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Teenagers and Their First Cars: An Interview with Photographer Trevor Christensen

Trevor Christensen, a Utah-based photographer, is a good friend. He’s been a big fan of Deft Auto since it was just an idea, so it was a no-brainer to call and interview him about his 2017 project Teenagers and Their First Cars. His photojournalism work has been featured in USA Today, the BBC, and The Washington Post. He’s most well known for his Nude Portraits series - very SFW, and isn’t what you’re thinking - and has been highlighted nationally and internationally on news outlets, such as Mashable, BuzzFeed, and NPR.

I’ve known him since my early undergrad college days; we had an overlapping friend Venn diagram. Over the years, I’ve paid him to shoot a lot of personal work, because his work is worth the money. He even slept on the floor of my New York apartment once. The following Q&A is from a recent conversation about his project, edited for clarity and style. All photos are by Trevor.

How did Teenagers and Their First Cars start?

I have a friend who’s pretty counterculture. One day the friend was at my house and was getting ready to leave, and I thought he was going to ride his bike to the train station and then ride the train to Salt Lake where he was living. But, he kind of sheepishly told me he bought a car. And I was really shocked, because he seemed like someone who was pretty opposed to having a car. So, I was like, "Whoa, I gotta see it." I went out with him. And when I saw it, I was like, "I gotta take a picture. Hold on." So, I ran back inside. I had a roll of film in my camera, so I took like 5 photos. Not that many to start.

I got the film back, and as I looked at this one photo of my friend that I ended up using for the project, I thought, "Huh, this could be a thing." You know, when you get your first car as a teenager, it’s a really big deal, but also it’s terrible.

I had my studio at the time in a building in Provo. I paid really cheap rent, but the owner wanted all the tenants to have a group show every year, so I had to come up with a body of work. So, I thought, “(Teens and Their First Cars) will be fun. I’ll try this for the group show.” The show was the catalyst for finishing the work. It’s easy to have an idea, usually I need some push to complete it.

I put out a call on Instagram, and I think I may have even made a Craigslist post, requesting teen volunteers with their first cars - it had to be your FIRST car. I ended up shooting 10 teens.

Wait, you found your teens on Craigslist, which is where many teens find their first car?

Huh, I’ve never made that connection before. I guess from Craigslist we come, and to Cragslist we will eventually go.

You shot the project on film. Why film? You don’t know what you’re going to get.

Film changes your paradigm, I guess.

I shoot all my client work digitally for a variety of reasons, but when I’m doing project-based stuff, I like to shoot film. There's value, in general, in putting yourself in a different space. The work I make for money takes a way different mindset than the work I make for fun. And that’s what my art is primarily supposed to do for me. It’s supposed to be for fun. I find I have more fun shooting film, even though it’s scarier.

There’s an added benefit. For every teenager, I shot one roll of 35mm film, a nice limitation. A normal shoot might be 400 or 500 photos. I don’t want to get home and look at a bunch of photos on my computer. I am a photographer because I like being in the world, not because I like being in front of my computer. And film gets me away from the laptop

Why shoot teens and their first cars?

In America, we have clear delineations of your age. When you’re 18, you can vote and serve in the military. When you’re 16, you can drive and get a job. Thats big.

But also your first car is terrible. If you’re a car and you just got sold to a teenager, you’re on your last leg. Your best days are behind you. Your chances of getting into the Classic Car Club are gone. However, it’s two ships passing in the night - if you’re a car, you’re done, but if you’re a teenager, you’re just getting started.

The thing that's so fun about first cars is that so much important stuff happens in them. First kisses, breakups, car accidents. If you didn't have a formative moment in a car, I bet your car is where you had those heavy thoughts about that formative moment as you drove away.

So film let’s you be in the world, what were you hoping to explore?

Early on is the most fun part of a project. You’re curious.

I think most people look back at being a teenager and don’t think, “I was cool; I was confident.” Once you’re out of that world, you live and make a lot of adult mistakes. But there is something about the world teens are in; they are impervious to adults. I think that’s intoxicating.

