Jennifer Emerling (b. 1985) is an independent visual storyteller specializing in travel and editorial photography. A modern-day explorer, she is enchanted by the American West and the culture of tourism, which serve as her constant muse. Jenn's calling card is her saturated, otherworldly perspective. Using a documentary approach combined with magic realism, she mindfully works in the pursuit of joy, highlighting the uniquely American experience that’s both familiar and slippery in all of its wonderfully exaggerated folklore and whimsy.
Since earning her B.A. in Visual Journalism from Brooks Institute of Photography in 2008, Jenn spent two summers working as a tour guide in Alaska, camped in Antarctica, and dyed her hair to match the colors she saw in the northern lights. Jenn's thoughtful thirst for the world keeps her on the road most of the time, but when she's not chasing the perfect golden light tripping down the cosmic highway, she calls California home.
It’s Prom Night in Green River, and I’m feeling a little underdressed for the occasion.
The lore of Prom in America has long captured my imagination, and I arrived insatiably curious and eager to witness teenage self expression on this Holy Coming-of-Age Night, set against an expansive desert landscape in the heart of Utah. Green River does Prom a little differently. In a town with a population of 952, this annual event isn’t just for the 17 kids who comprise the Junior Class. Over the years, Green River High School’s Prom has been adapted into a beloved community gathering, where parents and siblings are invited to attend alongside the Junior Class and partake in the festivities themselves.
My personal fashion anxieties are only heightened when I meet up with the teens for their formal portrait shoot prior to the start of prom. I sadly did not get the memo to wear red—a clear power color for this group of friends. The guys are dressed to the nines in matching white tuxedos accented with red bow ties, vests, and pocket squares, and I can’t help but think that I must have accidentally stumbled into a Boyz II Men music video from the 1990s. (Do they even know who that is? I wonder...) The guys tell me they’ve all been best friends since kindergarten, and that they had been planning to coordinate their ensembles for weeks. I can barely contain my delight as I look out at the synchronicity of white suits mirroring each other in a harmonious display of fashion, humor, and friendship. While the corsages get passed around, the girls show me their manicures and shoes—most opted for heels, but a few of them are rocking some fresh white sneakers (my kind of move). As the official prom photographer works through her shot list of couples on a grassy golf course knoll, the teens simultaneously pass around an instant film camera and work to perfect their best selfie angle, patiently waiting to review the photo as it develops before their eyes.
In lieu of a fancy ballroom, a modest multi-purpose warehouse next to the bible church was transformed into a fairy-light dreamscape, lovingly designed by the prom decorating committee. Anakaren beams with pride when I later asked about her decor inspiration: “We wanted it to be simple and magical,” she says. Truthfully, I’m impressed by the attention to detail: sheer draping softens the otherwise sterile warehouse space and divides it into two rooms—one for dancing, one for snacking and socializing. A curtain of twinkle lights extend from the floor to the ceiling, cresting through the tent corners, echoing the desert sky, almost as a way to bring the stars inside. But by far the most special detail were the goblets Anakaren ordered for her fellow junior classmates, thoughtfully customized to have everyone’s names spelled out in golden rhinestones. A classy move and a unique souvenir, all in one—it’s clear to me now that I need to become Anakaren’s friend.
Documentary photography is first and foremost a collaborative art form that, for me, exists as an ongoing conversation between my point of view and the point of view of the culture I photograph. As a photographer, I am always seeking to create a partnership with the culture that I seek to understand, learn from, and provide a visual voice for via the medium of contemporary photography. It is not me alone making these pictures: without my relationship to the people that give me their trust, welcome me into their lives, and live openly and authentically, I wouldn’t be able to pursue my artistry and create a conversation to begin with. It is a great gift as an artist to live vicariously through others in my pursuit to better understand the world we live in, and that’s something I hold very sacred.
When thinking about how to best be an immersive visual storyteller for Green River’s prom, it was crucial that I also empower the students to be their own storytellers as well, as they are the culture-bearers living the experience I had traveled here to document. Who better to share the experience of prom than the teens themselves? This was the question that brought me to Green River, as I was most excited to see how they would embrace the practice of photography into their prom night. The instant film cameras I provided enhanced their interactions with each other, and offered an opportunity to reflect on this moment in time as it was happening. My personal relationship to the teens was, in turn, heightened as we talked about why we take pictures we take, and the value documentation can have for our memories. I am twice the age as these teenagers, so it’s easy for me to wax poetic about how this time in their life is fleeting, and they’ll be thankful they have these photos to look back on when they’re older, etc etc. Not surprisingly, that sentiment was also later expressed by a teacher at the start of the promenade, who spoke sweetly about the specialness of prom: “One day you might go your separate ways and maybe only keep in touch via Facebook, but tonight you are all together and creating these memories now,” he remarked.
It simultaneously dawned on me, though, that a teenager may not easily relate with the nostalgia of a 30-something artist harboring a lifetime of coming-of-age milestones already under her belt. So instead, I shifted my own perspective and adopted a teenage mentality. I asked the teens to mindfully include photography into their experience of prom, and use it as a way to engage with the present moment. Throughout the night, I encouraged the teenagers to interact with their fellow students by taking a moment to document their outfits, their dance skills, and the overall scenery using the instant film cameras. For many of the teens, this was the first time they had ever used an analog camera, but the simplicity of its plastic casing and limited light and color settings removed the barrier to entry for photography, allowing them to focus on moments rather than mastering technical skills. The cameras were freely passed around all night, creating a more complete picture of prom night from multiple perspectives, angles, and moments.
Since my intention going into the project was to immerse myself in the teenage experience of prom, I also brought the teenage experience into my technical and aesthetic approach for my own visual storytelling narrative. I released many of my professional photography instincts and decided to take my photos in a way that would translate as a bit more imperfect, dreamy, energetic, chaotic, messy, and sentimental—all of the feelings I was picking up on as prom unfolded before my eyes. My goal with this work was to let my pictures compliment theirs, and by putting myself into the mind of a teenager, I let my connection to the teens guide the photos I created, rather than my own artistic ego.
The collaborative story we told about Green River High School’s Junior Prom is a story about community. It’s a window into a teenage milestone that is universally shared across the country, whether in rural towns of less than 1,000 residents, or big cities with over a million people. When looking to find commonalities amongst our fellow humans, oftentimes the best way to seek a deeper understanding is through a microcosm: in this case, that meant following the narrative of one prom night in one rural town in America, as seen through the eyes of the teenagers who attended. The stakes are often high at prom—there is a rich tapestry of stories in books and film that paints a picture of immense possibility, pressure, rituals, excitement, disappointment, and big dreams. And yet, my observation of Green River’s Prom is that its meaning is less about individualistic needs and more about the shared experience of dancing all night with everyone in town to a playlist that shuffles effortlessly between pop, country, and Mexican music (a crowd favorite).
During my time in Green River, it was made clear to me again and again that to live rural is to live an interconnected life. When you often only have one of everything, you share resources, chip in, help lighten the load, and just simply show up for each other. Your neighbors are best friends, your family, and your lifelines in cultivating a community that often experiences everything together—even prom. This symbiosis of rural life is something I seek to celebrate in my work and shine a light on it, should we as a society ever forget that to be human means to be relational, to connect, to empathize, and maybe even to fulfill a lifelong dream to wear matching tuxedos with your best friends.
This project was completed with the help of Utah Division of Arts and Museums. Thank you!