Wednesday, May 27

UCLA art student’s photographs allow insider look at teens’ lives

Nico Young, a first-year art student, said his favorite art medium is photography. When Young was in high school, he published a 12-page spread with The New York Times Magazine about life in high school through a high school student's point of view. He then published is own photography book titled "Fire at School." (Bilal Ismail Ahmed/Daily Bruin senior staff)

Nico Young’s after-school skate session ended up on the cover of The New York Times Magazine.

In 2016, the first-year art student’s high school photography teacher sent his photo essay project, which centered around his two friend groups, to The New York Times’ photo editors.

Young said he didn’t expect much, but the resulting assignment from the editors took up several pages in The New York Times Magazine.

Though he has explored other art forms since coming to UCLA as an art student, Young said photography is still his favorite. He enjoys capturing fleeting, spontaneous moments with his peers, a style he said results from his youth, and which sets him apart from other photographers.

“What compels me to shoot is noticing something that nobody else sees when there’s no one but my friends and the camera,” Young said. “There’s something that’s so fleeting and fugitive that if I don’t photograph it, then no one else will ever see it again.”

Young’s photo assignment for The New York Times, titled “Inside Santa Monica High,” centered on the lives of his classmates. It continued throughout the summer, when he photographed his friends partying, skating and hanging out. Young said he chose to photograph his friends and peers in typical settings, such as prom or the skate park.

Martin Ledford, the photography teacher who originally submitted Young’s class assignment to The New York Times, attributes his former student’s success to his curiosity about photography and his friendly demeanor. Ledford said that Young’s subtlety with his camera and ability to blend into the social situations he photographed allowed him to quickly capture genuine photos other photographers wouldn’t be able to.

“He was getting these raw images of these skaters that I couldn’t have gotten,” Ledford said. “It would have been hard for me to get in there and do that, because they would have put their guards up.”

Young said he continued photographing his friends on his own throughout his senior year, eventually releasing a self-published 200-page book called “Fire at School” in 2016. The beginning of the book focuses on a single day at Santa Monica High School, when students evacuated the building due to a small fire in the bathroom and hung out with friends outside until it was safe to go back in.

“I look out for the way that people compose themselves as a group, (the way) people (are) hanging out or standing around somewhere,” Young said.

Young said he intended to take a photo of the firemen, but unintentionally captured a high school couple kissing in the foreground as well. The coincidental moment became the cover photo for his book.

Graham Smith, a first-year environmental science student and a friend of Young, said one of Young’s strengths as a photographer is his ability to quickly react to fleeting moments. He said Young is remarkably observant and always on his toes in social situations.

“When the ephemeral moments come, he’s ready for them,” Smith said.

Young brought his film camera to school and to friends’ houses on the weekends, and said the personal connection he has with his subjects helps him capture spontaneous moments.

“The honesty that I have access to as a teenager photographing teenage subjects is something that’s unique,” Young said. “The casual nature of (my photography) is what sets it apart from other portrayals of teenagers.”

Though he’s experimented with different subjects, such as landscapes, Young said photographing transient moments with friends still inspires him the most. He said he doesn’t feel as compelled to capture buildings or landscapes, because they are permanent and can be captured by anyone.

“I think that my photography is still based in that excitement that I’d get from having my friends see my photos and be excited about them, or post them,” Young said. “Although I’ve changed in subject matter, who I’m shooting for and what I’m shooting with, the connection to my friends always remains fundamental.

Comments are supposed to create a forum for thoughtful, respectful community discussion. Please be nice. View our full comments policy here.