It’s fun to ask a teenager really basic questions, and a vehicle is an interesting catalyst for just that type of conversation. Even if you’re not a car nut, you have opinions, and we all experience cars all the time. “What is life like? What is life like with this car?” It was fun to explore that, just seeing what it was like to be a teenager.

It was fun to ask them, “Do you like this car?” Many didn’t. One girl, her car could only go 30 miles an hour. It was just so close to being dead. She had a neighborhood car and couldn’t go on the freeway. Another girl, her car died before I got the film developed.

Some of these kids had really cool cars. Two of them had VW Rabbits, and one of them had a pickup version. And that’s not a common car. But, they were particularly cool kids.

So let’s talk about you. What car are you driving now?

I’m driving a 2004 Toyota Highlander. It’s a little off-roady. I don’t really need it to go offroad, but I could if I wanted to, which is why a lot of people do a lot of things.

And an ‘81 Honda GL500. I like the motorcycle, but you know, it’s not even running right now. I’ve turned into THAT guy. None of the benefits of having a motorcycle, but all of the liabilities. It’s the worst.

When I bought it, there were two or three other friends who had motorcycles. One sold his, another’s doesn’t work, and the third moved to the bay area. I would have it fixed up in a matter of weeks, if I had one or two buddies who got bikes. But, instead I have a standing chess club on Sundays now. It’s a different lifestyle. Life hasn’t forced me to make a decision yet, so it’s just in the driveway.

Do you like driving?

I do enjoy driving, but I don’t look to drive more often than i need to. If I have a job and its kind of far away, and I have to drive early in the morning to get there, thats an experience I relish.

I did the photos for Mitt Romeny’s Utah senate campaign, and that was a super early call time of 6 am in Salt Lake. I had to be awake at 4:30 am to get up, have some breakfast, have coffee, and be in my car by 5. I love that kind of morning. I love that very quiet freeway time.

I like working. I like the work I do on set. I like people relying on me. I like having a camera bag full of gear. There is a feeling when I’m on the road going to a job, a little nervous and a little excited. There’s space in a car, quiet in a car, that you don’t really have anywhere else, and I like that. I need that. You’re still occupied, so you get that little bit of something to do, while you’re doing nothing.

The motorcycle is an easy adrenaline rush. 30 mph in a car is slow, but 30 mph on a motorcycle is something else entirely. You’re sitting on top of your engine. I want the ability to go to the grocery store and have it be an enjoyable thing instead of a trip. The bike is a way to make the mundane fun; it’s choosing something that’s a little bit impractical for your own pleasure.

Vehicles communicate something about their owners. What did you want yours to say about you?

Motorcycles are funny. I would never own a hog. There is a type of old rusty Honda that is a fun thing to have. Whatever that’s supposed to say, that’s the thing I want it to say about me. You can probably figure out what music I listen to based on that motorcycle. I don’t think it’s saying anything new about me. ‘A young, cool guy’ is kind of the energy.

I have a very complicated relationship of wanting to be a cool person and feeling that’s a gross desire. Going back to teenagers, confidence is the thing you can have that will make you seem universally cool. Thinking too much about being cool is a bad way to go. I dress the way I do, talk the way I do, express myself in certain ways, because it’s very clear to me that I’m trying to be cool. But, I also have to be willing to let go of that. You can dip you’re toe in, and you’ll probably be fine.

What do you want in your automotive future?

I like my Highlander, but I shouldn’t have bought it. I don’t need an SUV for the work I do. I would like to be driving less and enjoying it more. Driving is such a blast, but driving to the grocery store isn’t. What if I only drove like three days a week, because I lived close enough to everything that between my bicycle, public transportation, and my feet, I could get what I needed done? You know what I mean? That’s what I want.

I love road trips. I don’t want to drive around Provo that much, but I want to drive to Colorado more.

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