UNWIND: Small town girl capturing the small town life

Image from Elize Strydom’s photographic exhibition Small Town Girl.
Image from Elize Strydom’s photographic exhibition Small Town Girl.

Last time The DEX caught up with Graftonian Elize Strydom, it was 2010 and she was embarking on a career move to Sydney, taking up the microphone at the Triple J Studios as the Breakfast Programs news presenter.

Elize is still reading the news daily at JJJ, albeit at a later, more social, time slot of the afternoons and in the past five years, it has been her eye rather than her ear for a story that has guided her journeys.

Strydom's formative years in our own small town of Grafton, inspired her photo project Small Town Girl, exhibiting last month at Gaffa gallery in Sydney as part of the Head On Photo Festival.

This week for STYLEwise I caught up with her to chat about how being a Small Town Girl shaped her personal self.

Where did this idea come from?

Elize: It's been more than a decade since I was a teenager growing up in regional Australia and yet I still feel such a strong connection to that stage of life. Now a fully-fledged city dweller with a demanding job and all the responsibilities that come with being a 'grown up', I realize how unique those years between childhood and adulthood actually were: I had a home surrounded by space and silence, a mind alive with possibilities and emotions so completely raw. Small Town Girl is a visual journey of remembering and discovery. As I walk alongside teenage girls in Australia (where I grew up), South Africa (where I was supposed to grow up) and the USA (where I wanted to grow up) my own memories of adolescence are both validated and challenged. I'm fascinated by ordinary young women growing up in out of the way places. I want to know who they are exactly as they are and share in their experiences. I want to capture them in an intimate and poetic way.

Triple J news presenter Elize grew up in Grafton which inspired her international journey into small town life and the girls who live it.
Triple J news presenter Elize grew up in Grafton which inspired her international journey into small town life and the girls who live it.

Tell me about your connection to South Africa and your journey there earlier this year?

I was conceived in South Africa but my mum and big brother moved to Grafton, to be precise a few months before my due date. I've often wondered what life would have been like had we stayed in South Africa. My dad is still there and I met him for the first time 12 years ago. So my decision to take the Small Town Girl project to South Africa was a deeply personal one. Earlier this year I spent two and a half months there, living with and photographing six girls all over the country for the project. They were such a diverse bunch. One was an 18-year-old Tswana speaker who lived in a township a few hours from Johannesburg, another was a 13-year-old Coloured* who lived on a farm with nine other families north of Cape Town and then there was an English speaking South African girl in a village with a population of about 75. I had many glimpses into the life I might have lived had we stayed. I went on a camp with a bunch of 15-year-old Afrikaans kids who were part of a group called 'Landsdiens' or Land Service, sort of like Scouts. My dad was a member in his youth and told me I definitely would have been involved, too. South Africa is fascinating and wild. It's such a young nation and so alive with possibility and promise. There's an undeniable energy and buzz everywhere you go. The future is being negotiated and renegotiated before your eyes. I can't wait to go back!

*(Elize's note: I know the term 'Coloured' sounds

wrong but it's a legitimate term --

Stand out moments?

"I've been working on this project for over two and a half years now. I've lived with/photographed four girls in Australia, eight in the USA and six in South Africa. Before I meet a small town girl I purposely avoid finding out much about her or the town she lives in. That way everything is somewhat surprising and delightful and I don't plan what I will and won't shoot. That said, it has been super cool to sit in on classes at an Afrikaans school in South Africa, a Steiner school in Byron Bay and a liberal arts college in the USA. I also feel grateful for the opportunity to walk around an African township and see how it feels to be the only white person for miles, go to Independence Day parties, buy fireworks on the side of the road in Texas and listen to a high school band's recording session. But the real privilege is simply being welcomed into the homes and lives of strangers and experiencing their warmth and hospitality. I'm truly fascinated by teenage girls and the generosity they've shown me is remarkable. Each young woman has taught me something special and helped me see the world in a brand new way. At times I think it's impossible for the photographs I take to embody all of that, it's almost like they are just the evidence of an incredible thing that developed in between clicks of the shutter."

How has being a small town girl shaped you?

I think being from a small town has made me a very curious person. When I was a teenager I was so interested in the world 'out there' beyond Grafton's city limits. The internet was relatively new so most of my exposure to art, music and culture came from magazines and Triple J radio. Now that I'm living in the world 'out there' I'm eager to experience all of this for myself and I don't take it for granted. Being a person who lives in the city who has also lived in the country means I'm more aware of what life's like outside the major centres. I'm able to understand and relate to a larger group of people. I also think I'm more laid back and easy going that those who grew up in a fast paced city."

Your latest exhibition?

"I exhibited 'Small Town Girl Australia, South Africa and the USA' at Gaffa gallery in Sydney as part of the Head On Photo Festival between May 14 and 25. It was so good to see the images printed, framed and on the gallery's walls. For two and a half years I've had hundreds of film negatives sitting in folders in my cupboard so it was a real thrill to sort through them and put together a body of work. The aim wasn't to tell each girl's story but rather a collective story. I wanted to highlight some of the similarities because whether you're growing up in a small town in Justin, Texas or Eendekuil, South Africa, certain things are universal. I received some great feedback and sold some prints but the best bit was hearing how the photos made people feel.

Images from Elize Strydom’s Small Town Girl exhibition. You can view Elize’s work and follow her journeys at
Images from Elize Strydom’s Small Town Girl exhibition. You can view Elize’s work and follow her journeys at

Some said certain shots evoked long forgotten memories or prompted them to think hard about their teenage experience and what needed to be forgiven and forgotten.

I hope people can look at the work and feel some kind of connection or empathy and maybe even learn something new."

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