. I didn’t treat her like a child, and she didn’t treat me like some irrelevant adult despite being 12 years her senior. Even still, I’d approach tentatively, thinking that this time, surely, things would have changed and we wouldn’t be able to relate anymore.
In 2012 when I decided to start a photography project The Small Town Girl Project, which documents the lives of teenage girls in small towns, my thoughts immediately went to Merryn. I’d been taking photos of her for years, just for fun, just because I enjoyed watching her grow up and change. She felt like ‘the future’ to me, and I was compelled to be near her. I thought, why not give those photos some purpose? And from there, The Small Town Girl Project began to evolve.
The Small Town Girl Project is a visual journey of remembering and discovery. It poses the question: what is it really like to be a young woman on the cusp of adulthood? At the time it’s no big deal, right? You’re just living your life, doing your thing. It’s not as if anyone is really stopping to try to make big-picture sense of who they are. Nor is anyone really analysing their own personal growth with their older reflective self in mind. Small Town Girl Project was a way I could re-visit, and perhaps re-live, my own adolescence. In some ways I was trying to make sense of the mess I’d left in my wake and untie the jumble of memories and emotions attached to that time of my life. It’s a documentary photography project, but at times it’s not even about the photos at all. It’s really about the relationships and connections. The camera is the ‘key’ that gives me access to the girls’ lives – it’s my reason for being there – but the experiences we share, the things we learn from each other, and the reciprocal understanding we gain underpin the real purpose.
“Small Town Girl Project was a way I could re-visit, and perhaps re-live, my own adolescence. In some ways I was trying to make sense of the mess I’d left in my wake and untie the jumble of memories and emotions attached to that time of my life.”
When high school ended Merryn went overseas with her family before doing a little more travelling with her boyfriend at the time. She arrived back in Byron Bay just as her friends were moving away for uni or heading off on their own adventures in far flung destinations. It forced her to find a bunch of new friends; people she had previously disregarded, leading to some fruitful musical collaborations.
The following year saw a trip to Canada and the USA, and a lengthy stay in Germany. When Merryn flew back to Sydney recently, we caught up in a sunny park, talking a mile a minute, savouring the details of lives spent on opposite sides of the world. Our friendship solidified that day. I realised how much I cared about her and valued her thoughts and opinions. If you had told seven-year-old Merryn and 20-year-old me that in 12 years time we’d be sharing a felafel and exchanging stories and life lessons I wouldn’t have believed you. And yet there we were. I expected Merryn to be bummed. I thought she’d be low and despondent; her body back home but her heart soaring in Berlin. I was wrong. A month or so later we hung out at her home in Byron, and again, nothing about our connection had changed.
How does it feel to be home? Does it feel like a backward step in a way?
No, I’m happy to stay here because I really want to focus on making my own music. I have a drive and intention every day. The last year of travelling was fun but I got really over just travelling because I was so frustrated that I wasn’t creating something consistently. I was kind of angry at myself for travelling around. So now that I’m back here I want to just make the most of being in a small community like this where I can connect with lots of people. I want to make this my home base and have a really beautiful, healthy life and get stuff done without it being really stressful. I feel like I want a good year or two to establish myself before I go travelling again and if I travel again I want to be working. I’d love to be touring and travelling that way. But I don’t have a desire to just ‘go travelling’ again.
How have you changed?
When I was leaving school I just wanted to be friends with the cool people but after travelling and couch surfing with randoms, that’s changed. There was one dude in San Francisco – it was my first couch surfing experience – I was a bit nervous but we ended up just sitting in his loungeroom listening to vinyl all night and talking about music. Now I feel like I’m more open to connecting with people for who they are. Coming back here I feel like there’s a lot of interesting people and unique characters and now I don’t feel as closed off to perhaps talk to them.
So same old Byron but different Merryn, huh?
