For two years I photographed the Austin High School cheerleaders, beginning when my daughter was elected to the squad in March, 1988. Twice, during the summers of 1988 and 1989, I accompanied the squad to cheerleading camp at Southern Methodist University. From the spring of 1988 through the spring of 1990 I photographed practices, pep rallies, and games. I also photographed as much of their personal lives as possible. I went to high school parties and weekends at the beach. I photographed senior girls as they toilet-papered football players’ front yards on nights preceding games. I also photographed individual cheerleaders in their homes with their families.
Cheerleading is a cultural phenomenon, and, as such, lends itself to documentation. In Texas, cheerleading is as entrenched a tradition as is football. A cheerleader is selected not only for her athletic ability but also for her appearance. Her reputation must be above reproach, a criterion not considered for the football team or band. A cheerleader is a leader and a model for her peers. She is a symbol of young womanhood, a female ideal. One wonders if this traditionally-approved way of being female is desirable or relevant to today’s image of women.
I am also interested in the personal aspects of cheerleading: the adolescent girl’s experience of it and conversely, her experience of adolescence. In this way, the project is not only documentary but also an exploration of both a personal and a universal experience. When my daughter was elected cheerleader, she felt that she had fulfilled her lifelong dream, a dream shared by many high school girls. My own experience was different: I tried out and didn’t make it. It was a painful experience, which I still remember. This “in-group/out-group” issue of acceptance is a part of adolescence that I witnessed over and over in this project. My own experience of searching for identity came back to me as I observed the same behavior in the students that I photographed.
Of course, for me the project yielded the intensely personal experience of observing and photographing my daughter in this special period of her development. I find that my ongoing interest in photographing children has paralleled my own children’s growth. As they grew, my interest in children their ages grew alongside them. Now I find, as has so often been the case in my work, that my daughter’s cheerleading companions are extensions of her. Uncovering this inside view of adolescents was fascinating, rare, and emotionally powerful.
Phyllis Finley © 2006 all rights reserved