Yeah, young adults are really keen to make stuff happen in the community. I’ve had a few ideas. My friend Maeve and I want to start some kind of choir just for the joy of singing – for children and women, I think. I could learn but also teach people and sing as well. So something like that, and integrating age groups which I think is really important. That’s one thing I had to get used to when I was travelling; everyone was older than me. It gave me different skills to be able to talk to people who weren’t in the same age group. My friend Eva and I are going to put on a funk night – everyone likes funk music! The oldies get to reminisce about ‘the good old days’ and we get to hear their stories and pretend that we were alive at that time. It’s just good vibes! So stuff like that. It’s trying to get to know people who are in the community a little more and asking how can we can integrate and create something that will be fun for everyone.
I didn’t think you’d ever come back!
Travelling was a real struggle for me. I mean, it was epic but not as fulfilling as I’d expected. I was just going along with what was happening in the city (Berlin), and it was fun, but I knew it wasn’t really what I wanted to be doing and I was very frustrated. I woke up every day thinking ‘what am I doing’? It wasn’t so much ‘I’m homesick’, but I knew that if I came back here there would be a massive team of people who would help me and give me opportunities and experiences. I think that’s what’s awesome about living in a small place. After living in Sydney then moving here I really think that most of the things I have done would never have happened in Sydney, or if they did it would have taken a very big push because it’s so big and there are so many people. Byron is a small place and if you can create something that people enjoy you don’t have to push through so many barriers to get it out there. I really think it’s valuable to be able to accept down-time and to be able to be in such a beautiful place.
“I woke up every day thinking ‘what am I doing’? It wasn’t so much ‘I’m homesick’, but I knew that if I came back here there would be a massive team of people who would help me and give me opportunities and experiences. I think that’s what’s awesome about living in a small place.”
Why were you so frustrated in Berlin? Has that frustration lifted?
I went over to Europe thinking I’m going to start doing what I’m actually meant to be doing and it’s been almost two years where I’ve said, ‘I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna do it!’ and I just haven’t. Rather than just going ‘Don’t push it, experience what you need to and it will come to you’, I’m just like, ‘Why the fuck is this taking so long?!’ But now it has worked out perfectly. I’ve come back and a lot of musicians I work really well with are back here as well. I’ve built stronger connections with these people. I’ve been able to tour and see how all of that works without having to work really hard because it was someone else’s thing and that was amazing. But at times I was like ‘why aren’t you making music? Why don’t people know about you?’ And I was like you know what? Let it just take time and be really happy with it. I’m only 20. There are so many musicians who are younger but I think for another year or so it’s really important to enjoy, and see, and experience, and feel, and grow, rather than going on tour around the world. Music is just people connecting to themselves through something you’re sharing and I find a lot of joy in that.
Yes, you will! It’s so cool and inspiring to hear about what you’ve learnt and see the ways you’ve grown.
I didn’t write for over a year and I was so pissed off. I was like ‘why can’t I’? And I thought what else am I going to do if I can’t write songs? I was so sad, I would break down so often. Last year was just a really big rollercoaster. I had to learn to listen to myself and see who I am. I think I knew last year that there will come a time when there’s clarity. Just let go and accept that when it comes, and now it has come. I have this strange, open acceptance of everything that happens in life now. I don’t wake up every day and go ‘I’m gonna die one day so let’s do crazy shit!’ And it doesn’t mean that I don’t get caught up on little things, but I have this real deep peace within me that it’s all just your life and it will end and everyone else’s will end but it’s an amazing gift. And I have an acceptance and gratitude for everything that flows and doesn’t flow because you’re feeling it and that’s really cool. Even when I get shitty, and angry, and sad, I just have this deep inner acceptance and peace. Life’s good. I’m stoked!
The Small Town Project is an ongoing documentary photography project exploring daily life for teenage girls in small towns across Australia, the USA and South Africa. Elize Strydom was originally a small town girl. Now residing in Sydney, Elize can be found working on The Small Town Girl Project, or reading the news for Triple J.